In another lifetime, almost in another world, the mighty Carnegie Steel Corporation labored endlessly at the internationally famous mills of Homestead Steel Works in Pittsburgh, PA. In this other lifetime, the city’s steel built a growing America, gave the Union Army the upper hand in the Civil War, and greatly aided the Allies in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II.
Carnegie Steel and the Homestead Works, once invaluable contributors to modern accomplishments and infrastructure, are now distant memories from that other world; a world in which workers’ rights and unionization were first bravely demanded and won, a world in which timeless literature captured the belching furnaces firing day and night, and a world which forever impacted the culture and identity of a city of profound magnitude located at the meeting of three rivers.
Today, Pittsburgh and the rest of America produce hardly a breath of the amount of steel that it once did. Whereas at one point in history Pittsburgh produced more steel than anywhere else on the globe, today US Steel is ranked 15th below producers like Luxembourg, China, and Japan. The reasons behind steel’s decline in America include deindustrialization in the late 1970s and 1980s, the rise of foreign competition, lower demand, lower prices, and financial turmoil leading to downsizing.
Yet despite industry’s disappearance from the Pittsburgh valleys and riverbanks, the impact of steel and the steel workers has never vanished from the region, and arguably, will never vanish because of the colossal effects it produced locally and globally in history. When a single site like Homestead, Pennsylvania carries so much responsibility for contributing to American innovation and infrastructure, to labor unions and victories for workers’ rights, and to Allied victory in World War II, the culture of the towns around the site of the mighty mills have long since felt the ripples of generations of laborers, despite the closure of the mills for several decades.
While not much of that old world is left, a witness to this history is left in the Bost Building. Built in 1892, the Bost Building originally served as a hotel for the ever increasing population of European laborers coming to work in the mills.
In a safety negative taken in 1950, titled “Aerial View of Mills, Homestead and Carrie Furnace,” (Fig. 1) belonging to the William J. Gaughan Collection and digitally reproduced by the Pittsburgh Archives Center, one can only begin to grasp the extent of the Homestead Steel Works within the landscape. In crisp black and white, dozens and dozens of smoke stacks and chimneys rise up to the sky like crude church steeples, proclaiming the power and presence of the steel enterprise.
Surrounding the campus of neatly rowed mills, which in itself is a commanding sight, are the elements of life in this other lifetime which so greatly aided the success of Pittsburgh’s steel industry. In the background of the aerial shot, where a camera can be imagined in a small non-commercial plane in the mid-twentieth century, stands the Monongahela River, a vessel of natural resources and cheap transportation and shipping. Crossing the river and stemming in all directions are the railroad tracks, which not only are constructed of steel themselves, but boast of the widespread exporting of steel products to towns, cities, and countries in every direction. Finally, to the right of the mills and on the opposing riverbank, sit tightly packed neighborhoods teeming with a domestic labor force who fed the furnaces for pride and paychecks for decades.
In another safety negative belonging to the William J. Gaughan Collection taken shortly before “Aerial View” in March of 1949, the shot “Photographers on the Job” (Fig. 2) lends some intriguing insight into the cultural interest and importance of the Homestead Steel Mills.
With an internal look into the mill, one gets a uniquely artistic perspective of typically mechanical scenery. Using marvelous black and white lighting and shadow techniques, a photographer captured the backs of three other photographers focusing in on a worker operating a giant ladle pouring the molten elements of steel. While the worker poses for the photographers, pointing up to the ladle, the fourth photographer in the back captures much more than a portrait with his shot.
In “Photographers on the Job,” the culture of Homestead, within the wider lens of Pittsburgh, and the even wider lens of America, are all brought to light. A shot from one of the other photographers can be imagined as having turned out as an up-close portrait of a steel worker operating a ladle. But from this other vantage point, the fourth photographer captured the spectacular expanse of leading lines from the rafters and warehouse lights above which show the enormity of the building they are in. The fourth photographer shows the blue collar laborer with the capability and responsibility of operating and overseeing one of the most important jobs in America, and the well-dressed photographers who take stock of that from every angle to report back to the nation’s newspapers and the city’s art.
While the worker may be posing, the other three photographers are not. It tells the story from this other lifetime, when every day men (and eventually women included) were responsible for building a nation, work they were proud of and a nation they were proud of; and, in reciprocation, work that the rest of the country heralded as important and worthy of spotlighting. The Homestead Steel Works was not just a large factory in a northern town that someone spotted from a plane in “Aerial View.” The steel workers like the one in “Photographers on the Job” were not just features on a one-time episode of “Undercover Boss.” The Homestead Steel Works and its workers were the driving force of American innovation for more than a century of the most fast-paced growth the world has ever seen. And photographers took note of it.
In a third safety negative from the William J. Gaughan Collection from 1942 titled “Flags” (Fig. 3), the importance of Homestead to the rest of America can clearly be seen in the flags flying high above the entrance to the mills. In the hazy black and white photo of the red, white, and blue flying proudly, two smaller flags fly beneath it. Though the flag on the left is unidentifiable, it may possibly be the flag of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth. However, in the description of the photograph in the Historic Pittsburgh Archive, much information is given about the importance of the flag on the right, belonging to the U.S. Navy:
“View of a trio of flags outside the gate. The presence of the Navy flag underscores the close relationship between the Homestead Steel Works and the United States Navy. Homestead Plate Mills had been producing armor plate for Navy ships since 1886. During World War II, production for the Navy increased tremendously with the 160 inch Plate Mill producing armor plate for American ships. Overall, U.S. steel produced 82 million net tons of ship plates during the war.”
The way the three flags hover on the breeze above the power lines, rooftops, and non-descript figures below seem to honor the Navy they built for the nation they built.
In this other lifetime, when Homestead’s heart beat strong to power the city and the nation, the mills operated around the clock to produce the strength of steel. Men like Carnegie benefitted greatly from their steel enterprise, of course, but every day people joined together with a sense that they were helping to do important work for important causes with their hard labor. In this other lifetime, local Homestead residents toiled in the furnaces of their own backyard and helped to change the world.
Today, the mills are gone. The labor has been cheaply retrieved from overseas. Modern-day shopping plazas covering the land now offer lower wages than the hard-won unionization achieved by Americans at the Homestead Strike. But talk to any lifetime Pittsburgh resident, and find that the legacy of the Steel City is very much alive among a proud and prevalent working class, an identity carried on through generations.