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FYISteel City

Manufacturing Metropolis: 1876-1945

Explosive growth in population and wealth was fueled by cheap high volume steel, a steady supply of unskilled laborers, and the birth of the modern corporation. As rapid growth produced chaos, individuals increased their efforts to make it a better place to live, but found limited success. Labor unions were finally able to win better pay and working conditions after many costly setbacks.

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Andrew Carnegie's opening of the Edgar Thomson Works at Braddock in 1875 introduced cheap, high-volume steel to the Pittsburgh region. As a young executive of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Carnegie saw that iron train rails were wearing out too quickly, causing devastating train derailments. The railroad was ordering stronger Bessemer steel rails all the way from England, which inspired Carnegie to quit his railroad job to manufacture them in Pittsburgh.

Engraving of Pittsburgh in 1855
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Engraving of Pittsburgh in 1890 from Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington. The brand-new Allegheny County Courthouse (finished in 1888 to the H. H. Richardson's design) is silhouetted in the distance, still the tallest building in town. It's reign would soon end with the arrival of the steel-frame skyscraper.

Recognizing the profits of mass production, Carnegie hired engineers to streamline and mechanize the steel making process so that it ran with thousands and thousands of unskilled workers. When Carnegie merged with Henry C. Frick's coke mining and processing company, they introduced the nation to the modern corporation with control over all aspects of production from ore to finished product ("integrated manufacturing") and changed the face of Pittsburgh.

In short order steel mills moved into the flood plains rural river towns such as Homestead, Duquesne, Aliquippa, Monessen, and Ambridge. A large steel plant had everything it required nearby, shoehorned into the tight space of the river flats: blast furnaces, foundries, rolling mills, and machine shops to make plant equipment. Boilers and powerhouses next to the plants kept them operating independently. Furthermore, to make sure those factories were steadily supplied, Carnegie Steel bought the coke mines, iron fields, and even the railroads that connected them to the mills.

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TOP: Workers stoke beehive coke ovens, which were built into the hills near coal mines. Coke is a purified form of coal that was necessary to make steel.

Henry C. Frick built his fortune as the "Coke King" of Fayette County before he joined Carnegie Steel Company.

BELOW: Rick Sebak and the WQED crew peek into the ruin of a beehive coke oven while filming Things That Are Still Here.

Houses in Old Allegheny
Rick Sebak

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  • Beehive coke ovens

These new plants were mechanized to the point that they did not need the skilled master craftsmen who ran the iron works--all they needed were strong muscles. Wages could be kept low because a continual supply of cheap labor poured in from overseas or the rural south. Immigrants arriving from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and later, from all around eastern and southern Europe, found themselves working 12-hour shifts to provide the unskilled, manual labor that powered the steel mills and related industries. When the supply of immigrants dried up during World War I, African Americans and poor whites moved from the south to work in the mills. (More on migration and ethnicity in Creating Community.)

Mill and mine owners often built cramped housing near the mills and mines, called "company houses," and rented them to their workers. It was an effective method of job security, since a worker would be less likely to quit his job if it also meant he'd lose his home in the deal. Work conditions were often hazardous and there was no compensation in case of death or injury.

Postcard of workers pouring steel ingots

Postcard of rolling tin-plated steel in Pittsburgh mill
Collection of Susan Donley

Postcards of pouring steel ingots and rolling tin-plate steel. Making steel cheaply in large volumes was highly mechanized -- thousands of unskilled laborers replaced hundreds of skilled craftsmen of older iron mills.

Successful companies tried to control the cost of every aspect of production --including labor. To compete with even lower prices, Carnegie Steel cut wages in 1892. In a famous showdown, workers demanding a restoration of higher wages were locked out of the Carnegie Homestead Works. When the company resolved the "strike" by calling in Pinkerton guards to let the strikebreakers in, violence broke out. As a result, the budding labor movement suffered a big setback nationwide. Unions would struggle for legitimacy for many years until the 1930s when New Deal reforms and national labor unions give them enough "clout" to bargain successfully. To be fair, some other Pittsburgh manufacturers, like Westinghouse, Heinz, and Alcoa, were on the forefront of reforming the working and living conditions of their workers.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

The Monongahela River became known as the Steel Valley. An integrated plant both made steel and fabricated it. The coke supplied by the barges and iron ore brought by train all belonged to the corporation.

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Prior to Pittsburgh's Steel City days, factories were relatively small, usually manned by about 200 or so specialized, skilled employees overseen by a foreman and the factory owner onsite. J&L Steel, by contrast, at one point had over 45,000 employees! Who managed these huge companies with operations all over the country? A middle class of managers arose who did nothing but oversee the movement of raw materials, sales of finished projects, acquisition of new properties and all the other complicated transactions that huge corporations require. The Carnegie Steel Company's (later to become US Steel) business offices moved Downtown into the city's first skyscraper--the Carnegie Building.

The Carnegie Steel Building was the first skyscraper built Downtown. Skyscrapers were made possible by the cheap steel that Carnegie pioneered.

The integrated corporation created many "white collar" managers who worked away from the mills in office buildings like these.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks
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The character of Downtown began to change as factories and residences left the central business district and corporate offices moved in. Banking to facilitate Pittsburgh's incredible economic success grew along Fourth Avenue, which later came to be known as Pittsburgh's "Wall Street." In 1913 more money changed hands in Pittsburgh than in any other city besides New York!

A 1907 postcard of the Fourth Avenue financial district, "Pittsburgh's Wall Street." The wealth accumulated by manufacturing early in the century was so significant that by 1913 more money changed hands in Pittsburgh than in any other American city outside of New York!

Downtown's character changed during this era, becoming the Central Business District with think of today.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Collection of Susan Donley
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At the turn of the 20th century, steel have been the major industry, but it certainly wasn't the only one contributing to the city's financial success. Natural gas and oil industries fed the production of iron and steel. As each industry fed upon the other, Pittsburgh grew, physically, economically, and in population.

Upriver from the city of Allegheny in a little town called Sharpsburg, a Pittsburgh native named Henry John Heinz opened a small food packaging plant in 1869. When the company began shipping products world-wide, Heinz moved his company to the Allegheny – after 1907 the North Side – at the base of Troy Hill. The H.J. Heinz Company became the premiere example of large-scale food production, proclaiming "57 varieties" of condiments, and the company still operates on the North Side today.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Collection of Susan Donley

Bottling Department at the H.J. Heinz Company, c. 1910. Young women were employed as bottlers and treated to manicures, night classes, and days in the country air.

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The very same year George Westinghouse founded Westinghouse Air-Brake Company to manufacture and sell his invention that allowed trains to run heavier and faster more safely. Like Carnegie, Westinghouse believed in investing in research and development--a business practice that really paid off. Westinghouse Electric Company developed methods to generate and distribute alternating electrical current. Westinghouse engineers transmitted the first commercial radio broadcast of the 1920 presidential election returns.

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Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Collection of Susan Donley

Westinghouse Air Brake and the Westinghouse Bridge, Wilmerding, c. 1930. George Westinghouse's companies concentrated in the Turtle Creek Valley.

Other manufacturing interests benefited from the plentiful capital and other new companies began: Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA Inc.), Koppers Chemical Company, Gulf Oil Company, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, Union Switch and Signal, and many smaller ventures.

The result of this explosive economic growth was a tremendous population boom. By 1910 the metropolitan district contained over a million people, twice as many as it had in 1890 and nearly three times as many as in 1880. This was also a time of great improvements in public works and utilities: Pittsburgh was electrified, underground pipes were laid for natural gas, and public health increased, thanks to the completion of water filtration and sewage systems.

Mill workers continued to live near their places of employment, as commuting was a luxury for workers who barely made enough to live. So industrial riverfront neighborhoods were self-contained to serve the pedestrian residents, and pockets of ethnic groups could be traced to particular regions. Many of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods still reflect the ethnicity of these close-knit communities, in their churches, and in the names of family businesses passed through the generations.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

South Side Flats and Slopes were settled first by English and Germans, among them glassblowers. Then Eastern Europeans came to work in the steel mills, settling in neighborhoods surrounding churches and fraternal organizations.

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Trolleys at the end of the 1890s and the automobile close on its heels in the 1910s helped to connect communities, and even made commuting possible for some of the "white collar" managers who moved outward, populating Pittsburgh's first middle class suburbs, such as Dormont, Westview, and Shadyside. (See Rivers and Valleys for more information about transportation.)

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By the end of the 1800s, Allegheny serviced its 100,000 residents with a post office, a City Hall, the Carnegie Library, and a large market house where farmers sold their goods. In 1907 in a controversial vote, Allegheny was annexed to the city of Pittsburgh and became known as the North Side. Inside middle class homes electric lights extended the day and irons, stoves, refrigerators and other new appliances were touted to cut housework.

The factory owners and bankers like Westinghouse, Frick, Carnegie, and Mellon built their estates along Fifth and Penn Avenues in Shadyside and Homestead. But when the trolleys brought the suburbs too close for upper class comfort they often moved on to build much larger mansions in New York City.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Clayton was Henry C. Frick's home in Pittsburgh. After Carnegie Steel was sold to J. P. Morgan to create USSteel, Frick moved to New York and built an even bigger house. Clayton is now open for tours as part of the Frick Art and Historical Association.

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And moving away from the city was becoming a luxury! Pollution was worse than ever, and the rivers and air surrounding the city suffered filthy conditions. While thick black smoke choked the skies, hot waste water full of dangerous chemicals spewed from the factories right into the river water. Human waste was dumped untreated into the rivers, as well. Fish died off in the contaminated waters, and even worse, the city's own drinking water was pumped into homes and businesses, from this very same river, without being treated. At the dawn of the 20th century, Pittsburgh lead the nation in cases of typhoid fever.

Concerned citizens saw a paradox: a city of wealth and prosperity that was still ill-housed, overworked, disorganized, and generally squalid. Different sectors addressed the problems they saw in variety of ways with variety of success. Social workers studied the plight of mill workers and miners and helped establish hospitals, play programs for children, and tackled other aspects of social life.

Andrew Carnegie's solution was to use his wealth to endow communities with libraries. The first was in Braddock where his first factory was, another in Allegheny (soon to become the North Side) in honor of Captain Anderson, who had let young Andrew borrow books.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.


Collection of Rick Sebak

Homestead and Braddock Carnegie Libaries were among Andrew Carnegie's first philanthropic donations to try to improve the quality of life in mill towns. Workers were often skeptical, believing better working conditions would have been a better contribution!

In Oakland in 1891, then a area of farmland, Carnegie established the Carnegie Institute, which combined the library with a music hall and museums of art and natural history.

Carnegie Institute in 1906
Collection of Susan Donley
Carnegie Insitute today
Tom Altany

Top: Carnegie Institute as it was in 1906, 15 years after being built. The towers were later removed when the building was enlarged.

Bottom: Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Music Hall as they are today.

 

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The city and county did what it could given the political atmosphere of the day. In 1907, Pittsburgh opened its first water treatment plant in Aspinwall. The City Art Commission was created to watch over the visual appearance of such projects as bridges. (See the Golden Age of Pittsburgh Bridges.) They countered the rapid growth of the city by setting aside natural areas: Schenley, Highland, Frick, and other parks. Allegheny set aside East, West, and Allegheny Parks.


Collection of Susan Donley

1906 postcard of Highland Park entrance, part of the parks movement that tried to balance the rapid urbanization and industrialization during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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Between the economic trials of the Great Depression and the all-out focus on production of World War II, most of those self-improvement projects had been put on hold. At the end of the war in 1945, Pittsburgh was in dire need of a clean up.

1931 postcard of the Point
Collection of Susan Donley

1931 postcard of the Point. Pittsburgh was coming out of an explosive period of growth on the eve of its greatest level of production ever. As the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II, it would produce steel not just for America, but also its Allies.

 

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