logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Meet Daphne

Daphne Archive

Cool Links
The Homestead Pump House and the Battle of Homestead Foundation



Homestead Then and Now: The Battle for History

A little snowstorm doesn't keep Becky and Russ from uncovering history!

I am so excited about writing this dispatch! My head is filled with ideas on how to convey my enthusiasm to you, esteemed reader. Where to begin? How to grab your attention so that you won't let go; so that you'll read every single word here without stopping? Ahh, the pressures of an enthusiastic Trekker!!

Perhaps I should try starting with the phone call. Becky and I had spent our first morning in Pittsburgh at a museum researching the Homestead Strike of 1892. The exhibit there glossed over the events and didn't give us much information. As we were preparing to leave, Becky spotted a brochure from the Battle of Homestead Foundation. It listed a phone number and a whole host of possibilities - great! I called, Russ Gibbons answered, and my prayers were realized!

Russ, it turns out, provided us with an entryway into the wonderful world of Pittsburgh activism. He and his colleagues are part of an incredibly exciting, energetic and fabulous labor movement intent on preserving - and presenting - history from the point of view of the workers. The little people, if you will. Too often, as we in the US Trek like to point out, history is told from the point of view of the wealthy and privileged. When that happens, a whole lot of other history is left out. Meeting Russ was so cool precisely because he's doing the same thing we are - in a way he's a US Trekker too!

The history that Russ and friends are intent on keeping alive relates to the Battle of Homestead. It's a tragic story with all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster and it goes a little something like this:

The Setting: Carnegie Steel Plant at Homestead, just outside Pittsburgh (by the Monongahela River) in 1892.

The Bad Guys: Henry Clay Frick and the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Becky poses with Frick, the leader of the 'Bad Guys'

The Good Guys: Union members of the Amalgamated Association (the precursor of the present-day United Steelworkers of America).

Other Players: Andrew Carnegie, Alexander "Sasha" Berkman, Emma Goldman, John Morris, and the townspeople of Homestead.

The Plot: It was the end of the union's contract with the steel company and both parties had to renegotiate their terms. Frick was determined to break up the union because he wanted to reduce the workers' wages. He didn't want to negotiate so instead offered the union a "take-it-or-leave-it" contract that was so unfavorable, the union had no choice but to reject it.

The Plot Thickens: Once the union rejected the contract, Frick laid off the entire workforce, erected a fence 3 miles long and 12 feet high around the steelworks and topped it with barbed wire, adding peepholes for rifles (in effect, "locking out" everyone). Then, he hired the Pinkerton agency to protect the strikebreakers (who were the people Frick hired to substitute the workers on strike).

Russ gives us a tour of the Pump House

And Now It Gets Ugly: The union voted to strike and to prevent anyone from working in the mill. Thousands of pickets began patrolling a stretch of the river. On the night of July 5, 300 Pinkerton guards started to head to the mill on barges. As they got closer (in the early hours of July 6), the crowd warned them not to step off the barges. A striker lay down on the gangplank and when a Pinkerton man tried to shove him aside, he fired, wounding the detective in the thigh. In the gunfire that followed, seven workers and three detectives were killed. One of the workers was John Morris. He was shot from inside the Pump House (one of the buildings of the mill) and plunged 60 feet to his death, in full view of the enormous crowd that had gathered.

Russ ponders, "Do I push or pull?" as he tries to get inside the Pump House, where one worker was killed

The townspeople managed to run the Pinkerton detectives out of Homestead and some were severely beaten. Frick, meanwhile, denounced the "mob" and continued to say that he was within his rights to protect the steelworks, never once expressing regret for the deaths that occurred.

By dawn on July 7, the national media was out in force. Each of Pittsburgh's ten papers had between two and 20 men on the scene in Homestead, and the New York papers sent four people each. Correspondents from Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, St. Louis and Cincinnati were also there. Headlines read: "Labor and Capital in Deadly Conflict at Carnegie Mills!" "First Fruit of the Ironmaster's Resolve to Crush his Men!" "Fought All Day!" "The Millmen Were Right in Resisting the Pinkerton Invasion!" The newspapers, by and large, were sympathetic to the Homestead workers.


Elvis Lives! Before heading to Pittsburgh I had a chance to chill out in Memphis ...

During the funerals for the dead workers, the townspeople remained armed and vigilant. Morris's funeral, in particular, packed a church. During his eulogy, the minister denounced Frick by saying, "There is no more sensibility in that man than in a toad."

The Sub-Plots: While all this occurred, Andrew Carnegie remained out of the spotlight in his vacation castle in Scotland. The media tried to get him to make a statement - after all, he did own the steelworks - but the only thing he'd say was that he'd left Frick in charge of the mills and was pleased with his work. Oh, by the way, Carnegie was paying $2,000 a week for his Scottish castle (a fortune now and an even bigger fortune then)…and he was cutting worker wages!?!? Unbelievable!

If only this knife could talk…it was used by Sasha to stab Frick three times

Two people who were much more interested in the Homestead Strikes then Carnegie were Sasha Berkman and Emma Goldman. These Russian anarchists sold their ice-cream parlor in Worcester and moved to New York to rally for "The People." They believed that capitalism was the enemy, so when they heard about Homestead, they anticipated a revolution of the masses. Sasha decided he would do his part for the cause by killing Frick. As he explained, "The removal of a tyrant is not merely justifiable, it is imperative." On July 23, he burst into Frick's Pittsburgh office, shot him two times and stabbed him three times. Although he seriously injured Frick, he didn't kill him. He did, however, kill public support for the strikers, because many people then thought the strikers were behind the whole thing. The fact that the union passed a resolution condemning Sasha's act didn't help. Suddenly, the newspapers weren't so sympathetic and the strike seemed doomed.

The first marker for the Homestead strikers, erected in 1941

The Aftermath: On November 21 the strike was called off. It had held for four months, but hadn't managed to stop the plant from producing steel. As winter approached and resources dwindled, the strikers agreed to return to work. However, only 400 of 2,200 people were hired back and the union leaders were blacklisted, unable to find jobs in steel mills anywhere in the country. Unionism in the steel industry was crushed at Homestead.

A year later, in 1893, the country entered the biggest recession of its history. Frick, unimpeded by unions, cut wages at Homestead by 60% to stay in production. Men were forced to work 12-hour shifts seven days a week. A few years later, Carnegie spoke of Frick and paid him this compliment: "He never disappoints; what he promises he more than fulfills."

The second plaque honoring the Homestead strike

Got it? Now try visiting Pittsburgh and looking for sites that commemorate this event. You'll find a modest memorial outside Chiodo's Tavern erected by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1941 and a marker by the Pump House, which was put up in the 1990s. You'll also find a blurb at the museum, and other than that, good luck!

If you're looking for stuff on Carnegie or Frick, however, you'll have no problem. Their names are everywhere, immortalized through the large donations their foundations and descendants have made to Pittsburgh (and the rest of the country) throughout the years. They are revered, loved and fondly remembered. As Russ put it, "When people visit Frick's home, they are never told how he got his wealth."

But Russ and colleagues, such as Steffi Domike and Charles McCollester, are changing that. They are determined to tell the story of Homestead and shape the way the site of the battle is preserved. They know, just as we do, that owning history is the first step towards empowerment. So they created the Foundation to have their say in the way history is told at the site. As Steffi explained, "There was no labor history site at Homestead in the initial plans [for preservation]." Russ added, " When we started working on this, there was even a proposal for a 'Pinkerton Dr.' and that was absurd!"

Daph hangs out with Steffi, a true woman of steel!

In 1993, their group put out a film called "The River Ran Red" about the events of Homestead. Steffi, who was one of the producers, told me, "We tried to tell the Homestead story from the point of view of the workers. The events of July 6, 1892 changed the politics of labor. It was a watershed moment. Afterwards, there was terrible misery. Living conditions were absolutely miserable."

What they are doing is not easy. They may have several graduate degrees, decades of experience and tons of contacts between them, but it's still an uphill battle. "We've tried to find descendants of Homestead labor strikers, but couldn't do it. No one came forward," Russ said. As Charles put it, "After Homestead, workers couldn't speak about it for fear of being fired. There were spies in the mills who'd report you if you brought it up." As a result, the Homestead legacy continues to live mostly in silence. Steffi is more dramatic but no less correct: "We're fighting an ideological battle - a battle to tell history."

Wow! Their commitment is contagious! They are reclaiming Homestead history from the moneyed elite - from the Fricks and Carnegies of the world - and giving it back to the workers. They are reshaping the way the story is told and vindicating the deaths of July 6. A century later, the ghosts of Homestead may finally rest in peace.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - It's hard to say good-bye, but farewell it is
Stephanie - Sweet sugar's evil, mean streak
Kevin - Thanks for the memories!
Rebecca - Billy-clubs and bayonets: this ain't no May Day parade
Kevin - The men known as Mollie Maguire
Team - Labor Day: More than just the non-official end of summer
MAD - McNasty Mickey D's