1892 One Hundred Years Ago

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Early on the morning of July 6, 316 men recently recruited by the Pinkerton Detective Agency clambered onto a flotilla of barges and, led by the steam tug Little Bill , headed up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh toward Homestead, where Andrew Carnegie’s big steel plant was surrounded by striking workers. The strike had been called because Carnegie’s lieutenant, Henry Clay Frick (his boss was on vacation in Scotland), had recently tried to break the Amalgamated Association union in his plant by firing its members.

As the makeshift Pinkerton fleet approached the works, union men opened fire. For the next twelve hours the barges lay just offshore while most of Homestead’s ten thousand citizens lined the river bank shooting at them with rifle and cannon and occasionally tossing sticks of dynamite to flush the hidden invaders from below deck. The guards shot back when they dared.

Hugh O’Donnell, head of the strike committee, had little control over his membership. The strikers showed no mercy; they shot one guard who dangled a white flag and shot another’s flag to shreds. Finally, with their water and ammunition running low and the stench of their fallen comrades becoming unbearable below deck, the Pinkertons voted to give themselves up. As the guards straggled ashore, O’Donnell pleaded successfully for their lives, but he could not keep most of the townspeople from forming a cruel gantlet as the prisoners marched up the hill. Seven strikers and three Pinkertons had died in the long battle, but clubs and stones injured almost all the guards as they made the brief climb.

The governor had initially refused to call out the militia, but eventually they moved in, and the Homestead workers, after holding out for four bitter months, lost their union and had their wage rate cut in half.

Young women had increasingly been spotted wearing suspenders during the preceding two years. The trend had even gained the approval of designers in Paris, and by August some editorialists were complaining of an “epidemic.” Men who returned to wearing belts in response hoped the fad would die by fall.