- Historic Sites
Battle At Homestead
The furnaces were cooled, and Carnegie’s great steel plant stood empty—but dawn would bring one of the bloodiest labor-management struggles in U.S. history
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
During the last week of June, Frick (through his gun-happy superintendent, John Potter) began laying off Homestead employees in large numbers. When the July 1 deadline arrived, the plant was empty, the furnaces cooled, the machinery idle. An unearthly silence reigned.
In alarm William H. McCleary, the sheriff of Allegheny County, tried to form a posse. His efforts were ludicrously unsuccessful. Nobody cared to confront 3,800 strikers who were well armed and in an ugly mood. The lockout was now in effect. Both sides, in fact, were locked out. The company could not operate its mighty plant, surrounded by thousands of belligerent steelworkers who refused admittance to one and all, even Superintendent Potter. The advisory committee took over the borough. From its headquarters above a grocery store it enunciated ad hoc laws, operated the utilities, kept the peace, whipped the strikers into line, distributed cash strike benefits, caused all saloons to close, and administered justice.
The situation was, of course, legally unstable and likely to lead to intervention by the Pennsylvania State Guard. Despairingly, Sheriff McCleary wired Governor Robert E. Pattison in Harrisburg to that effect. The Governor did not respond, and five tense days passed. A flurry of cables between Carnegie and Frick indicated their determination to smash the Amalgamated local once and for all.
In Homestead the strikers issued badges to approved newspapermen. All others, and sundry suspicious strangers, were bounced out of town. The Homestead and Munhall railroad depots were guarded intensively. Gradually the nation at large became aware that this was the most serious lockout-strike in its history. As yet, however, not a man had been physically harmed; and Governor Pattison stood pat while the final hours ticked by.
The opening phase of Mr. Frick’s maneuver had proceeded like clockwork. The Pinkertons had collected a total of 316 men in New York and Chicago. Mostly unemployed or drifters, with a few college lads trying to earn a little money between semesters, a hard core of Pinkerton regulars, some hoodlums and outand-out criminals on the run, they comprised a typical group of agency guards. The superintendent of the Chicago office had tried to be reassuring. “You men are hired to watch the property of a certain corporation, to protect it from harm,” he told them. “The element of danger which is usually found in such expeditions will be here entirely lacking. … A few brickbats may be thrown at you, you may be called names, or sworn at, but that is no reason for you to shoot.” He refused to answer the question, “Where are we going?”
John W. Holway, a twenty-three-year-old medical student, was one of many who began to feel qualms. Shoot whom? With what? No weapons were visible. But the papers were full of stories about the great Homestead lockout, and Holway had a feeling he was going there, and that there would be gun play. After dark he and the rest of the Chicago contingent were placed (smuggled, one might say) aboard a train standing at the Lake Shore depot. As it rolled east, Pinkerton detectives stood guard to prevent anyone from departing, particularly during stops at Toledo and Cleveland. The thought struck Holway, annoyingly, that he was a sort of prisoner. An identical procedure was meanwhile taking place on a train speeding westward from New York. Both journeys, no doubt, were sufficiently gloomy.
Ashtabula, Ohio, on Lake Erie, lies halfway between Chicago and New York and roughly a hundred miles north of Pittsburgh. The darkened trainloads of Pinkertons met there on July 5, were sidetracked, recoupled, and placed behind a different engine. Unlabelled crates of weapons and ammunition, which had been on the Chicago train, were transferred to the last car. Through gentle farm lands and harsh coal country the train clattered south, nonstop and at a good clip. Near Youngstown it crossed the Pennsylvania border. Not a man was armed—the letter of interstate commerce law was obeyed. The final destination was the town of Bellevue, five miles down the river from Pittsburgh. When the men detrained there after sunset they saw two barges, looming motionless in black waters that lapped at the wharf. The Carnegie company owned them and had long used them to move steel rails, supplies, and sundry equipment for short hauls. Both the Iron Mountain and the Monongahela were about a hundred feet long, and broad of beam; their only noticeable difference from others working the river was the heavy wooden housing that almost completely covered them. Hatches had been built into the superstructure, from which ladders led below.