- 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
It is not entirely clear what Frick planned to do with his Pinkertons after they were landed at the waterfront and deposited within “Fort Frick”; perhaps it was merely an instinctive desire to regain physical possession of his property, before using the men as escorts for strikebreakers. The elaborate efforts which had gone into reconstructing the interiors of the barges afford a clue to his long-range intentions, when we bear in mind that the trip from Bellevue to Homestead—even upstream—would consume four hours at most. Beyond question his plan was to use the scows repeatedly. Their hulls and decking were partially reinforced with metal plating. The Iron Mountain had been converted into a dormitory containing cots and tiers of bunks, the Monongahela into a huge dining hall supplied by a kitchen aft. She was intended to carry a cook and twenty waiters.
It had not been possible to keep these preparations secret. People in the vicinity had watched them with uncommon interest for over a week, and had asked questions which were answered with a simple explanation: the barges were being refitted to accommodate laborers for dam construction near the town of Beaver, on the Ohio River thirty miles to the northwest. At Amalgamated headquarters this statement had been received with skepticism, nor were the union men now pleased by a telegraph message announcing the sudden gathering of several hundred strangers at the Bellevue shoreline. Tentatively the strikers assumed that they were faced by a naval invasion. The river patrol was intensified, and an alert was sent to lookouts on Pittsburgh’s Smithfield Street Bridge. Cautiously the union’s launch, the Edna , headed downstream. The hour was ten. At the same time, the Pinkertons and the nailed-down crates—containing 250 Winchester rifles, 300 pistols, and ammunition—began to be put aboard the scows. By midnight they were ready to cast off.
Pinkerton Captain Frederick H. Heinde, forty-two, the head of the expedition, took his place on the Iron Mountain with the eastern contingent. His deputy, Charles Nordrum, a tough professional detective of long standing, aged thirty-five, commanded the Chicago men in the Monongahela . Nordrum was in a morose frame of mind, feeling that surprise was utterly impossible. Nor was he thrilled over the quality of his men. Most of them had never experienced a strike before, and, as he later remarked, “There were some of the worst cowards on that barge I ever saw in my life.” Moreover, a good deal of squabbling had occurred during and after the boarding. The men wanted to know where they were going and what they were to do; but still, even at this late hour, they were officially kept in the dark. By now they all were fairly certain, however, that they were assigned to Homestead. They discussed the prospect glumly as they donned their Pinkerton uniforms, consisting of slouch hats with gaudy bands, blouses with metal buttons, and darkblue trousers with lighter stripes running down the outside seams. On both barges some of the more sophisticated volunteers asked when they were to be deputized. Heinde and Nordrum ignored them.
If the men were to be sworn into the service of Allegheny County, Colonel Joseph H. Gray would have to do it; but he had not yet set foot on either barge. Nobody even knew where he was. Sheriff McCleary had deputized Gray to act as his representative—a vague title—and Knox & Reed, attorneys for the Carnegie company, had given him a communication to present to Superintendent Potter: “This will introduce Col. Joseph H. Gray, deputy sheriff. … You will understand that Col. Gray, as the representative of the sheriff, is to have control of all action in case of trouble.” An aging war horse with a Civil War limp, armed with broad instructions, generally confused, uninterested in this tomfoolery about swearing in 316 potential gunmen, Gray was a perfect match for his somewhat imperfect superior.
It was all in the day’s work to William Rodgers, who operated the Tide Coal Company—not actually a coal company but a tugboat service employed by Carnegie and by other industrial firms in the neighborhood. To Rodgers, the only novelty was that he was to haul men rather than merchandise; he had therefore taken out a passenger license for the occasion. Two tugs would handle the job: the Tide and the Little Bill . Each powerful little steamer took one barge in tow. From the pilothouse of the Little Bill , Captain Rodgers led the way, followed by the Tide . Colonel Gray finally made his appearance in another boat, which intercepted the Little Bill . Gray was taken aboard. Ready and anxious, Superintendent Potter in the Tide was already carrying his pistol in a holster.