- 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
Another telegram sped from the Sheriff to the Governor: “The works at Homestead are in possession of an armed mob … The boat … was fired on from the shore and pilot compelled to abandon pilot house. I have no means at my command to meet emergency; a large armed force will be required … You are, therefore, urged to act at once.” The Governor, caught between two fires and stalling for time, inquired: “How many deputies have you sworn in and what measures have you taken to enforce order and protect property?” McCleary, who had sworn in nobody and taken no measures of any kind, at last left his courthouse for Homestead.
The strikers’ next move was to pour hundreds of gallons of oil, pumped by a hand engine attached to an oil tank, into the river upstream from the barges. Repeated efforts were made to set it afire. This scheme failed also; the wind was wrong, the oil was a lubricating type which burned feebly, if at all, and even when it came into contact with the scows they remained unscathed.
The strikers loaded a raft with oil and greasy scraps, set everything aflame, and let it drift toward the enemy. There was a low moan of fear from the Iron Mountain when the Pinkertons saw it coming. An officer aboard stated that he would blow out the brains of anyone who jumped ship. Another said, “If you surrender you will be shot down like dogs; the best thing is to stay here.” The raft passed the barge at a snail’s pace without touching it, and continued on its fiery but harmless way.
Some of the more enterprising Pinkertons hacked out holes in the sides of the barges; these, coupled with the portholes and other cavities caused by cannon and dynamite, gave them plenty of openings through which they could fire. They cut loose again sporadically and caused a few more casualties. An old Amalgamated member and Civil War veteran named George Rutter was shot in the thigh, and another worker, John Morris, was also badly hit. (Both later died.) Only a few Pinkerton regulars were continuing the battle. The rest lounged about, silent and inert and sweltering. A few sipped tepid coffee. Directly overhead, the July sun beat down on the roof and converted the interior into a hothouse. Except for an active handful of riflemen, the remainder—almost three hundred able-bodied men—had set aside their weapons.
The sight of them made John Kennedy’s blood boil. A Pinkerton regular, he could not fathom their docility, their apparent unwillingness even to defend themselves. He cried out, “What in the name of God did you men come here for; now is the time to make a strike!” He received the usual muttered answer: they had come for guard duty, not to fight.
Their lethargy was disturbed by the strikers, whose ingenuity seemed to know no bounds and who were still intent on setting fire to the barges. This time their weapon was a small rail car, resting at the top of a long incline which led, coincidentally, on a direct line toward the Monongahela . It was loaded with barrels of oil which were set aflame, and released from its switch. In horror the Pinkertons watched it gather speed and hurtle toward them. When it reached the end of the line it soared feebly through the air and crashed to earth, far short of its target.
One of the strikers next conceived the plan of enveloping the barges in natural gas from a large main adjacent to the pumping station. Fourth of July rockets were then fired into the gas, and a small explosion actually took place, but it did no damage except, perhaps, to the nerves of the trapped men. The workers were running out of ideas. There were those like Hugh Ross and Jack Clifford, both of whom had been in the thick of the fighting all morning, who advocated boarding the barges and finishing the job with no more nonsense. Conceivably such an assault might have succeeded, but the carnage would have been severe, and very few had any stomach for it. The idea was never seriously considered.
A lull set in, broken by the occasional dry, echoing crack of a rifle. Hot and bored, the huge audience blanketing the Braddock and Homestead hills awaited developments. Men on the firing lines behind breastworks were served lunch by friends and women of the town, while at union headquarters on Eighth Avenue the entire strike committee, a concerned group of men, assembled and deliberated. Shortly after midday they were aroused by a new cacophony of gunfire and thousands of voices shouting with joy and excitement. The detested Little Bill , flying the Stars and Stripes from bow and stern, was returning to the fray.
Eight strikers were now dead or dying, scores were wounded, and the men of Homestead were seeking an eye for an eye, or more. Hugh O’Donnell had not yet made any attempt to curb them. Occasionally, along with a few local newspapermen, he had climbed up on the new converting mill for a better view. The streets of the town were full of anxious women begging for news of their men. One of them, an English girl named Mary Jones, had fainted and was now delirious; Silas Wain, the man killed by a stray cannon shot, had been her fiancé.