- 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
By 1892 Andrew Carnegie, so-called “angel of the workingman,” once a penniless lad from Scotland, had established himself as steel master of the world and majority shareholder in the all-powerful Carnegie Steel Company, focussed in western Pennsylvania. Of all the iron, steel, and coke works contained within his peerless semimonopolistic empire, none compared in magnitude and output with the unit at Homestead.
By 1892 Andrew Carnegie, so-called “angel of the workingman,” once a penniless lad from Scotland, had established himself as steel master of the world and majority shareholder in the all-powerful Carnegie Steel Company, focussed in western Pennsylvania. Of all the iron, steel, and coke works contained within his peerless semimonopolistic empire, none compared in magnitude and output with the unit at Homestead.
That grim borough lay near Pittsburgh on the south bank of the Monongahela River. Together, Homestead and the adjacent town of Munhall had a population of 12,000, and practically every able-bodied man and boy was employed by the mill. The unalleviated peril and harshness of their working conditions are hard to believe by modern standards. In and near Pittsburgh during 1891 alone, about three hundred men were killed and over two thousand injured while “working aside of hell ahead of time,” as one employee put it. Except for a few isolated acts of feeble generosity, the Carnegie company offered no financial compensation to the mutilated men or their survivors. On the other hand, wages were adequate and the men and their families by and large were satisfied with their way of life. The great majority worked twelve hours daily, seven days a week. Only Christmas and the Fourth of July were holidays.
Semiretired, Carnegie spent half of each year in Europe and left affairs to his lieutenant, Henry Clay Frick. A multimillionaire in his own right, general manager of the company and its second largest shareholder, this withdrawn, gelid individual detested the concept of labor organization and was determined to break the union’s grip on Homestead. Of necessity this narrative must deal with superlatives; thus it should be noted that the American Federation of Labor, though only six years old, was already the world’s largest and wealthiest union, and that its most powerful component—the world’s mightiest single craft union, in fact—was the conservative Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, almost twenty-five thousand strong. Its president was a huge, amiable former steelworker named William Weihe.
Although Amalgamated members at Homestead numbered only 325 out of the work force of 3,800, they ran the local show. This small, elite group of highly paid specialists, a bone in the throats of Carnegie and Frick, negotiated wage scales for all employees (except the thousand-odd illiterate Slavic day laborers, who earned fourteen cents per hour), fought incessantly over work rules, enforced the adjustment of complaints, and in general badgered the company into acceding to most of its demands. By the mere threat of a strike, the Amalgamated had won a moderate victory in 1889. A contract rather humiliating to management had been signed, to expire June 30, 1892. As the deadline neared, a battle of giants loomed. That spring Mr. Carnegie had left for Scotland. Now, in essence, it was Frick vs. the Amalgamated.
Suddenly it dawned upon the Homestead local that a showdown was imminent and that the union’s very existence in all Carnegie plants was at stake. Hurried recruitments brought in four hundred new members. An advisory (strike) committee was formed, headed by an intense, quick-thinking young man named Hugh O’Donnell. Measures were taken to block ingress to the mill, should negotiations fail. A launch (the Edna ) was chartered, arrangements were made for dozens of skiffs to patrol the river, especially near the mill’s waterfront entrance, and an elaborate picketing system was drawn up.
Meanwhile Mr. Frick had not been idle. He had a twelve-foot board fence, topped by barbed wire, erected around the plant. It curved from the waterfront east and west and contained loopholes, shoulder high, every twenty-five feet. Sardonically the workers termed the arrangement “Fort Frick.” He began preliminary correspondence with the Pinkerton Detective Agency to furnish guards for the purpose of taking over the mill.
Three conferences between union and company officials took place between March and late June; but despite compromises on both sides the talks collapsed. Frick then announced that he would no longer deal with the Amalgamated and that work would commence as usual on July 6, on management’s terms and without recognition of the union.
In a mass meeting, all 3,800 workers voted to strike—a shock to Frick, who had expected to confront only the small minority of union members. He then contracted definitely with William and Robert Pinkerton for an armed force of three hundred men (at five dollars per day per man) to be towed up the river in two barges early on July 6 and placed inside the works. The stage was set for one of the most murderous and dramatic tragedies in U.S. labor-management annals.
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.
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.
Nothing unusual had yet taken place. Rodgers left the wheelhouse and walked around the deck, talking softly to his crew and to a Pinkerton officer named Anderson. At about 3 A.M. , July 6, the fleet negotiated Lock No. 1 near the Baltimore & Ohio bridge. They were now nearing the mouth of the Monongahela. Lights from Pittsburgh spectrally illuminated the surface of the water, but the fog was quite dense. Haze and darkness veiled the river. As they approached the Smithfield Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh, a union lookout was struck by the sight of dim red and green running lights coming his way. He strained his eyes and hurried to a telegraph shack near the northern end of the bridge, where he wired: “Watch the river. Steamer with barges left here.”
Off Glenwood, the last bend in the Monongahela before Homestead, the Tide ’s engine broke down. A few minutes were spent trying futilely to get her under way, but there was no time to waste. She dropped anchor while Potter and her crew climbed aboard the Little Bill , which took both barges in tow on short lines, the Iron Mountain to port. It was an awkward arrangement. The scows scraped and jostled against each other, awakening the men inside and jarring their nerves. What the hell was going on? they asked apprehensively.
In the pilothouse of the Little Bill , Rodgers applied full power. The three vessels struggled against the current, and several union lookouts in a skiff were almost run down by the tug. Startled, they reached for revolvers, fired blindly at the cabin, and missed. The enemy armada chugged ghostlike beyond their range and vision.
The time was nearly 4 A.M. when, at the Homestead Light Works, Hugh O’Donnell yanked the steam whistle. The long, steady, moaning sound, indicating that a river landing was in progress, awakened and galvanized the town. In homes, shacks, tenements, and rooming houses a myriad of lights were turned on. Thousands of men, women, and children began to get dressed. A mounted sentry clattered across the bridge and burst into Homestead á la Paul Revere, shouting, “The Pinkertons are coming!” Within minutes the streets were a surging mass of yelling, cursing, laughing people. Some women carried babies in their arms. Stolidly, inexorably, the Little Bill pushed on. Captain Rodgers changed course slightly to starboard, to bring the scows into the landing area parallel with the shore line. As yet none of the vessels could be seen from land, and it would appear that the operation was proceeding almost according to Prick’s plan.
But confusion was growing aboard the tug and within the barges. The shots fired from the skiff had indicated that a dangerous reception was likely, and Captain Heinde, disgusted at the turn of events, had already authorized (with Potter’s consent) a dozen rifles to be distributed to Pinkerton regulars. Crates of weapons and cartridges were pried open. Suddenly the strikers’ Edna spotted the enemy and emitted a series of piercing blasts. They were answered by the yowling of every steam whistle in Homestead and the crackle of firecrackers. A roar went up from the crowd when the Little Bill and her barges, running close to the shore, were detected less than a mile west of town. The strikers opened up with rifles, pistols, and shotguns, but the fusillade did little damage, except for one bullet which shattered windows in the tugboat’s pilothouse. As the three vessels continued on their way, swarms of men followed them by running along the shore, firing from close range. The crack of small arms, the scream of sirens, the shouts of strikers and their families, could clearly be heard inside the barges, where morale was sinking fast.
All the Winchesters and pistols were distributed, and each man was given fifty rounds of ammunition. A few refused the weapons. They had not been hired to fight, they complained; they had signed up simply for guard duty. Pinkerton officers walked through the barges and tried to calm the inexperienced men, many of whom were bordering on panic. Nordrum cornered Colonel Gray and demanded that everyone be deputized. The Colonel was evasive, and Nordrum fumed. They were under heavy fire, he pointed out; wasn’t it time for Gray to act? “If you are sheriff of this county, why don’t you deputize us, give us authority?” Heinde also entered the argument, but the Colonel would not be budged. He had not been instructed specifically to swear anyone in, he said; furthermore, there would be plenty of time to do so when the Pinkertons were inside the company grounds. Nordrum remonstrated with Gray a few minutes later, and again Gray refused him: the Pinkertons would not be deputized now, and that was that.
The point was fast becoming academic. Rodgers reduced power, brought the Little Bill in front of the mill entrance, and then deliberately ran both scows aground with a soft, crunching sound of gravel under their keels. It was journey’s end for the Pinkertons.
Dawn was breaking when the barges hit the beach and Rodgers’ crew, working fast, secured the inshore Monongahela (containing the Chicago men) against her sister ship. They were safe for the time being, but the matter of disembarking the Pinkertons was a race against time. They were within the mill grounds, adjacent to the company pumping station. Frick had assumed, or hoped, that his fence, which curved down to the low-water mark so as to block access to the entrance by land, would keep the mob away. They now numbered ten thousand, some of whom had taken positions on the opposite bank of the river; and they were heavily and strangely armed. The exact number of armed strikers will never be known, but several hundred of them carried weapons dating back to the Civil War: carbines and rifles, some shotguns, but mostly pistols and revolvers. Thousands more, including women and young boys, moved toward the excitement with sticks and stones and alarming-looking nailed clubs torn from fences.
The board-and-barbed-wire fence at the water’s edge stopped them only for moments. It was knocked over like matchsticks. Wild with excitement, they swarmed into the mill grounds and came to a stop at the landing. They were met by a lone figure, Captain Nordrum, standing on the Monongahela ’s deck. There was a pause, a fragile moment of silence, broken by his commanding words, “We are coming up that hill anyway, and we don’t want any more trouble from you men.” He walked to the stern of the barge and helped his men throw out a gangplank to the shore. Again bedlam broke loose. Nordrum retired below and cautioned his men not to shoot. Nobody had been hit yet, he observed. “It’s no use returning the fire until some of us are hurt.” His advice was hardly inspiring. Meanwhile Captain Heinde, within the offshore barge, was recruiting some forty reluctant volunteers to walk the plank.
The crowd did not know who was coming ashore. Some thought correctly that the entire enemy force was composed of Pinkertons, some figured that they were almost all scabs, but the most widely held opinion was that one barge contained strikebreakers and the other their Pinkerton guards. In the event, these viewpoints were irrelevant. Amid the uproar, cries of “Don’t let the black sheep land!” and threatening gestures, Heinde and Nordrum emerged, followed by Pinkertons carrying .45-70 Winchester magazine-fed repeaters. Tenseness, or desperation, was written on their faces as they walked toward the plank. Once more there was a dead silence. Heinde addressed the crowd, announcing that his men were taking over the works and advising the strikers to disperse. The reply was a chorus of jeers and a shower of stones which fell around the Pinkertons like hail. They hesitated. “Don’t step off the boat,” someone from the shore said distinctly.
Three strikers ran forward; two grabbed the end of the gangplank while the third deliberately lay down upon it, as if to dare the enemy to cross his body. Led by Heinde and followed by the other volunteers, seven Pinkertons stepped on the plank. As Heinde was trying to shove the prone striker aside, the man pulled a revolver and shot him through the thigh. The heavy slug knocked him over backward. A torrent of gunfire swept the men on the plank. Heinde was hit again, this time in the shoulder. A guard named Klein was killed instantly by a bullet through the head, four of the others were wounded, and only Nordrum found himself untouched. A swarm of Pinkertons rushed topside, joining those already there. Firing point-blank into the crowd, they could hardly miss; and with stunning celerity over thirty Homestead men went down. The first casualty was Martin Murray, a rougher, who fell wounded into a pile of ashes. Joseph Sotak came to his aid and was killed by a bullet in the mouth. Somewhat farther up the hill a worker named Streigle, firing at the barges, was shot through the throat and died instantly. His body, lying in a clearing, was riddled with bullets from the barges.
There was no letup in the massed firing from the shore, and it was augmented by scattered gun play from the opposite bank. Little Bill got more than her share. One bullet struck a crewman named John McCurry and wounded him seriously in the groin. Everybody hit the deck, including William Rodgers, who tried to steer the tug from an almost prone position. She began going around in small circles. On the barges all the Pinkertons dived below, dragging most of their wounded comrades and the body of Klein with them. Now the firing stopped. The engagement had lasted no more than three minutes, and already several men were dead and many more wounded.
The strikers retreated in confusion up the bank, and scattered. They began throwing up barricades of steel and pig-iron scrap, while Hugh O’Donnell, a dynamo of activity, beside himself with anxiety and realizing that he had no influence over his men at this stage—especially the impetuous and semihysterical Slavs—herded all the noncombatants away from the firing line. The women, in the words of one historian, “screaming in twenty-two languages and dialects, then grabbed their kids and took to the near hills, the better to see their men shot down.” The dead and wounded Homestead men (a few of whom were not strikers but had come to the scene as interested observers) were carried to their houses or to doctors’ offices. At the same time, Rodgers managed to get the Little Bill alongside the Iron Mountain . He took Klein’s body and fourteen wounded men aboard. One of them was Captain Heinde, who said to him, “I don’t feel like lying here and bleeding to death.” Superintendent Potter, carrying both a rifle and his pistol and somewhat overwrought, begged Nordrum to attempt another landing. Nordrum refused. He was not keen on the idea personally and he doubted if he could coax any sizable number of men to accompany him; anyway (he told Potter) Captain Heinde was in charge.
They dashed across to the Little Bill , where the wounded were huddled in and around the cabin. Heinde was in pain and bleeding profusely, and other men were in an equally bad way. Nordrum crouched next to the Pinkerton commander and told him he had vetoed Potter’s demand for another rally. “Suit yourself, use your own judgment,” murmured Heinde.
Rodgers, impatient over the delay, wanted to leave for Pittsburgh at once with Potter, Gray, and the rest of his wretched cargo. He promised to come back as soon as possible. Nordrum returned to the offshore scow, and the lines to the tug were cast off. As soon as the Little Bill got under way she was raked by another flurry of bullets and buckshot; and again Rodgers, at the wheel, tried to steer while lying on his stomach. The effort was hopeless, and at length he simply let the little tug drift. The current slowly brought her away from the shore and moved her downstream, and when she was a mile and a half away from the landing Rodgers came to his feet, applied power, and headed for the city. En route another Pinkerton man died.
It was almost full daylight now, and gradually the fog was being burnt off by the slanting rays of a newborn sun. From shattered windows atop the barges the Pinkertons watched in despair as the Little Bill , with maddening lassitude, crept away. When would she return? Below decks the temperature was rising; it was going to be a scorcher. Like sitting ducks, the two hulks lay stranded. On shore the Homestead men were accumulating sticks of dynamite and hauling a small cannon into position about halfway up the hill south of the river. The opening skirmish was over, leaving both antagonists in a dilemma. The Pinkertons were trapped. Another landing in force was out of the question, and even if the tug should come back, it was difficult to imagine her fastening lines to both scows under heavy fire—the attempt would be suicidal.
The strikers, on the other hand, were baffled by the problem of forcing the enemy out of the barges so that they could be killed or beaten, or at least captured. For half an hour, while the Homestead men pondered, continued their lethal preparations, and consolidated their defense, not a shot was fired. O’Donnell called out for the Pinkerton commander. When Nordrum emerged, O’Donnell asked if he were “man enough” to come ashore for a conference. Nordrum walked the plank and was asked by O’Donnell how the affair might be settled. “I am not in command here,” replied the Pinkerton. “You will have to come and see other people.” He suggested a talk with Potter and Gray. O’Donnell, who was angling for a total surrender of the men in the barges, was apologetic; he admitted that there were many hotheads among his people who would not consider allowing the engagement to end in a draw. Nordrum made one more try at influencing the throng. “Men, we are Pinkerton detectives,” he shouted. “We were sent here to take possession of this property and to guard it for the company. … If you men don’t withdraw, we will mow every one of you down.” Receiving no response, he turned abruptly and walked back to the Monongahela . Courage, not tact, was Nordrum’s forte.
Shortly before eight, some of the regular detectives made a final effort, astonishingly enough, to get ashore. Four were shot down in a flash. The others wounded several more strikers before retiring. For two hours ragged firing continued, while most of the Pinkertons hid under tables and behind mattresses and piles of life jackets. Regular detectives and Grand Army of the Republic veterans tried to keep them cool, but a few managed to dive into the river and swim toward the other shore. As time went on, about a dozen made their escape in this fashion. Meanwhile an exodus was taking place from the inshore barge. One at a time, the Chicago men rushed onto the offshore Iron Mountain , until by late morning the Monongahela was almost empty. Firing from the shore became more selective. The workers tried to pick off individual men who exposed themselves, and concentrated on the offshore scow. More Pinkertons were wounded, and pools of blood began to collect below.
“Big Bill” Weihe, the union leader, hurried to the scene from Pittsburgh, and found matters so plainly out of control that he decided, for the time being, not to address the strikers. From the county courthouse in Pittsburgh Sheriff McCleary wired Governor Pattison in Harrisburg: “Situation at Homestead is very grave. My deputies were driven from the ground and watchmen sent by mill owners attacked. Shots were exchanged and some men killed and wounded. Unless prompt measures are taken to prevent it, further bloodshed and great destruction of property may be expected. The striking workmen and their friends on the ground number at least 5,000 and the civil authorities are utterly unable to cope with them. Wish you would send representative at once.”
Pattison responded laconically: “Local authorities must exhaust every means at their command for the preservation of peace.”
The battle, a rather one-sided affair now, continued. From Pittsburgh more arms and ammunition reached the strikers, who moved toward the shore line as though to close in for the kill. They were reinforced by armed nonstrikers from Braddock and Duquesne. A swarm of skiffs harassed the Iron Mountain , and fired at her incessantly from point-blank range. Sticks of dynamite weighing about half a pound were tossed at the barge. They exploded on or near the target without creating any appreciable damage at first. Carrying a basket of dynamite sticks, one huge workman ran toward the river, followed by about twenty men. They threw the sticks simultaneously, and most of them landed on the Iron Mountain , which almost leaped out of the water. Boards and metal plating whipped through the air. Two sticks which hit near the bow tore open substantial holes through which Pinkertons could clearly be seen. Riflemen got to work on them. Several wounded Pinkertons were still lying on deck, and when other guards tried to pull them below they also were fired upon. Two more were shot during this flurry.
Every time a Pinkerton was seen to be hit, a shout issued from the dense mass of people packing the slopes on both sides of the river, hundreds or thousands of whom had hastened there from Pittsburgh and various suburbs to watch the fun. They were treated to a rare sight, and their mood was gay, as though they were at a carnival. The dynamiting was best of all, but it dwindled as time passed, for the strikers were running out of the “stuff,” as they called it; it was dangerous to operate so close to the shore line and several of them had been wounded; furthermore, despite its spectacular noise and occasional effect, dynamite was too slow. The barges were still fairly intact—it would take a week to sink them with explosives. Another way would have to be found.
When a guard shoved a white flag of surrender through a porthole, it was shot to ribbons. By noon, hundreds of additional workers were armed, and had erected clusters of steel and coal forts almost at the water’s edge. The Pinkertons huddled together, complaining bitterly and waiting for the Little Bill , or evening, or a miracle. Another guard leaped into the river. No shots were fired at him, but it was believed that he drowned before reaching the north bank.
The heat within the barge was brutal, but whenever a man gasping for air showed himself at a porthole or hatchway he was greeted by bullets. From the G.A.R. Hall in Braddock, across the river, strikers hauled out a brass cannon dating back to Antietam—a twenty-pounder used since then for holiday celebrations—and mounted it on the hill behind a camouflage of bushes. The first shot tore a hole in the roof of the outer barge. Meanwhile, the smaller cannon was firing from Homestead. Except for the first direct hit, these weapons proved ineffective. Every subsequent shot went long; and when a striker named Silas Wain, sitting innocently on a pile of beams, was beheaded by a stray cannon ball, the Braddock gun was abandoned. A formula for getting at the Pinkertons still eluded the men of Homestead.
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.
The heat and stench below decks on the Iron Mountain were intolerable by early afternoon, and water was running low. Even some hardened Pinkerton regulars were willing to throw in their cards, if they could do so and survive. Few shots were fired from the barge after midday, although it continued to be peppered by strikers hidden behind barricades. Several guards received light flesh wounds from ricochets, but the major damage was already done. Having reached Homestead (where he was ignored), Sheriff McCleary rushed back to Pittsburgh and fired off a new telegram to Harrisburg along familiar lines: “The guards have not been able to land, and the works are in possession of the mob, who are armed with rifles and pistols and are reported to have one cannon. The guards remain on the barges near landing. … The civil authorities here are powerless to meet the situation. An armed and disciplined force is needed at once to prevent further loss of life. I therefore urge immediate action on your part.”
To this plain request for militia support, Governor Pattison, a patient gentleman, responded as he had before: “How many deputies have you sworn in and what measures have you taken to enforce order and protect property? The county authorities must exhaust every means to preserve peace.”
There was no reply from McCleary. The Governor wired again in phrases more irate: “Your telegram indicates that you have not made any attempt to execute the law to enforce order, and I must insist upon you calling upon all citizens for an adequate number of deputies.” But the recruitment of deputies was out of the question, and the only current problem that really mattered was how to extricate the Pinkertons.
Rodgers craved only a few moments to bring the Little Bill alongside the port bow of the barge, attach a single line, cut her loose from the deserted Monongahela , and get under way. If he had hoped that the mob, possessed by “fiendish delight” (to employ his later description), would nevertheless abstain from desecrating a vessel showing two American flags, he was wrong. Some five hundred small arms, plus the little cannon on the Homestead side of the river- which, as usual, missed repeatedly—opened up on the tug the moment she came within range.
Two crew members were wounded at once. It was clear that nobody in the pilothouse could expose himself to such a swarm of bullets from both flanks and remain alive. The earlier episode repeated itself. Rodgers, Potter, Gray, the two wounded employees, and four others on board dropped to the deck and let the Little Bill , a splendid target, turn in slow circles. Rodgers, remarked one writer, “lay down and steered by dead—or at least dazed—reckoning” until the tug floated past Homestead and returned to Fort Perry, near Pittsburgh. Despairingly the Pinkertons within the shattered scow stared after her: their last and best hope, gone forevermore. Cheered by this latest success, the strikers again concentrated on the outer barge. A Pinkerton picked this unfortunate moment to wave a white flag and was shot down. Another guard was caught in an open doorway and shot through the right arm; the main artery was severed and he died later that afternoon. He was, it seems, the last casualty of the formal engagement. A. L. Wells, a medical student from Chicago and a volunteer guard on the expedition, was caring for the wounded Pinkertons as best he could.
The strikers’ advisory committee continued its conference in a turmoil. Superficially the situation seemed favorable: it was known that the Governor had refused, thus far, to turn out the Pennsylvania guard. Sheriff McCleary had thrown in the sponge. The Little Bill was hors de combat . Already, only about ten hours after the battle had begun, news of it had crossed the nation. Messages of sympathy from other Amalgamated members were pouring in from as far away as Texas. Yet somehow the Pinkertons had to be dealt with. Some conservatives uneasily suggested allowing the Iron Mountain to be floated down the river and out of harm’s way. They were hooted down as defeatists and even traitors. But what was to be done with the enemy? O’Donnell insisted that they should be allowed to surrender. His suggestion was unconditionally rejected; but, as the afternoon wore on, the idea of accepting the Pinkertons’ capitulation gradually took hold—at least at union headquarters.
O’Donnell walked to the shore line, where the shooting had all but stopped and the workmen were amusing themselves by throwing Roman candles, skyrockets, and other fireworks at the barges. In plain view of the Pinkertons, he addressed part of the throng with a plea for peace. Reactions were generally unfavorable. Majority sentiment was still for destroying the enemy by some brilliant method not yet concocted. O’Donnell was answered by cries of “No quarter!” “Not one must escape alive!” Nobody paid much attention to him—discipline had collapsed. He gave up and awaited the arrival of other union officials, mainly Bill Weihe, Vice President G. N. McEvoy, and President-elect William Garland.
It was three o’clock, and within the barge sentiment for surrender was mounting. A captain of detectives named Cooper asked the men to hold out until six, when he expected (for reasons unknown) another company attempt to haul the Iron Mountain free. Sullenly the Pinkertons assented, while another miserable hour passed. Those suffering from gunshot wounds could not hold out indefinitely. The Little Bill had already failed twice, and surely no one expected Captain Rodgers to make another try. As for salvation by the sheriff of Allegheny County, that was even more hopeless. Yet no more white flags were put out. Even Nordrum, watching the shore for any sign of truce or trouble, had relapsed into apathy and appears to have turned over his command to Cooper. It was up to the strikers to break the stalemate.
An impromptu meeting within the mill grounds, attended by about a thousand workers, came to nothing. The commotion was such that Weihe could not be heard. He stepped down and was followed by Garland, a heater who was scheduled to take command of the union in November. Mounting a boiler, Garland begged the strikers to disperse. “We have positive assurance,” he yelled, “that these deputies will be sent away and all we want is the statement that you will not do any more firing.” The reply was a babble of boos and imprecations—“Burn the boats!” “Kill the Pinkertonsl” “No quarter for the murderers!” Garland tried again. “For God’s sake, be reasonable. These men have killed your comrades, but it can do no good to kill more of them.” Thunderous disapproval silenced him.
McEvoy was next, and he began, “This day you have won a victory such as was never before known in the history of struggles between capital and labor. But if you do not let these men go, the militia will be sent here and you will lose all you have gained.” The word “militia” had a sobering effect, but he was interrupted by a crash of dynamite from the river. No further attention was paid to him, and in disgust he allowed the meeting to break up.
The union officials and Hugh O’Donnell were in a quandary now being aggravated by other factors which had not been anticipated. A few anarchists had arrived from Pittsburgh and were mingling with the men, and the ranks had also been infiltrated by an assortment of hard-boiled outsiders looking for a fight. Many women, especially those whose men had been killed or wounded, were wild with hate. Hundreds of Slavs—who did not understand English and could not be reasoned with—were the most bloodthirsty of all. Half a day had slipped by, with time working against the advisory committee: the forces of law and order were certain to coagulate before long. It was essential to end the affair quickly; further destruction of the enemy would do more harm than good. The strike leaders walked among the workers and tried to reason with them individually. By five o’clock the peace faction was in fair control.
Waving an incongruously small American flag, O’Donnell once more harangued the throng, demanding a cease-fire and safe-conduct for the Pinkertons. His suggestion that he be allowed to fly a truce flag was scornfully refused—the enemy would have to make the overtures. “What will we do then?” he asked, and a striker replied, “We will hold them in the boats till the Sheriff comes, and we will then swear out warrants for every man on a charge of murder.” The idea—a most unrealistic one—nevertheless received overwhelming support; more important, it indicated that both antagonists were now willing to stop the war.
The men trapped and stifling within the Iron Mountain had just voted, almost unanimously, to give themselves up. When a white handkerchief was dangled from a porthole, it was not fired upon. O’Donnell ran down the embankment, came aboard the outer barge, and was met on deck by Captain Cooper. “This is enough of the killing,” said O’Donnell; “On what terms do you wish to capitulate?” Cooper asked for assurance that there would be no violence toward the Pinkertons, and also requested permission to box the Winchesters in order to carry them to the railway depot. O’Donnell agreed and departed. The Pinkertons donned their blouses and slouch hats (ridiculous; but it seemed important to make a decent appearance), and nailed up the rifle crates.
One hundred armed strikers swarmed aboard the Iron Mountain . The situation was delicate, for the guards were still carrying pistols and a murderous battle at close range might easily have been precipitated. However, the disembarking was nonviolent. As each man emerged from below, his pistol was taken away and his blouse removed and tossed into the river. The Pinkertons submitted passively to this treatment and raised no objection even when their crates of rifles were seized. One by one they were shoved across the gangplank to congregate on the shore line. A few of the younger guards were weeping. The three hundred waited there, surrounded, while the strikers looted both barges. Cases of food were pried open and their contents passed out to women and children; mattresses, tools, cooking equipment—everything portable and of the least value—were confiscated and distributed.
After dousing the barges with barrels of Mr. Carnegie’s oil, the workers put the torch to them. Hot, dry as dust, they blazed beautifully, the process being accelerated by light northerly breezes. The crowd cheered the great flames and billows of black smoke, and cheered again when the nearby company pump house also caught fire. With surprising speed the Iron Mountain and the Monongahela burned down to their waterlines, the pump house to the ground.
Temporarily these diversions had distracted the onlookers, but now they turned their hard, collective attention upon the prisoners forlornly awaiting escort to the Homestead railroad depot. They were marched around the western edge of the plant toward deliverance, about half a mile away, fortunate that O’Donnell was an honorable man and that the crowd, at long last, was under control. They were sneered at, laughed at, sworn at, even threatened; but as they started up the long slope not a man had been touched.
Bedlam did not break loose until the first captives were halfway up the hill, when a few were slapped across the face. Next, clubs were used, and children pelted the prisoners with rocks. Then the women started in. One shoved an umbrella into a Pinkerton’s eye and poked it out. When a guard dropped to his knees in tears and begged for mercy he was kicked sprawling; while trying to flee he was clubbed into unconsciousness. Blocked right and left by the mob, the Pinkertons were unable to break through and escape. One striker carefully slugged one captive after another behind the ear with a large stone wrapped in leather, tied to the end of a short rope. An elderly gray-haired Pinkerton man, already streaming blood, was shown no more mercy than the others; and while in general those suffering from bullet wounds were spared, a few received additional whacks for good measure.
Reluctantly, young John Holway started up the embankment, appalled at what was taking place ahead of him. Three strikers knocked him down. “You have killed two men this morning,” said one; “I saw you!” As they shoved Holway up the hill, he was hit in the head by a stone. He decided to make a break for it. He bulled his way through the crowd and began to run, pursued by perhaps a hundred people. In his words: “I ran down a side street and ran through a yard. I ran about half a mile, I suppose, but was rather weak and had had nothing to eat or drink, and my legs gave out, could not run any further, and some man got hold of me by the back of my coat, and about 20 or 30 men came up and kicked me and pounded me with stones. I had no control of myself then. I thought I was about going and commenced to scream, and there were 2 or 3 strikers with rifles rushed up then and kept off the crowd. …” Ironically, Holway does not appear to have fired a shot all day.
Sand was thrown into the eyes of some of the Pinkertons, temporarily blinding them. Most of the Slavs disdained weapons; they simply grabbed men around the neck and punched their faces with bare fists. Over forty victims, severely pounded and unable to move, were dragged toward the skating rink and its adjacent theatre, while the rest staggered on. A few were divested of their money and watches. One striker pumped a bullet into a guard named Connors and then clubbed him; another bashed in the head of a wounded man with the butt end of a musket. Both victims died that evening. One Pinkerton may have lost his mind as a result of his beating, for he killed himself with a pocketknife.
In tiny print two days later the New York Tribune meticulously listed the dead and wounded: “Peter S. Prash, kicked in the back and badly cut back of right ear … J. Emmet, New York, shot in the body in three places with buckshot, and struck on right ear with a club … Edward Milstead, Chicago, mouth terribly bruised and lacerated …”—the list went on for 118 lines. Hardly a man among the Pinkertons avoided injury. Hugh O’Donnell and other Amalgamated members were struck and bruised in attempting to protect the Pinkertons, but they were able to save many of them from further mistreatment.
Without food or water the Pinkertons were shoved into the town theatre, which was surrounded by armed strikers. Their job was to keep the prisoners in and the mob out. The Slavs, by and large, were in favor of murdering all the captives, a solution rejected as too extreme. Meanwhile members of the advisory committee were in earnest conversation with Sheriff McCleary at the county courthouse. It was important to hospitalize the more severe casualties, and the possibility of another violent outbreak still existed. Early in the evening they agreed that the Sheriff and twelve unarmed deputies would be allowed to escort the Pinkertons to the West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh. McCleary, William Weihe, and Amalgamated attorney W. J. Brennen left for Homestead by train, after the Sheriff had failed to round up a single deputy.
The debate outside the theatre was still in lively progress. Assuming that all the Pinkertons were not to be slaughtered, which in particular should be selected for a mock trial and then hanged? How many others should be held as hostages? Eventually Weihe managed to stop all this nonsense, but it was after midnight when the Pinkertons were placed, not without difficulties and further unpleasantness, aboard a special five-car train which carried them to Pittsburgh and out of history. As it huffed from the station, its battered occupants were given three sarcastic cheers.
It is difficult to estimate the casualties emanating from this episode, one of the most sanguinary in American labor annals. Sources differ; and men continued to die here and there for weeks to come. Bullets, beatings, drowning, and suicide brought the death toll to approximately nine strikers and seven Pinkertons. Some forty strikers and twenty Pinkertons were shot, and nearly all of the Pinkertons were injured in varying degrees while running the gantlet.
The workers had won the battle but not, by any means, the war. Events had forced Governor Pattison’s hand, and with utmost reluctance he ordered the state militia to Homestead on July 11. Under its protection, imported strikebreakers seeped into the mill. Meanwhile, at every other Carnegie plant all employees had walked out on sympathy strikes. For weeks the entire company was idle, but in time the new men (the use of whom Mr. Carnegie had formerly deplored time and again, in print) pushed the production curve almost back to normal.
Stubbornly but with decreasing hope the strikers—a total of thirteen thousand now—held out. An unsuccessful attempt by a lone-wolf anarchist named Alexander Berkman to murder Frick harmed their cause badly. When the strike finally collapsed in November, thirty-five men were dead as a result of the July 6 battle and subsequent violence. The Amalgamated was smashed locally and, except on paper, nationally. Wages in all Carnegie mills were cut even more brutally than Frick had promised in June. The average slash (on a tonnage basis) came to about fifty per cent. For example, a heater’s helper earning $0.0485 per ton in February, 1892, was receiving $0.0222 per ton in February, 1894. The twelve-hour day was enforced with a vengeance, and all members of the union’s advisory committee were black-listed for life throughout the iron and steel industry.
Many so-called anti-Pinkerton state laws, plus soulsearching within the agency itself, ended the role of “detectives” as armies-for-hire after Homestead, although individual agents continued to operate in a big way as spies among the steelworkers.
Company profits soared spectacularly, reaching $40,000,000 net in the year 1900, as against $4,300,000 in 1891 and (curiously) almost the same amount in 1892. In 1901 a supertrust, the United States Steel Corporation, was organized by J. P. Morgan, with the Carnegie grouping as its backbone. Steelworkers struck time and again after the Homestead debacle. They always lost. The nonunion era ended finally in 1936, when the Steel Workers Organization Committee—soon to be part of the C.I.O.—reorganized the workers. Following this victory, a tall, somber monument was erected at Eighth and West streets in Homestead. It still stands, and its inscription reads: