’Hell with the lid off’: Pittsburgh emerges into the Gilded Age – Life-style – Ellwood Metropolis Ledger

By World War I, Pittsburgh was the eighth-largest city in the country. Its mills accounted for nearly one-half of the nation’s steel output. From its early history as a key strategic location during the French & Indian War, the city had emerged as a legitimate American powerhouse.

Last week in Histories & Mysteries, we explored the history of Pittsburgh, from its inception to the Great Fire of 1847.

The fire represented both tragedy and triumph for the city in the long run. Despite losing more than half of its buildings to the blaze, Pittsburgh soon rose from the ashes to emerge as America’s most vital industrial city.

That’s where we pick up the story today, on the cusp of Pittsburgh’s rise into the city once described by Boston writer James Parton as “Hell with the Lid Off.”



Of all the random objects that we would expect to credit with Pittsburgh’s rebirth post-fire, potatoes would be pretty low on the list. However, without potatoes — or, more specifically, a lack of potatoes — Pittsburgh would have missed out on a key factor in its revival.

Right around the same time that Pittsburghers were sifting through the ashes of what used to be their city, Ireland was experiencing a tragedy of another sort. The Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, was a period of horrific starvation and disease on the Irish island. Beginning in 1845, a potato blight destroyed nearly half of the Irish potato crop.

The potato famine was responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million people in Ireland alone. With life looking even bleaker than usual, close to another million citizens of Ireland decided to set out on the high seas and wave goodbye to their ancestral homeland. The majority of them wound up in New York, where they would settle in and around the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan. Nearly 15,000 immigrants moved further west to Pittsburgh, where the demand for manual and skilled labor jobs greatly outpaced the supply of workers.

Irish immigrants were skilled at masonry and carpentry, two key needs at the time. They helped rebuild Pittsburgh from smoldering ruins virtually overnight. They were joined by thousands of Germans and Welsh who had been attracted to the region by its coal mining and iron works. In 1840, Pittsburgh had been home to just over 21,000 people. By 1855, nearly 50,000 were calling the city home.

Civil War

To be frank, slavery never really had a home in Pittsburgh. In 1780, Pennsylvania had become the first state to pass an Abolition Act that outlawed generational slavery. From that point forward, all children born to slave mothers were born free. This law also stated that no new slaves could be imported into the state. By 1810, there were less than 800 total slaves residing in Pennsylvania, and only a handful in Allegheny County.

Pittsburgh became an example of a truly free city, a beacon of hope to escaped slaves and abolitionists around the country. The Underground Railroad flourished in the city, with such establishments as the Merchants Hotel and Monongahela House acting as clearinghouses to sneak escaped slaves to Canada. Many others simply stayed in Pittsburgh and set down roots, ignoring the constant fear of bounty hunters as best they could.

By 1860, there were more than 8,000 free African-Americans living in Allegheny County. That same year, all hell broke loose in the United States. The 1860 presidential election, considered a referendum on the future of slavery, was dominated by the anti-slavery Republican Party. As Abraham Lincoln prepared to take office in early 1861, seven slave states with cotton-based economies declared succession and formed the Confederate States of America.

As the Civil War began, Pittsburgh became ground zero for the production of iron and armaments for the Union cause. Ready access to iron ore, coal, and other natural resources, along with the railroad infrastructure built during the 1850s, were pivotal in the city’s role as a defense capital of the north.

So valuable was Pittsburgh that it was considered a prime target for attack by Confederate forces coming up through the Ohio Valley. In 1863, the U.S. War Department created the Department of the Monongahela to establish a Union presence in the city. Under the leadership of Maj. Gen. William T.H. Brooks, the citizenry was ordered to build forts along the high peaks surrounding the rivers. Several were erected by free blacks and by employees of various industrial mills.

The Allegheny Arsenal, built in 1814 in what is now Lawrenceville, was the primary location for the manufacture of armaments in the north. It supplied nearly 15 percent of the Army’s annual small arms ammunition, as well as everything from saddles to swords, chains, canteens and blunt-force weapons.

The Fort Pitt Foundry, located in the Strip District, produced the huge iron castings for howitzers and mortars. Singer, Nimick & Co. manufactured rifles for the Army in its warehouse near the Point. Along the rivers, four ironclads were built entirely in Pittsburgh for the Union Navy. Armor for the Union shipyards in New York and Philadelphia was produced in the rolling mills along the Allegheny River.

Pittsburgh was booming in wartime production, just as it would in both World Wars during the next century. This temporary industry drew even more people to the city prior to 1865.

The Young Industrialists

The Civil War also bolstered the rise of several key men who would later emerge as the titans of Pittsburgh industry.

Andrew Carnegie had spent the previous decade working for the Pennsylvania Railroad under the watchful eye of general superintendent Thomas A. Scott. Carnegie started out as a telegraph operator for the railroad, later being promoted by Scott to superintendent of the Western Division at just 24 years old. Railroads were the internet of the age and Carnegie was at the forefront, allowing him to accumulate the capital that would later fuel his own enterprises.

When the war broke out, Scott was appointed by President Lincoln as assistant secretary of war. He once again turned to his protg Carnegie, naming him superintendent of the Military Railways & Union Telegraphs. In this position, Carnegie was responsible for securing the supply and communication lines for the Union’s entire eastern network. This position also allowed him to continue building his contact book, which would come in handy once the country returned to peacetime. In 1864, he became an early investor in the Columbia Oil Co. of Venango County, which would make him a millionaire in short order.

In 1865, with the war over, Carnegie left the railroad industry to concentrate on developing his own iron companies. He founded the Keystone Bridge Co. (later merged into American Bridge Co.), the Union Ironworks, and began tinkering with the idea of a steel rolling mill. A trip to his native Europe in 1872 introduced Carnegie to the Bessemer process of steel production, the first low-cost method of manufacturing this lifeblood resource.

Upon returning to Pittsburgh, he founded the firm Carnegie, McCandless & Co. Purchasing land near the historic site of Braddock’s Field, Carnegie began constructing his first steel plant — the Edgar Thompson Steel Works. In 1883, the firm purchased the Homestead Steel Works and several other competitors and reorganized as Carnegie Steel. In 1901, this entire conglomerate was merged into the new U.S. Steel Corp. by J.P. Morgan.

While much older than Carnegie, Benjamin Franklin Jones also was instrumental in the growth of Pittsburgh during the late-19th century. After growing up in New Brighton, Jones went to Pittsburgh in 1842 to find his calling. Just 18 years old, he hooked on with the company of Samuel Kier, who was then manufacturing canal boats for the busy river industry. Kier made Jones a partner in his business, which also included an iron furnace in Indiana County.

In 1850, the two men abandoned the canal boat business and went their separate ways. Jones, intrigued by iron production and the wealth it could build, founded the American Iron Co. with new partner Bernard Lauth. Two years later, Lauth departed the firm and sold his interest out to James H. Laughlin. Jones and Laughlin then chartered a banking institution, the First National Bank of Pittsburgh. Today, this is PNC Financial Services Group, known colloquially as PNC Bank.

In 1860, the two men purchased land along the Monongahela River. Directly across from the American Iron Works, they built two blast furnaces — known as the “Eliza” furnaces — for the production of pig iron. This new mill complex was in operation in time to begin wartime production for the Union cause. Cut nails, spikes, armor for ironclad ships and munitions were all produced by the firm during the war.

In 1883, the company made the decision to go into steel production. It built three Bessemer converters, all of which were in production by August 1886. The firm was renamed the American Iron & Steel Works, a name that would stick until 1902. By that time, the company’s mills had grown to completely encompass both sides of the Mon River.

On June 2, 1902, the company was reorganized into the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. It soon became the largest single employer in the Pittsburgh area.

Pittsburgh’s population swelled during the period of 1890-1910, with a constant influx of immigrants arriving to work in the new mills. A city that was home to just 150,000 people in 1880 ballooned to more than half a million by 1910. The constant smog that hung over the city was welcomed and even celebrated. That smog meant that men were working, and that food was on the table. Life was good.

Growing Pains

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Pittsburgh, however.

After the Civil War, the national economy hit a downturn as the country returned to peacetime production levels. This all came to a head in 1873 with the start of a period known as the Long Depression.

While wealthy industrialists like Carnegie, Jones, Morgan and George Westinghouse were able to weather the storm and continue buildings toward the future, regular working people struggled mightily. More than 18,000 companies went bankrupt in 1873 alone, including close to 100 railroads — the backbone of the American economy.

The depression hit its height in 1877 with the Great Railroad Strike. This began in Martinsburg, W.Va., where the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut wages three times within one calendar year. A riot occurred, which had to be quelled by local militia and federal troops from Washington, D.C. This carried over to cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and, of course, Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh, it was the employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad who went on strike. Nearly 12,000 of them united in protest of cut wages and rule changes that eliminated half of the jobs they relied upon. The riot lasted more than a week, shut down the city’s economy, and ended with more than 50 men, women and children losing their lives. We will have an extended look at the Pennsylvania Railroad Strike in a future edition of Histories & Mysteries.

The 1880s saw a rebounding economy and the rise of the Gilded Age, a time of opulence and social lifestyles. Pittsburgh acquired a professional baseball team, which played its games in Allegheny City. This team later became the Pittsburgh Pirates. The iconic Joseph Horne Co. building was completed in 1881, followed by the opening of Kauffman’s Department Store in 1885. The Society pages of local newspapers were filled with stories of garden parties, exclusive weddings and banquets honoring the rich and powerful. The sale of expensive brandy and imported cigars went through the roof. Pittsburgh was riding high on the hog.

Then, another hiccup. In July 1892, a lockout and strike occurred at the Homestead Steel Works. The Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Workers, an early labor union, was attempting to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with Henry Clay Frick, chairman of Carnegie Steel. When negotiations failed, Frick locked the union out of the mill.

On July 20, the union formally declared a strike. Battle lines were drawn as the union men and sympathetic townspeople attempted to keep the company from reopening with strikebreakers. Frick brought in Pinkerton agents — essentially, a private army — to fight for the company. A firefight on July 6 saw four people killed and many more wounded. It was one of the bloodiest labor disputes in American history and was viewed as a major defeat for unionization in the steel industry.

The events of the Pennsylvania Railroad Strike and the Homestead Steel Strike were tragic, but it did not stop the rise of Pittsburgh into America’s most important steel center. More than 40,000 people were employed in steel production in the city by 1900.

By World War I, Pittsburgh was the eighth-largest city in the country. Its mills accounted for nearly one-half of the nation’s steel output. From its early history as a key strategic location during the French & Indian War, the city had emerged as a legitimate American powerhouse.

Jeffrey Snedden writes a regular history column for GateHouse Media sister paper The Beaver County Times.

Comments are closed.