In the Shadow of the Steel Mill
In the Shadow of the Steel Mill
The 176-acre Edgar Thomson Steel Works sits on the banks of the Monongahela River, ten miles outside Pittsburgh. Its presence is felt everywhere in Braddock, its smokestacks visible at the end of every street, around every corner, churning out steel slabs almost around the clock, as has been the case for more than a century.
With the completion of the mill in 1875, one of the first few Bessemer mills in the United States, Andrew Carnegie launched what was then named Carnegie, McCandless & Company, what would become the largest steel company in the world. Carnegie—who had already made a fortune for himself as an investor in the railroad industry—became convinced of steel’s profit potential during a trip to England in 1872, where he observed a new and relatively inexpensive method for the mass production of steel rails: the Bessemer process, in which molten pig iron, a crude and brittle iron with a high carbon content, is transformed into steel by injecting it with a blast of air that removes its impurities. Within months of his return, Carnegie began construction on the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, strategically named for the then-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, with whom Carnegie wanted to curry favor.
One of the earliest Bessemer plants in the United States, Edgar Thomson had a distinct advantage over its competition. Carnegie had hired a man named Alexander Holley as the plant’s engineer. Holley was an expert in the Bessemer process, having worked with competitors such as the Cambria Iron Company in Johnston, Pennsylvania. As the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette noted at the time, Holley’s improvements on Bessemer plant design in those early years made Edgar Thomson “the most perfect establishment of the kind in the world.” Allegheny County was rich in resources for producing and trading steel: Charles Simcoe, a historian for the professional metals and materials engineering association, ASM International, wrote for the organization’s Advanced Materials & Processes publication in 2014 that the nearby coal fields in Connellsville “produced the finest metallurgical coke in the world.” (“Coke” is coal that has been heated in the absence of oxygen to remove impurities and is used as fuel in blast furnaces.) And Edgar Thomson’s proximity to the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroads, as well as the confluence of the Monongahela, Ohio, and Allegheny rivers, made it easy to transport both raw materials and completed rails.
The mill’s tremendous production capacity was due to the genius of its general manager, Captain William R. Jones, who was responsible for several innovations to increase efficiency, including a method for transporting molten metal from the blast furnaces to Bessemer converters. As historian Jonathan Rees wrote in the Pennsylvania History journal in 1997, “Total Bessemer rail production in the United States went from 6,451 tons in 1868 to 1,187,770 in 1881,” thanks in large part to Edgar Thomson’s contributions. The mill’s success changed the face of the steel industry and paved the way for industrial growth in America. Bessemer steel was far stronger than wrought iron and more resistant to wear, a perfect choice for the railroad. Carnegie spent the next several years building a regional network of mills, coke plants, and blast furnaces to form the Carnegie Steel Company.
Edgar Thomson also transformed the town of Braddock, then a largely agrarian community that was best known as the site where General Edward Braddock was killed during the French and Indian War in 1755. Thanks to the presence of the mill, Braddock began to thrive, with immigrants moving from all over the world to work in the mill. They formed enclaves, separated block by block; so-called unskilled workers—mainly Eastern European and Italian immigrants and African American men—lived in tenement-style housing close to the mill, while the mostly Northern European skilled workers lived a little further up the hill, and executives resided still further away. Merchants and entrepreneurs from throughout the region poured into Braddock to meet the needs of its new residents, opening restaurants, saloons, and general stores.
Daily life in Braddock was closely tied to the working hours of the men at the steelworks, which fluctuated throughout the plant’s early years according to the whims of Carnegie and the steel market. In 1879, Jones, the mill’s beloved general manager, persuaded Carnegie to reduce the plant’s 12-hour workday to 8. He knew that working in the mill under its dangerous conditions—with workers constantly breathing poisonous fumes, handling molten metal, and operating heavy machinery without any safeguards in place—was tough both physically and mentally. Workers never really knew if they would make it through the day alive, so they could often be found blowing off steam by gambling and drinking after work. The general manager argued that a shorter workday would make workers not just happier, but also more productive. Carnegie agreed. For years, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had seen Carnegie as a friend to labor: he supported the union, he was regularly one of the first to agree to its wage scales, and he reduced the workday on Jones’s advice.
But Carnegie’s friendliness toward the steelworkers’ union didn’t last long. Within a decade, Carnegie saw that the steel industry had changed. “Carnegie Steel once had by far the greatest production capacity in the world, but by the late 1880s this was no longer the case,” Rees writes. “Several mills across the country could match Carnegie’s capacity, the most noteworthy being the Duquesne Works of the Allegheny Bessemer Steel Company.” Seeking to cut costs, Carnegie reverted to the 12-hour workday, cut wages, and used Pinkerton security guards to break a strike and force the union—which by then had been replaced by the Knights of Labor—out of the mill entirely in 1888.
That same year, the steel tycoon opened the Braddock Carnegie Library, the first of his more than 2,500 public and academic libraries worldwide, which he created out of the belief that people with access to books could find success just as he had. According to the library’s 2012 nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, the library also “enabled Carnegie (who was known to be sensitive about his public image) to offer the community compensation for the total capitulation of his workers.” The Romanesque, two-story, half-acre library doubled as a community center, where members could play billiards, host meetings, and even swim. Workers often came to shower before heading home for the day—though their workday gave them little time to do much else.
After moving against the union in Braddock, Carnegie next looked to other entities in his corporation, including the Homestead Steel Works. Located just across the Monongahela River from Braddock, the Homestead plant was the first in the country to install the open-hearth furnace (a method of removing impurities from pig iron that was more efficient and easier to control than the Bessemer process) and eventually became one of the company’s largest. In 1892, Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, president of the Carnegie Steel Company, sought to break the union at Homestead as they had in Braddock. When the Homestead workers went on strike to protest for their wages, Frick again brought in the Pinkertons, the private police force often used to break up labor disputes at the turn of the century. In Homestead, this led to violence and chaos as the steelworkers took arms against the Pinkertons, and nine strikers and seven Pinkertons were killed.
For years, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had seen Carnegie as a friend to labor. But Carnegie’s friendliness toward the steelworkers’ union didn’t last long.
What made things different just across the river at Edgar Thomson? While there are many complex factors at play, one of them is simply the history of these respective towns. “Braddock really was developed as a company town,” says Ron Baraff, director of historic resources and facilities at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Carnegie’s mill created Braddock and controlled its politics. Carnegie also embraced the town’s ethnically stratified society, which kept immigrants from speaking the same language, let alone banding together to fight for better wages. Meanwhile, Homestead was a bigger and more established community with other sources of industry. “It sets the course so that when Carnegie is looking to eradicate the unions, it’s really pretty easy in Braddock,” Baraff explains.
In 1901, Carnegie sold his empire for $480 million (over $12 billion today) to J.P. Morgan’s United States Steel Corporation, retiring to become a philanthropist. US Steel spent the next several decades deepening Braddock’s reputation as a company town. US Steel built a safety program at the mill, improved sanitation for the town, sponsored industrial training in Braddock high schools, and offered “Americanization” classes to Eastern European immigrant workers. Like many other steel plants at the time, Edgar Thomson also brought on board a welfare worker to cut down on the turnover among African American employees, who were relegated to the most laborious and dangerous jobs in the mill like backbreaking shoveling and puddling, the stirring of molten pig iron. All this served to further strengthen the bonds between Braddock residents and their mill. Though the Steel Workers Organizing Committee began building a new national union in 1936, it would never again be strong in Braddock.
Still, the town itself continued to flourish. Its main street boomed throughout the early 20th century, particularly after the US entered World War II and required steel for weapons and ammunition. Braddock Avenue was lined with hotels, clothing stores, banks, streetcar lines, and restaurants that catered to business executives. Throngs of people came from throughout the region to shop in Braddock, which had everything you needed without having to go into Pittsburgh. The town had its own hospital, and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and dentists moved into the homes up the hill from the mill. At the end of the war, about 18,000 people lived in Braddock.
Braddock residents scheduled their lives around the plant. “The steel mill was like the father figure,” says Ellie Wymard, the author of 2007’s Talking Steel Towns: The Men and Women of America's Steel Valley and the granddaughter of a Edgar Thomson worker. Women kept their homes running and their family life going, even with their husbands gone for half the day. (During World War II, some single mothers worked at the mill, too.) Restaurants on Braddock Avenue stayed open around the clock so that anyone coming off the night shift at Edgar Thomson could still get a roast beef sandwich. Men who lived or worked in town would have to change their white shirts (if they dared to wear them) several times a day, and locals would wash their walls once a year to clean the persistent soot floating in from the melting pig iron in Edgar Thomson’s open-hearth furnaces. Shoppers on Braddock Avenue could see the smoke coming off the smokestacks and feel the dust accumulate around them. Teenagers took their dates up to the hills of North Braddock at night for a view of the blast furnaces, which created what looked like a fireworks display. From far up on the hill, families could hear whenever the mill whistle was blown, indicating that a worker had been injured or killed.
By the 1970s, the southwestern Pennsylvania town was confronted with a social shift that had hit the whole country: suburbanization. Men who had returned from World War II were starting to earn more, thanks to friendlier labor laws and the resurgence of unions. They were also taking advantage of GI Bill–protected home loans and moving out of Braddock to escape the pollution of the mill. Little by little, Wymard says, the jewelers and the banks started to close on Braddock Avenue. Over the decades that followed, Braddock lost 90 percent of its population, a decline that’s chronicled in the Topic documentary series Braddock, PA.
The African American population in Braddock was hardest hit by these changes. African American steel workers had just fought for and obtained better jobs in the steel mill; as Braddock-based filmmaker Tony Buba’s 1998 documentary Struggles in Steel points out, these workers won a consent decree from nine steel companies in 1974 to address the future hiring and past discrimination against women and minorities. But, Baraff explains, many didn’t yet have the savings—or the seniority—to rebound. Racist redlining policies also prevented many black families from buying homes in the suburbs, such as North Versailles and Forest Hills. Many families were simply too poor to leave the shadow of the mill, forced to stay and suffer its consequences. “The history of a place is written on the body and the landscape,” said Braddock-born artist and historian LaToya Ruby Frazier in her 2015 TED Talk about inequality in industrial America. “Areas of heavy truck traffic, exposure to benzene and atomized metals, risk cancer and lupus.”
Little by little, the jewelers and the banks started to close on Braddock Avenue. Over the decades that followed, the town lost 90 percent of its population.
This is where Braddock’s fate diverges from that of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the American steel industry had begun to falter, in large part because of critical stagnations in technological innovation coupled with aggressive foreign competition. In 1982, the New York Times reported the damage: “The American steel industry, operating at under 50 percent of capacity, has had one of its worst years since the end of World War II, and steel shipments are expected to reach only 62 million tons for 1982, compared with 87 million last year. Nearly half of the nation's 450,000 steelworkers have been laid off, and half of those on layoff are not expected to work in the industry again.” US Steel closed many of its plants—including the Homestead Steel Works, which at that point was its most productive plant—and was forced to make expensive technological upgrades to those that remained.
But Edgar Thomson was one of the mills that made it through. Though US Steel threatened every now and again to shutter the plant, instead, in 1992, the company installed a $250 million continuous caster, which converts liquid steel directly into slabs, giving Edgar Thomson what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described as “a new lease on life.” Though it was no longer Carnegie’s Bessemer mill of the 1870s, Edgar Thomson remained responsible for nearly a quarter of US Steel’s entire production and is still one of the most productive mills in the country today, despite operating at about 10 percent of its original workforce. Instead of railroad rails, CNN Money reports that now “half of global steel production goes into buildings and infrastructure,” as well as mechanical equipment, cars, and more.
Why did Edgar Thompson survive rather than the more productive Homestead mill? Baraff notes that while there’s always the sentimental explanation—US Steel wanted to save the place that started it all—what’s more likely is that Braddock saved Edgar Thomson. Baraff argues that Braddock was tapped for the upgrade rather than the more productive Homestead mill across the river because it is more compact, making it easier to convert to the continuous caster. “But a lot of it came down to what was happening in Homestead in the ’70s and ’80s that was very much anti-corporation,” he says. Homestead never forgot its infamous and bloody strike. So, just as had been the case at the turn of the century, US steel would have found Braddock’s union friendlier than Homestead’s. In short: Braddock was simply the easier choice.
Today, Edgar Thomson employs 400 people, which is all it needs due to the mechanized nature of the work. These workers mostly commute in from outside Braddock’s city limits; very few Braddock residents work at the mill now. “Folks don’t need to live in the shadow of the mill anymore,” Baraff says. So Braddock leadership is casting about for new industries to redefine and revitalize the municipality for the modern era. Under the watch of Mayor John Fetterman, the town has courted the creative class, bringing in breweries, theater companies, and an urban farm, as well as the medical-marijuana industry. Fetterman has also, controversially, supported the idea of fracking on the Edgar Thomson site. But while each of these industries would start a whole new rhythm in Braddock, the mill will always be part of the town’s identity. For newcomers, the grittiness of the industrial site can be part of its allure—and in 2015, Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa announced that he was opening a restaurant across the street from Edgar Thomson. He described the clanging mill as “purring.” Meanwhile, families that have called Braddock home for generations are still suffering its environmental consequences in the form of asthma, cancer, and other diseases. It’s impossible to escape the shadow of Edgar Thomson.
Follow the Monongahela River southeast from Pittsburgh to Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel town whose residents forged America—and paid for it with their lives. The city and its surrounding area have one of the highest cancer rates in the country, and a history of health outcomes split along color lines. Braddock (population: less than 2,000) is also home to people who are determined to stick around and improve their lives and the lives of their neighbors.