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Annals of Work: Making iron and steel at Homestead
“A cold, thin October rain was falling as I took the little ferry-boat and crossed the Monongahela River to see Homestead and its iron-mills,” Hamlin Garland wrote in the early 1890s. “On the flats close to the water's edge were severe masses of great sheds, out of which grim smoke-stacks rose with a desolate effect, like the black stumps of a burned forest of great trees. Above them dense clouds of sticky smoke rolled heavily away.”
Homestead was the headquarters of the ferrous empire of Andrew Carnegie, the immigrant from Scotland who had succeeded beyond the dreams of ambition. Garland was an American Midwesterner, a “son of the Middle Border,” as he called himself, a bard of the rural life Carnegie and his ilk were displacing at the heart of the American dream. He instinctively recoiled at Homestead and what it stood for.
“The streets of the town were horrible; the buildings were poor; the sidewalks were sunken, swaying, and full of holes, and the crossings were sharp-edged stones set like rocks in a river bed. Everywhere the yellow mud of the street lay kneaded into a sticky mass, through which groups of pale, lean men slouched in faded garments, grimy with the soot and grease of the mills.”
The people of Homestead were as off-putting as their surroundings. “The people were mainly of the discouraged and sullen type to be found everywhere where labor passes into the brutalizing stage of severity. It had the disorganized and incoherent effect of a town which has feeble public spirit. Big industries at differing eras have produced squads of squalid tenement-houses far from the central portion of the town, each plant bringing its gangs of foreign laborers in raw masses to camp down like an army around its shops. Such towns are sown thickly over the hill-lands of Pennsylvania, but this was my first descent into one of them. They are American only in the sense in which they represent the American idea of business.”
Garland had engaged a guide, a young man resident in Homestead and familiar with its workings. They entered the works where finished beams were produced. “On every side lay thousands of tons of iron,” Garland wrote. “There came toward us a group of men pushing a cart laden with girders for building. They were lean men, pale and grimy. The rain was falling upon them. They wore a look of stoical indifference, though one or two of the younger fellows were scuffling as they pushed behind the car. Farther on was heard the crashing thunder of falling iron plates, the hoarse coughing of great engines, and the hissing of steam. Suddenly through the gloom I caught sight of the mighty up-soaring of saffron and sapphire flame, which marked the draught of the furnace of the Bessemer steel plant far down toward the water. It was a magnificent contrast to the dusky purple of the great smoky roofs below.”
They entered the beam mill. “It was an immense shed, open at the sides, and filled with a mixed and intricate mass of huge machinery,” Garland wrote. “On every side tumultuous action seemed to make every inch of ground dangerous. Savage little engines went rattling about among piles of great beams. Dimly on my left were huge engines, moving with thunderous pounding.”
The guide suddenly grabbed Garland by the arm and pulled him behind a sheltering column. “The furious scream of a saw broke forth, the monstrous exaggeration of a circular wood-saw—a saw that melted its way through a beam of solid iron with deafening outcry, producing a gigantic glowing wheel of spattering sparks of golden fire,” Garland wrote. “While it lasted all else was hid from sight.”
The guide directed him toward the soaking pits, where the ingots were heated for rolling. “We moved toward the mouths of the pits, where a group of men stood with long shovels and bars in their hands. They were touched with orange light, which rose out of the pits. The pits looked like wells or cisterns of white-hot metal. The men signalled a boy, and the huge covers, which hung on wheels, were moved to allow them to peer in at the metal. They threw up their elbows before their eyes, to shield their faces from the heat, while they studied the ingots within.”
Garland knew hard labor from his days on the farm, but he had never seen anything like this. “I watched the men as they stirred the deeps beneath,” he said. “I could not help admiring the swift and splendid action of their bodies. They had the silence and certainty one admires in the tiger's action. I dared not move for fear of flying metal, the swift swing of a crane, or the sudden lurch of a great carrier. The men could not look out for me. They worked with a sort of desperate attention and alertness.”
Garland remarked to one of the men—Joe, the guide called him—that the work looked hard.
“Hard!” replied Joe. “I guess it's hard. I lost forty pounds the first three months I came into this business. It sweats the life out of a man. I often drink two buckets of water during twelve hours; the sweat drips through my sleeves, and runs down my legs and fills my shoes.”
Yet Joe took pride in his strength. “It's all the work I want, and I'm no chicken—feel that arm,” he said to Garland, offering the extremity.
“I felt his arm,” Garland wrote. “It was like a billet of steel. His abdomen was like a sheet of boiler iron.”
Joe conceded he sometimes got tired. “The tools I handle weigh one hundred and fifty pounds, and four o'clock in August they weigh about a ton,” he said.
“When do you eat?” asked Garland. The guide had said the men worked twelve-hour shifts.
“I have a bucket of grub; I eat when I can. We have no let-up for eating. This job I'm on now isn't so bad as it might be, for we're running easy; but when we're running full, it's all I can stand."
The guide took Garland to another part of the works. “We went on into the boiler-plate mills, still noisier, still more grandiose in effect,” Garland wrote. “The rosy slabs of iron were taken from the white-hot furnaces by a crane (on which a man sat and swung, moving with it, guiding it) quite as in the beam mill. They were dropped upon a similar set of travellers; but as they passed through the rollers a man flung a shovelful of salt upon them, and each slab gave off a terrific exploding roar, like a hundred guns sounding together. As they passed to and fro, they grew thinner in form and richer in tone. The water which sprayed them ran about, fled and returned in dark spatters, like flocks of frightened spiders. The sheet warped and twisted, and shot forward with a menacing action which made me shiver.”
The converting mill, where the iron was transformed into steel, came next. “A fountain of sparks arose, gorgeous as ten thousand rockets, and fell with a beautiful curve, like the petals of some enormous flower,” Garland wrote. “Overhead the beams were glowing orange in a base of purple. The men were yellow where the light struck them, violet in shadow. Wild shouts resounded amid the rumbling of an overhead train, and the squeal of a swift little engine, darting in and out laden with the completed castings. The pot began to burn with a whiter flame. Its fluttering, humming roar silenced all else.”
“It is nearly ready to pour,” said Garland’s guide. “The carbon is nearly burnt away.”
“Why does it burn so ferociously?”
“Through the pivot a blast of oxygen is delivered with an enormous pressure,” the guide explained. “This unites with the silicon and carbon and carries it away to the surface. He'd better pour now, or the metal will burn.”
A crane swung a giant ladle, which slowly tipped, apparently of its own accord. “Out of it streamed the smooth flow of terribly beautiful molten metal,” Garland wrote. “As it ran nearly empty and the ladle swung away, the dripping slag fell to the ground exploding, leaping viciously, and the scene became gorgeous beyond belief, with orange and red and green flame.”
“The men call this the death-trap," the guide observed. “They wipe a man out here every little while.”
Garland asked how the men died.
“All kinds of ways. Sometimes a chain breaks, and a ladle tips over, and the iron explodes—like that.” The guide pointed to the emptied ladle, from which drippings of molten steel fell into water beneath, and exploded like grenades. “Sometimes the slag falls on the workmen from that roadway up there,” the guide said, pointing. “Of course, if everything is working all smooth and a man watches out, why, all right. But you take it after they've been on duty twelve hours without sleep, and running like hell, everybody tired and loggy, and it's a different story.”
At the plate mill, Garland’s attention was drawn to another great crane, which seemed a monstrous creature. “A man perched upon it like a monkey on the limb of a tree,” Garland wrote. “And the creature raised, swung, lowered, shot out, opened its monstrous beak, seized the slab of iron, retreated, lifted, swung and dropped it upon the carriers. It was like a living thing, some strange creature unabashed by heat or heavy weights. To get in its way meant death.”
At the rail mill, glowing metal rails snaked past workers who wrestled them into place. "Sometimes they break, and then they sweep things,” said the guide matter-of-factly. The things that got swept evidently included men.
“His words pictured the swing of a red-hot scythe,” Garland remarked. He wondered how anyone survived.
“You don't notice any old men here," the guide said, again matter-of-factly. He himself had noticed, and had left the mills. “I finally came to the decision that I'd peddle groceries rather than kill myself at this business."
“Why do men keep on?” asked Garland.
"The common hands do it because they need a job,” the guide said. “And fellows like Joe expect to be one of the high-paid men."
"How much would that be per year?"
"Three thousand or possibly four thousand a year." This was six to eight times what the common workers made.
"Does that pay for what it takes out of you?"
"I don't think it does," the guide said. “Still, a man has got to go into something."
Hamlin supposed so. He added his own wry verdict: “Upon such toil rests the splendor of American civilization.”
Source: Hamlin Garland, “Homestead and its Perilous Trades—Impressions of a Visit,” McClure’s Magazine, June 1894.