The Steel City Rises

During the late 19th century, the industry that helped build a nation and define Pittsburgh rose to prominence.

Image of the Carnegie Furnaces at Braddock, Pa., from across the river (c. 1905) by Detroit Publishing CompanyOriginal Source: Library of Congress

A New Era

Andrew Carnegie was not the first to make steel, but when Carnegie, McCandless & Company completed the Edgar Thomson Works along the Monongahela River in 1875, it ushered in the dawn of a new era that shaped the fortunes of the region for more than a century.

Andrew Carnegie with unidentified man (c. 1900)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Capitalizing on the new Bessemer process that made steel quicker and cheaper to produce, Carnegie and his partners completed their first steel works in Braddock in 1875. Carnegie continued building mills and acquiring businesses connected with the industry.

When he sold Carnegie Steel to J. P. Morgan in 1901, creating the United States Steel Corporation, it became the first billion-dollar company and made Carnegie one of the richest men in the world.

Portrait of Henry Clay Frick (1915-1920) by Bain News ServiceOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Portrait of Henry Clay Frick

Henry Clay Frick made his fortune manufacturing Western Pennsylvania’s coal into coke, a crucial fuel for steel blast furnaces. In 1881, he joined forces with Andrew Carnegie, who soon became the majority stockholder in the H. C. Frick Coke company.

Notoriously anti-labor, Frick served as the counter to Carnegie’s carefully cultivated pro-labor image.

He became chairman of Carnegie Steel in 1889 and his hard-liner stance during the disastrous Homestead Steel Strike in 1892 earned him the enmity of some in the region that lasts to this day.

Jones & Laughlin Open hearth crew (c. 1900)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Jones & Laughlin

While Jones & Laughlin started making steel in 1886, the company continued producing iron until around 1894, when all efforts turned to steel. The industry provided generations of Western Pennsylvanians with a livelihood that passed from one set of family members to the next.

In the early 1900s, generations sometimes worked at the mill at the same time. As this image shows, children as well as men were employed before child labor laws banned such practices.

Workers at Harbison and Walker making refractory brick, Hays Works (1920s)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Supporting the Mills

Production of steel required significant investments of raw materials and specialized equipment. By the late 19th century, Pittsburgh’s industries included subsidiary firms that manufactured materials needed to build and maintain the steel-producing facilities.

Pouring steel at Jones & Laughlin (c. 1950)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

We Can Do It: J&L During WWII

By the start of World War II, J&L was the fourth largest steel producer in the world, producing over 4.8 million tons of steel a year and employing 45,000 workers.

Despite operating in the direct shadow of United States Steel's Duquesne, Homestead, and Edgar Thomson Works, J&L remained an independent steel company holding its own in a crowded market.

This independence lasted until 1974, when the company merged with the French Ling-Temco-Vought Corporation (LTV).

Workers at Harbison and Walker with stored refractory brick, Hays Works (1920s)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Workers at Harbison and Walker, Hays Works, 1920s

Refractory or heat resistant fire bricks supplied a crucial component in the construction of steel mills.

Founded as the Star Fire Brick Company in 1864, Harbison and Walker Refractories Company grew rapidly at the turn of the century, purchasing several firebrick companies in western and central Pennsylvania.

By the 1920s, mill laborers and work crews such as this group taking a break at Harbison and Walker reflected the impact of the Great Migration of African American workers from the South arriving in Pittsburgh seeking greater economic opportunity.

Pouring steel at United States Steel Company (c. 1950s)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

United States Steel Company

After its formation in 1901, U.S. Steel became the largest steel company in the nation, and the first valued at over $1 billion in stock.

With multiple major facilities across the region and nation, U.S. Steel thrived by controlling all aspects of the industry, what is known as a “vertically integrated” company.

It owned everything from the raw materials and the transport vehicles to all production facilities. While the company suffered a downturn nationwide during the Great Depression, it roared back starting around 1940 with the advent of World War II.

Eleanor Neahaus with Army Inspectors at Jones & Laughlin McKeesport Works (1944)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Eleanor Neahaus

War worker Eleanor Neahaus (left) speaks with U.S. Army officials and the president of American Car & Foundry Company during an inspection of J&L’s McKeesport Works on July 10, 1944.

The McKeesport Works, previously a tin plate plant owned by McKeesport Tin Plate Company, was acquired by Jones & Laughlin in 1940 on a temporary basis to produce shells and bombs for the war effort.

US Steel News cover depicting an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) (April 1944) by US SteelOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

The Arsenal of Democracy

Pittsburgh’s steel industry proved crucial during World War II. By 1942, U. S. Steel and its subsidiaries smashed 1,000 previous production records. American Bridge Company made nearly 50 LSTs (landing ships, tank).

U. S. Steel engineers converted sheet mills, made to produce thin auto steel, into plate mills that ran nearly nonstop, making heavy steel plate for ships and tanks.

The region’s mills eventually poured 95 million tons of steel into the war effort. By 1945, Pennsylvania produced as much steel as all the Axis powers combined.

Jones & Laughlin Corporation Soho Works (1953) by Clyde HareOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Jones & Laughlin Corporation Soho Works, 1953

Here, Clyde Hare’s image captures both the power and environmental challenges inherent in steel production. The impact of such mills running day and night during World War II helped spur Pittsburgh’s first attempts at a civic cleanup in the 1950s Renaissance.

Penn-Lincoln Parkway beside Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation’s Eliza Works (1953) by Clyde HareOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Eliza Works

With the blast furnaces of J&L’s Eliza Works looming over the passing cars, this photograph epitomized the steel industry’s former economic and symbolic dominance over Pittsburgh.

At its height, the Eliza Works employed more than 5,000 people. It closed in 1977 and the furnaces were demolished in the mid-1980s. Today, the Pittsburgh Technology Center, a high-tech development hub, stands along this section of riverfront property.

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