Homestead and its Perilous Trades - Impressions of a Visit By Hamlin Garland

McClure's Magazine

Vol. III.

June, 1894

No. 1.

Homestead and its Perilous Trades- Impressions of a Visit

By Hamlin Garland

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. The town, infamously historic already, sprawled over the irregular hillside, circled by the cold gray river. On the flats close to the water's edge there 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. 

Higher up the tenement-houses stood in dingy rows, alternating with vacant lots. Higher still stood some Queen Anne cottages, toward which slender sidewalks climbed like goat paths.  

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 town was as squalid and unlovely as could well be imagined, and 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. 

The Carnegie mills stood down near the river at some distance from the ferry landing, and thither I took my way through the sticky yellow mud and the gray falling rain. I had secured for my guide a young man whose life had been passed in Homestead and who was quite familiar with the mills and workmen. I do not think he over-stated the hardships of the workmen, whose duties he thoroughly understood. He spoke frankly and without undue prejudice of the management and the work.

 We entered the yard through the fence which was aggrandized into a stockade during the riots of a year ago. We were in the yard of the " finished beams." On every side lay thousands of tons of iron. 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.The great building which we entered first was a beam mill, "one of the finest in the world," my guide said. It was an immense shed, open at the sides, and filled with a mixed and intricate mass of huge machinery. 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.

"Come to the starting point", said my guide. I followed him timidly far up toward the other end, my eyes fixed on the beautiful glow of a redhot bloom of metal saving high in the air. It lighted the interior with a glorious light.

 I was looking at this beautiful light whey my guide pulled me suddenly behind some shelter. 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. While it lasted all else was hid from sight. 

"That's the saw which cuts the beams of iron into lengths as ordered," my guide said, and we hurried past.

Everywhere in this pandemoniac shed was the thunder of reversing engines, the crash of falling iron, the rumbling growl of rollers, the howl of horrible saws, the deafening hiss of escaping steam, the wild vague shouts of workmen.

"Here are the ingots of steel, just as they come from the Bessemer converting mill," said my guide, pointing toward the mouth of the shed where some huge hunks of iron lay. " And there are the 'soaking pits,' or upright furnaces, where they are heated for rolling. They are perpendicular furnaces, or pits, you see."

 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.

 " It takes grit to stand there in July and August," said my guide. "Don't it, Joe?" he said to one of the men whom he knew. The man nodded, but was too busy to do more.

" I'd as soon go to hell at once," I replied. He laughed.

" But that isn't all. Those pits have to have their bottoms made after every ' heat,' and they can't wait for 'em to cool. The men stand by and work over them when it's hot enough to burn your boot-soles. Still ' it beats the old horizontal furnace." 

A huge crane swung round and dipped into one of the pits and rose again, bringing one of the ingots, which was heated to proper point for rolling. Its glow made the eye recoil, and threw into steel-blue relief the gray outside rain. It was about six feet long and twenty inches square.

 The crane swung round and laid it upon a roadway of steel travellers that carried it up to the waiting jaws of the rollers. High up above it stood the chief " roller," with his hand upon a lever, and as the glowing mass ambled forward, his eyes gauged it, and his hand controlled it.

 Like a bar of soap through a wringer it went, and as it passed it lowered and lengthened, exploding at the end into flaming scales of fire.

 " The power of two thousand five hundred horses is in that engine," said my guide. "The actual squeezing power exerted is of course several thousand tons."

 Back the bar came with the same jar and tumult, a little longer and a little thinner; back and forth, until it grew into a long band of pink and rose purple. A swift and dangerous dragon that engine, whose touch was deadly. Thence the bar passed to the monstrous saw whose ear-splitting howl rose at intervals as it cut the beams into fixed lengths. From this the pieces passed into a low flat oven flaming fiercely; there to be kept hot while waiting their turn in the next process.

 They passed finally to the " finishing rollers," where they took the completed forth of building beams. A vast carrier which moved sidewise with rumbling roar conveyed them across the intervening space. A man rode this carrier like a mahout his elephant, occupying a-small platform high on the pyramidal mass of machinery.

 Up at the pits again I stood to watch the "heaters" at their task. The crane and the travellers handled these huge pieces of iron deftly and surely, and moulded them into shape, as a girl might handle a cake of dough. Machinery has certainly come in here to lessen the horrors of the iron-worker's life, to diminish the number of deaths by exploding metal or by the leap of curling or breaking beams.

I watched the men as they stirred the deeps beneath. 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.

 " That looks like hard work," I said to one of them to whom my companion introduced me. He was breathing hard from his work.

 " Hard ! 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. "

 " But that isn't the worst of it," said my guide; " it's a dog's life. Now, those men work twelve hours, and sleep and eat out ten more. You can see a man don't have much time for anything else. You can't see your friends, or do anything but work. That's why I got out of it. I used to come home so exhausted, staggering like a man with a ' jag.' It ain't any place for a sick man--is it, Joe ? "

 Joe was a tall young fellow, evidently an assistant at the furnace. He smiled. " It's all the work I want, and I'm no chicken--feel that arm."

 I felt his arm., It was like a billet of steel. His abdomen was like a sheet of boiler iron. The hair was singed from his hands and arms by the heat of the furnace.

 " The tools I handle weigh one hundred and fifty pounds, and four o'clock in August they weigh about a ton."

 "When do you eat ? "

 " 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."

 One of the men made a motion, and the ponderous cover moved a little to one side, and the bottom-makers ran long bars down into the pit and worked desperately, manipulating the ganister which lined the sides. The vivid light seemed to edge them with flame.

 "Yes, sir; that is a terrible job in summer," repeated my companion. " When the whole mill is hot, and you're panting for breath, it takes nerve to walk up to that soaking pit or a furnace door."

 " Oh, well, when you get ready to go home, your carriage comes for you, I suppose," I said to Joe.


He looked at me with a look that was not humorous. " I pattered down here in the mud, and crawled through a hole in the fence. That's the way I'll crawl home to-morrow morning at six. That's the way we all do."

 He turned suddenly and pointed at a pale, stoop-shouldered man in grimy clothes. " There's one of the best-paid men in the mill. See any kid gloves on him ? He'd look gay in a carriage at six o'clock in the morning, wouldn't he ? "

 I watched the man as he climbed to his perch on the great carrier that handled the beams, passing them from the rough roller to the finishing roller. As he took his place a transformation took place in him. He became alert, watchful, and deft. He was a man heavily marked by labor.

 We went on into the boiler-plate mills, still noisier, still more grandiose in effect. 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.

 Everywhere in this enormous building were pits like the mouth of hell, and fierce ovens giving off a glare of heat, and burning wood and iron, giving off horrible stenches of gases. Thunder upon thunder, clang upon clang, glare upon glare ! Torches flamed far up in the dark spaces above. Engines moved to and fro, and steam sissed and threatened.

 Everywhere were grimy men with sallow and lean faces. The work was of the inhuman sort that hardens and coarsens.

 " How long do you work ?" I asked of a young man who stood at the furnace near me.

 " Twelve hours," he replied. " The night set go on at six at night and come off at six in the morning. I go on at six and off at six."

 " For how much pay ? "

 " Two dollars and a quarter.


" How much do those men get shovelling there in the rain ?"

"One dollar and forty cents." (A cut has since taken place.)

"What proportion of the men get that pay ? "

" Two-thirds of the whole plant, nearly two thousand. There are thirty-five hundred men in the mills. They get all prices, of course, from a dollar and forty cents up to the tonnage men, who get five and ten dollars per day when the mills run smooth. " 

" I suppose not many men make ten dollars per day." 

" Well, hardly." He smiled. " Of course the 'rollers' and the 'heaters' get the most, but there are only two ' rollers' to each mill, and three 'heaters,' and they are responsible for their product. The most of the men get under two dollars per day."

 "And it is twelve hours' work without stop ? "

 " You bet ! And then again you see we only get this pay part of the time. The mills are liable to be shut down part of the year. They shut down part of the night sometimes, and of course we're docked. Then, again, the tendency of the proprietors is to cut down the tonnage men; that is, the 'rollers' and 'heaters' are now paid by the ton, but they'll some day be paid by the day, like the rest of us."

 " You bet they will," said my guide, who seemed quite familiar with the facts.

 " Of course, you understand the tonnage men are responsible for their product. You see the improvement of machinery helps them, but it don't help the common laborer much. It wouldn't help the tonnage men if the company could fill their places cheaper. They don't pay them by the ton because they want to, but because they have to. But the tonnage men 'll get it next year."

 "That's right," said the man at the furnace door, as he seized his shovel to " line" the furnace.

 The helper wheeled in a load of sand and gravel before the furnace door. He signalled a boy, the heavy iron door rose, the "heater" seized one of the long shovels, the helper lifted it with his own shovel and placed it in the mouth of the furnace and swiftly heaped it with sand. The "heater " ran the shovel in and turned it over on a thin place in the lining, and smoothed the sand out with desperate haste. The helper lifted the now red-hot shovel to the next door. The cover rose, and the process repeated. In each oven the beams reposed like potatoes in an oven.

 By the time the helper lead a moment to spare he was wet with sweat. As he stood near me I noticed his grimy and sooty shirt, which lay close to his lean chest.

"One of the worst features about this thing is the sudden change of temperature. Now, that man's reeking with sweat, and this cold wind blowing upon him," I said to my guide. " It's always too hot or too cold."

 I was shivering with the chill, and it seemed to be almost certain sickness to stand thus exposed to the wind which swept through.

 When these beams were " done " to a white heat, a massive carrier, with nippers like huge tongs, moved with a sidewise rush before one of the oven doors. A shout to the boy high against the wall, and the cover again rose, the carrier thrust its two hands in and hauled out the glowing beam, and from thence swung it upon the roadway of travellers, whence it galloped like a live thing into the jaws of the rollers.

 We passed on into the older mills where cruder methods are still in use. Man seems closer to the hot iron here. Everywhere dim figures with grappling hooks worked silently and desperately guiding, measuring, controlling, moving masses of white-hot metal. High up the superintending foremen, by whistle or shout, arrested the movement of the machinery and the gnome-like figures beneath.

 Here were made the steel rails for street railways. The process was the same in essence. Each crude mass of metal was heated in oven-like furnaces tended by dim figures of bare-armed men, thence drawn by cranes and swung upon a roadway and thrust into the rollers. Then it ran back and forth, back and forth, lengthening into a swift and terrible serpent of red. One that I saw had split at the end, and its resemblance to a serpent was startling as it shot toward us in sinuous thrust.

 Upon such toil rests the splendor of American civilization.

 The converting mill was the most gorgeous and dangerous of all. Here the crude product is turned into steel by the Bessemer process. It also was a huge shed-like building open on two sides. In the centre stood supports for two immense pear-shaped pots, which swung on pivots ten or twelve feet from the floor. Over each pot was a huge chimney. Out of each pot roared alternately a ferocious geyser of saffron and sapphire flame, streaked with deeper yellow. From it a light streamed, a light that flung violet shadows everywhere and made the gray outside rain a beautiful blue.

A fountain of sparks arose, gorgeous as ten thousand rockets, and fell with a beautiful curve, like the petals of some enormous flower. 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 my companion; " 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. This unites with the silicon and carbon and carries it away to the surface. He'd better pour now, or the metal will burn."

Underneath the other pot men were shovelling away slag in the rain of falling sparks. They worked with desperate haste. To their wrists dangled disks of leather to protect their hands from heat. It was impossible to see what manner of men they were. They resembled human beings only in form. 

A shout was heard, and a tall crane swung a gigantic ladle under the converting vessel, which then mysteriously up-ended, exploding like a cannon a prodigious discharge of star-like pieces of white-hot slag. The " blowers " on their high platform across the shed sheltered themselves behind a wall.

 I drew back into the rain. "They call this the death-trap," shouted my companion, smiling at my timid action.

 Down came the vessel, until out of it streamed the smooth flow of terribly beautiful molten metal. 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.

 Into this steam and smoke and shower of sparks the workmen leapt, and were dimly seen preparing for another blast, prying off crusted slag, spraying the ladle, and guiding the cranes. Meanwhile, high up above them in the tumult, an engine backed up with a load of crude molten iron, discharged into the converter, and the soaring saffron and orange and sapphire flames began again.

"Yes, the men call this the death-trap," repeated my guide, as we stood in the edge of the building; " they wipe a man out here every little while."" In what way does death come ? " I asked." Oh, all kinds of ways. Sometimes a chain breaks, and a ladle tips over, and the iron explodes--like that." He pointed at the newly emptied retort, out of which the drippings fell into the water which lay beneath like pools of green gold. As it fell, each drop exploded in a dull report." Sometimes the slag falls on the workmen from that roadway up there. 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."My guide went on:"You take it back in the beam mill--you saw how the men have to scatter when the carriers or the cranes move--well, sometimes they don't get out of the way; the men who should give warning don't do it quick enough.""What do those men get who are shovelling slag up there?"" Fourteen cents an hour. If they worked eight hours, like a carpenter, they'd get one dollar and twelve cents."

 " So a man works in peril of his life for fourteen cents an hour," I remarked.

 " That's what he does. It ain't the only business he does it in, though."

 " No," put in a young villager, who was looking on like ourselves. " A man'll do most anything to live."

 " Just as everywhere, the man who does the hardest work gets the poorest pay'" I said, remembering Shelley's discovery.

 We moved away, back toward the great plate mill. The lifting crane fascinated me. A man perched upon it like a monkey on the limb of a tree; 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. To guide it for twelve hours without accident exhausts a workman like running an engine on an express-train.

We stood to watch the making of rails. And as the rosy serpent grew slenderer and swifter it seemed to take on life. It curved lightly, unaccountably, and shot with menacing mouth past groups of workmen.

" Sometimes they break," said my guide, " and then they sweep things." And his words pictured the swing of a red-hot scythe.

 " The wonder to me is, you don't all die of exposure and the changes of heat and cold."

 My guide looked serious. " You don't notice any old men here." He swept his hand about the building. " It shortens life, just like mining; there is no question about that. That, of course, doesn't enter into the usual statement. But the long hours, the strain, and the sudden changes of temperature use a man up. He quits before he gets fifty. I can see lots of fellows here who are failing. They'll lay down in a few years. I went all over that, and I finally came to the decision that I'd peddle groceries rather than kill myself at this business."

"Well, what is the compensation ? I mean, why do men keep on ? "

 " Oh, the common hands do it because they need a job, I suppose, and fellows like Joe expect to be one of the high-paid men."

 " How much would that be per year ? "

 " Oh, three thousand or possibly four thousand a year."

 " Does that pay for what it takes out of you ?"

 " No, I don't think it does," he confessed. " Still, a man has got to go into something."

 As night fell the scene became still more grandiose and frightful. I hardly dared move without direction. The rosy ingots, looking like stumps of trees reduced to coals of living fire, rose from their pits of flame and dropped upon the tables, and galloped head on against the rollers, sending off flakes of rosy scale. As they went through, the giant engine thundered fin, reversing with a sound like a nearby cannon; and everywhere the jarring clang of great beams fell upon the ear. Wherever the saw was set at work, great wheels of fire rose out of the obscure murk of lower shadow.

 " I'm glad I don't have to work here for a living," said the young man of Else village, who stood near me looking on 

" Oh, this is nothing," said my guide. " You should see it when they're runuing full in summer. Then it gets hot here. Then you should see 'em when they reline the furnaces and converting vessels. Imagine getting into that Bessemer pot in July, hot enough to pop corn; when you had to work like the devil and then jump out to breathe. "

 " I wouldn't do it," said the young villager; " I'd break into jail first." He had an outside job. He could afford to talk that way.

 " Oh, no, you wouldn't; you'd do it. We all submit to such things, out of habit, I guess. There are lots of other jobs as bad. A man could stand work like this six hours a day. That's all a man ought to do at such work. They could do it, too; they wouldn't make so much, but the hands would live longer." 

" They probably don't care whether the hands live or die," I said, "provided they do every ounce they can while they do live."

 " I guess that's right," said the other young fellow with a wink. " Mill-owners don't run their mills for the benefit of the men."

 " How do you stand on the late strike ?" I asked another man.

 " It's all foolishness; you can't do anything that way. The tonnage men brought it on; they could afford to strike, but we couldn't. The men working for less than two dollars can't afford to strike."

 "'While capital wastes, labor starves,'" I ventured to quote.

 " That's the idea; we can't hurt Carnegie by six months' starving. It's our ribs that'll show through our shirts."

 " Then the strikes do not originate among the men of lowest pay ?"

 " No; a man working for fourteen cents an hour hasn't got any surplus for a strike." He seemed to voice the general opinion.

 A roar as of a hundred lions a thunder as of cannons, flames that made the electric light look like a twinkling blue star, jarring clang of falling iron, burst of spluttering flakes of fire, scream of terrible saws, shifting of mighty trucks with hiss of steam! This was the scene upon which I looked back; this tumult I was leaving. I saw men prodding in the deep soaking pits where the ingots glowed in white-hot chambers. I saw other men in the hot yellow glare from the furnaces. I saw men measuring the serpentine rosy beams. I saw them send the saw flying into them. I saw boys perched high in cages, their shrill voices sounding wild fund animal-like in the midst of the uproar: a place into which men went like men going into war for the sake of wives and children, urged on by necessity, blinded and dulled by custom and habit; an inhuman place to spend four-fifths of one's waking hours. I crawled dismally back to my boarding-place, in the deep darkness, the chill, and the falling rain. The farther I got from those thundering beams and screaming saws, the deeper I drew my breath. Oh, the peace and sweetness of the dim hills across the river !

I ate breakfast the next morning with two of the men 1 had seen the evening before. There was little of grace or leisurely courtesy in their actions. Their hearts were good, but their manners were those of ceaseless toilers. They resembled a Western threshing crew in all but their pallor.

 " The worst part of the whole business is this," said one of them, as I was about saying good-by. " It brutalizes a man. You can't help it. You start in to be a man, but you become more and more a machine, and pleasures are few and far between. It's like any severe labor. It drags you down mentally and morally, just as it does physically. I wouldn't mind it so much if it weren't for the long hours. Many a trade would be all right if the hours could be shortened. Twelve hours is too long." 

Again I boarded the little ferry and crossed the Monongahela on my way to the East. Out of those grim chimneys the belching smoke rose, defiling the cool, sweet air. Through this greenish-purple cloud the sun, red and large, glowed like an ingot of steel rising from a pit, filling the smoke with flushes of beautiful orange and rose amid the blue. The river was azure and burning gold, and the sunthrew the most glorious shadows behind the smoke. Beyond lay the serene hills, a deeper purple.Under the glory of gold and purple I heard the grinding howl of the iron-saws, and the throbbing, ferocious roar of the furnaces. The ferry-boat left a wake of blue that shone like the neck of a dove; and over the hills swept a fresh, moist wind. In the midst of God's bright morning, beside the beautiful river, the town and its industries lay like a cancer on the breast of a human body.