1892 ~ The Situation of America


The Columbian Exposition and the Race to Light the World

If you wanted to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America, wouldn’t you want to do it in 1892? Well, that was the plan, but there was a slight delay in 1892 – and another Situation of America!

The promoters in Chicago were determined to highlight the new emergence of electric lighting to the nation in a big way. They wanted to create a “City of Lights” to dazzle the world. Most thought that the newly formed General Electric Company would lead the way, but a little thing like AC versus DC got in the way. Thomas Edison had developed the use of Direct Current to light streets and homes, but that process required generators on-site in homes and factories and every several blocks in the city to accomplish the lighting. Alternating Current, with the Nikolai Tesla invention of the transformer in 1883, was much more efficient in getting electricity to further distances without the need of many generators. The fact that Tesla was a former employee of Edison, and was now working for George Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, only added fuel to the fire of rivalries.

General Electric, just formed in 1892 by banker J.P. Morgan, put in their bid of $1.8 million to light the fair, but that did not go over well, so they did a second bid worth $554,000. Surprising to General Electric, George Westinghouse, armed with Tesla’s new induction motor, proposed to light the fair for $399,000. Westinghouse and Tesla won the contract. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The City of Lights became a spectacular display of the use of electricity, and from that point forward more than 80 percent of all the electrical devices ordered in the United States were for alternating current.

Bitter in defeat, Morgan and Edison would regroup and move on to the Holy Grail of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls to produce electricity, only to lose out to Tesla and Westinghouse, again. But this was the era of the “Robber Barons” and John Pierpont Morgan wasn’t done with Westinghouse and Tesla or another target, Andrew Carnegie, just yet. And Edison was tired of electricity and moved on to other things, including processing and selling iron ore to the steel mills of Pittsburgh. More of that in Part Two!


The Negotiations Begin in Homestead

Eight Lodges of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers

The “Association” was a national organization in the iron and steel industry. Its membership was restricted to skilled workers in the rolling mills and puddling furnaces. The union’s membership did not include the laborers (who were an important part of the labor force.) At the beginning of the 1890s, the AAISW was the largest trade union in the United States, claiming 290 lodges and 24,068 members.

At the beginning of  1892, the workers at Homestead were still operating under an agreement signed by the Carnegie Company and the Amalgamated Association in 1889. (It was due to expire on June 30, 1892.) While Carnegie tried to portray himself as a friend of his employees, he was, in fact, determined to break the union. Carnegie had placed the rabid anti-unionist Henry Clay Frick in charge of his company’s operations in 1881. Carnegie ordered the Homestead plant to manufacture large amounts of inventory so that the plant could survive a strike.

  • Henry Clay Frick developed a “hard-nose” reputation through his labor experiences in the coke business. Famously quoted: “There can only be one boss. There can only be one manager.”
  • Started the H.C. Frick Coke Company, half of which was later bought by Carnegie, in late 1870 and experienced some strikes under his management
  • Broke these strike using Pinkerton Detectives, militiamen, and non-union workers
  • His hostility towards unions was a key component to the Homestead Strike
  • Was appointed Chairman of the Homestead mill in early 1892

In February 1892, Frick and leaders of the Amalgamated Association began negotiations. The Amalgamated Association’s contract was set to expire on June 30, 1892. The union expected a pay raise in their next contract. But, Frick had other plans.

Frick had three demands:

  1. That the minimum sliding scale wage for skilled workers be reduced from $25 to $22 per ton. (later settled at $23, a reduction of 8%).
  2. A 15% reduction of tonnage wages in those departments in the mills where the improvements have been made and which enable the workingmen to increase the output and consequently their earnings.
  3. That the Amalgamated contract expire December 31st, 1893 instead of June 30th, 1894.

While the first two clauses were purely monetary, the last was critical. The union was strongest during the summer since it was so hot in the mills that not many non-union workers would work there. But in the colder months the warm mills attracted many which gave Carnegie Steel the advantage in negotiations.

The President of the Amalgamated Association, Hugh O’Donnell, expressed the union’s position in the negotiations:
“Moreover, I told them, you can tell your people we are willing to make any reductions where [the Carnegie Company] can show any reductions are necessary. We want to settle it without trouble; don’t want a strike.”

 

 


125 years ago, the story begins, January 1, 1892

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The statue of Annie Moore, located in Ellis Island.

 

When Ellis Island officially opened on January 1, 1892, the first passenger registered through the now world-famous immigration station was a young Irish girl named Annie Moore. Hustled ahead of a burly German by her two younger brothers and by an Irish longshoreman who shouted “Ladies first,” Annie, from County Cork set foot on Ellis Island ahead of the other passengers from the steamship S.S. Nevada. Annie departed from Queenstown (now known as Cobh, County Cork, Ireland) on December 20, 1891, one of 148 steerage passengers. The trio would spend 12 days at sea (including Christmas Day), arriving in New York on Thursday evening, December 31. They were processed through Ellis Island the following morning, New Year’s Day. The Nevada had arrived too late on New Year’s Eve to be processed, which meant its third-class passengers would be the first to pass through the newly built federal immigration station on Ellis Island, which had previously been used as a gunpowder storage facility for the U.S. Navy.

At 10:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, a flag on Ellis Island was dipped three times as a signal to transport the first boatload of immigrants. A chorus of foghorns, clanging bells, steam whistles and cheers serenaded a barge adorned with red, white and blue bunting as it ferried Nevada’s steerage passengers to the dock at Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

The brown-haired Irish teenager was the first to bound down the gangplank with her brothers in tow. She entered through the enormous double doors of the cavernous three-story wooden building, described as “little more than a big business shed” by the New York Tribune, and skipped two steps at a time up the main staircase. Turning to her left, the girl was ushered into one of 10 aisles and up to a tall lectern-like registry desk.

“What is your name, my girl?” asked Charles Hendley, a former Treasury Department official who had requested the honor of registering the new station’s first immigrant.

“Annie Moore, sir,” replied the Irish girl.

Wielding his pen over a fresh piece of paper, Hendley inked Moore’s name and those of her brothers, Anthony and Philip, along with their ages, last place of residence and intended destination on the first page of the first registry book. Annie was then escorted into the next room where former congressman John B. Weber, federal superintendent of immigration for the port of New York, gave her a ten-dollar gold piece and wishes for a Happy New Year. A Catholic chaplain blessed her and gave her a silver coin, while another bystander slipped her a five-dollar gold piece before she passed into the waiting room and the arms of her parents.

 

Annie Moore with her brothers Anthony (l) and Philip (r) at Ellis Island.

Over the course of the next 62 years, more than 12 million immigrants would follow in the teenager’s footsteps through Ellis Island, and it’s estimated that 40 percent of the country can trace its origins back to the immigration station in New York Harbor. The Great Hall of Ellis Island was peppered with hiring agents, recruiting workers for factories in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit, among other cities, as the work was plentiful. The slip of paper could say, “Carnegie Steel, Braddock or Homestead” depending on the need back at the plants. Those who might be heading to Homestead and seek work at the massive plant there were about to face a rendezvous with destiny.

And that was the Situation of America, January 1, 1892.