The Men Who Built America: Andrew Carnegie
Although he provided the material to build most of America’s first skyscrapers, not many people recognize his name. Originally from Scotland, Andrew Carnegie became one of the richest men in America through his steel business, Carnegie Steel Company. Even though he claimed to support workers’ rights, Carnegie was anti-union and provided poor working conditions for his employees. While Carnegie donated the majority of his wealth at his death, this did not change the public's perception of him. Andrew Carnegie, a robber baron of the 19th century, was a corrupt businessman who worked his employees to the bone in an effort to become the richest man in America.
Carnegie’s Early Life
Andrew Carnegie was born on November 25, 1835, in Dunfermline, Scotland. He spent the first year of his life in a weaver’s cottage which only had one room. At age two, Carnegie’s family moved to a larger house. The Carnegie family immigrated to the United States and settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when he was 12. After immigrating, Carnegie and his father were both offered a job at Anchor Cotton Mills, earning $1.20 a week ($35 in today's money). Due to conditions at the mill, Carnegie’s father’s health declined, leaving his son to be the family’s sole breadwinner. At age 16, Carnegie was hired by the Ohio Telegraph Company and earned $2.50 per week ($77). He was a hard worker and the company promoted him to operator within a year. At age 18, Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company hired Carnegie as his personal secretary. Scott became a role model and mentor to Carnegie, guiding Carnegie’s later business decisions until Scott’s death. Carnegie was promoted to Superintendent of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania railroad at the age of 24. This increased Carnegie’s salary by nearly 350%.
Carnegie’s newfound access to money and his personal connection to Scott allowed him to become an early investor in many American companies. In 1864, at the age of 29, Carnegie was one of the first investors in the Columbia Oil Company, which yielded over one million dollars in cash dividends to its investors. Carnegie worked with others in establishing a steel rolling mill, and steel production became the main source for his wealth. In 1884, Carnegie married Louise Whitfield, who was 21 years his junior. Eleven years later, they had their only child, Margaret. Carnegie died at age 83 on August 11, 1919 in Lenox, Massachusetts.
The Rise of Carnegie Steel Company
Carnegie acquired his fortune through the steel business, controlling most of the steel mills in the United States. In 1870, Carnegie co-founded his first steel business outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1892, Carnegie created Carnegie Steel Company. Carnegie owned other companies including Lucy Furnaces, The Union Mill, and Keystone Bridge Works. Through his ownership of these companies, Carnegie used vertical integration to control every aspect of the steel business--from the production of the raw materials at the mills, to distribution of steel, to the transportation networks, and finally, the actual building projects. Carnegie, through Keystone, provided much of the steel for the Eads Bridge, which spanned the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Missouri. Carnegie Steel Company also produced steel for railroads and the new “skyscrapers” that were taking over America’s skylines. In addition to vertical integration, another one of Carnegie’s greatest innovations was the cheap mass production of steel.
In 1901, Carnegie was 66 and considering retirement. J.P Morgan, America’s most prominent banker, was a friend of Carnegie and was impressed with the steel empire he created. Morgan thought that if he owned the Carnegie Steel Company, he could cut costs, lower prices, produce steel in greater numbers, and raise wages for workers. On March 2, 1901, Morgan purchased Carnegie Steel Company from Carnegie for nearly $500 million and renamed it U.S Steel Corporation. After retiring from U.S. Steel, Carnegie and J.D Rockefeller, owner of Standard Oil, competed to see who could donate the most money to charity. Carnegie donated over $350 million of his wealth to libraries and institutions of higher learning, but died thirteen years before Rockefeller, losing the competition. While these donations did not change the opinion of many of his former steelworkers, some historians consider him a philanthropist.
Carnegie the Robber Baron
The men of the 19th and 20th centuries are considered one of two things. The first is a captain of industry, which means a business leader whose personal wealth contributed positively to the country. The second is a robber baron. A robber baron is a businessman who has become rich through ruthless and cruel business practices, like Carnegie. Carnegie is a robber baron for multiple reasons. Although not the most infamous of robber barons, Carnegie was notorious for being anti-union and treating his employees poorly. The life of a Carnegie Steel Company worker was grueling. Carnegie’s employees often slaved away in unsafe and filthy conditions. Moreover, he forced employees to work twelve-hour shifts, Monday through Saturday, and permitted few, if any, holidays. The demanding schedule drained the life out of employees as workers often did not eat or rest for more than ten minutes per day. Carnegie also made the ill-informed decision to hire Henry Frick as chairman of his company. Frick was a ruthless businessman whose only motivation was making profits. The company’s working conditions deteriorated even further under Frick. Steelworkers, already working long hours, now had to work Sundays under Frick. It was not unusual for July 4th to be the only holiday for Carnegie Steel Company employees. While Carnegie’s steel mills became more efficient and profitable under Frick, it came at a heavy human cost. Conditions deteriorated to a point in 1892 when Carnegie steelworkers went on strike at the Homestead plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Carnegie and Frick called in Pinkerton police to break up the strikers but their involvement only led to the death of multiple workers and Pinkerton agents.
A robber baron of his time, Carnegie gained a personal fortune due to the back-breaking labor of his steel mill workers. Although he contributed to the building of America’s early bridges and skyscrapers, his accomplishments came at great costs to his employees, who toiled long hours in poor conditions. In his journey to becoming a captain of American industry, Carnegie earned a reputation as a leader with little empathy for his workers. Although Carnegie attempted to salvage his reputation with millions in charitable donations, his late in life gesture did not change his reputation as a ruthless 19th century businessman.