Henry Clay Frick and His Mark on Pittsburgh

The Frick Building, Frick Park, Frick Fine Arts Building, the Frick Environmental Center—industrialist Henry Clay Frick certainly left his mark on Pittsburgh, but some may consider that mark to be more of a black eye. Frick is probably the most controversial businessman ever to operate in Pittsburgh. Even he acknowledged his unscrupulous nature, when former partner and then enemy, Andrew Carnegie, on his deathbed, asked to speak to Frick to mend fences, and Frick replied, “Tell him I’ll see him in hell.”

Whether Frick is in hell or not, we can only guess, but what we do know is that most people are a combination of virtue and vice, and Frick certainly was a mixed bag. He was born December 19, 1849, in West Overton, in Westmoreland County, and was the grandson of Abraham Overholt, owner of the Overholt Whiskey distillery. He attended Otterbein University, but dropped out after a year. In 1871 when he was 21, he and two cousins formed a partnership, Frick Coke Company, building beehive ovens that turned coal into coke, a necessary element used in the manufacturing of steel.  Frick vowed he’d be a millionaire by the time he was 30. The company became the largest producer of coke in the world, helping him to make good on his goal.

With loans from family friend Andrew W. Mellon, Frick bought out his partners in 1880 and renamed the company H. C. Frick & Company. It employed 1,000 workers and owned 80 percent of all the coal mined in Pennsylvania. His company also operated 12,000 coke ovens.

In 1851, Frick married Adelaide Howard Childs, and during his honeymoon in New York City, he met steel tycoon and fellow Pittsburgher Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was heavily invested in the steel industry, and soon he and Frick entered into a partnership where Carnegie gained an interest in Frick’s business and Frick gained a share in Carnegie Steel. As Carnegie was nearly a quarter century older than Frick, when Carnegie wanted to step back from actively managing his steel business, he appointed Frick as chairman of the company. Under Frick’s direction the Carnegie Steel Company grew to be the largest steel company in the world.

Pittsburgh in the late 1800s became a manufacturing powerhouse, and while the tycoons here worked hard, Frick became convinced that the city’s industrialists needed a place to play hard as well. He and 60 other wealthy businessmen from the area founded the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at Lake Conemaugh, a reservoir built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Faulty repairs to the dam, which created the lake, and an extraordinary rainfall caused a catastrophic failure of the dam, sending the waters of Lake Conemaugh rushing toward Johnstown. On May 31, 1889, more than 2,200 people lost their lives in the flood including ninety-nine entire families. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was widely criticized for the catastrophe, but was never found negligent in court.

Death would once again visit Western Pennsylvania and Frick would be in the center of the maelstrom. In 1892, Carnegie Steel’s Homestead mill was embroiled in a labor dispute. That summer, Carnegie left for his annual vacation in the remote Scottish Highlands, leaving Frick in charge of the negotiations with the union. He instructed Frick that, if the workers didn’t accept Frick’s terms, to close the plant and wait the men out. Instead, Frick locked the workers out and announced that he had suspended union negotiations and would only meet with individual workers.

With 1,100 workers already locked out by July 1, four hundred more workers went on strike. In retaliation, Frick made plans to reopen the mill on July 6 with a non-union workforce. On that day, two barges filled with 300 armed Pinkerton guards were transported up the Monongahela River toward Homestead. Violence broke out when the guards and workers clashed. A 14-hour gun battle ensued. Strikers set a railcar on fire and sent it down the tracks toward the barges. They also used dynamite and tried to pour oil into the river and set it on fire. When the Pinkerton guards gave up, union leaders promised the surrendering guards’ safety, but mobs of angry workers and their wives beat the guards with clubs and rifle butts. When the melee ended, three guards and nine steelworkers were dead. The governor sent in the militia to reclaim the plant for Carnegie.

Frick reopened the plant with strikebreakers, and in response a Russian anarchist tried to assassinate Frick in his office. The anarchist fired two bullets into Frick and stabbed him three times in the neck. A third bullet was fired, but John George Alexander Leishman, Carnegie Steel’s vice president, grabbed the assailant’s arm diverting the bullet and likely saving Frick’s life. After surgeons dug the bullets from Frick’s neck and patched his wounds, Frick went back to work and put in a full day. Frick would later go on to orchestrate the removal of Leishman from Carnegie Steel’s presidency even though he’d saved Frick’s life.

Fallout from the Homestead riots was enormous. Frick resigned as chief executive, but Carnegie convinced him to become chairman of the board. However, 20 years later when Frick tried to raise the price of his coke on Carnegie, the enraged Carnegie fired him. Frick tried to physically assault Carnegie, and then sued him for the market value of his shares in the company. Frick’s lawsuit was the greatest private law suit in American history. Frick was triumphant and was awarded $31 million, alienating Carnegie.

In 1900, J. P. Morgan formed U. S. Steel enfolding both Carnegie Steel and H. C. Frick into the new corporation. Frick became the director of U. S. Steel. In a biography by Robert Hessen of Charles Schwab, another of Pittsburgh’s steel magnates, Schwab described Frick as “a curious and puzzling man. No man on earth could get close to him or fathom him. He seemed more like a machine, without emotion or impulse. Absolutely cold-blooded.”

In 1902, Frick opened his eponymous building, the Frick Building, on Pittsburgh’s Grant Street. It was 20 stories tall, making it the tallest structure in the city. It was designed to cast a shadow on The Carnegie Steel building, which until Frick’s building was erected, was the tallest in town. The Carnegie Building was demolished in 1952 to make way for Kaufmann’s department store. The Frick Building still stands.

Although he was a callous businessman, Frick was a devoted husband and father. He had four children: Childs, Martha, Helen, and Henry, Jr. Sadly, Martha and Henry died in childhood. Frick built a mansion for his family, Clayton, in Pittsburgh’s East End, and it was the Frick family’s primary residence until 1905. When New York City became the center of art, society, and industry, the Fricks moved to a mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue. They built a summer home, Eagle Rock, in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts as well.

Although Carnegie regarded Frick as lacking in sophistication and education, Frick was an avid art collector, and he amassed an extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, porcelains, and carpets. It is regarded as one of the finest in the United States. Frick and his wife escaped death in 1912 when they cancelled their passage on the R.M. S. Titanic. Fortuitously, Mrs. Frick sprained her ankle and decided to skip the ship’s maiden voyage. Frick died days short of his seventieth birthday on December 2, 1919, in New York, but he is buried in Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

When Frick died, his estate was worth $142 million. Of that, he designated $117 million for philanthropic purposes. His New York mansion and art collection were given to New York City. He donated the land and a $2 million trust for the establishment and maintenance of Frick Park. Daughter Helen Clay Frick inherited Clayton and its collection of artwork. Helen returned to live in Clayton in 1981 and remained in the house until her death in 1984. When she died, she provided for the home to be restored and opened to the public. Today, The Frick includes Clayton and the Frick Art & Historical Center, The Frick Museum and the Carriage and Car Museum. Helen also built the Frick Fine Arts building on the University of Pittsburgh campus as a gift in memory of her father.

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Henry Clay Frick was a pivotal person in establishing Pittsburgh’s place as an industrial giant and in making the United States an economic powerhouse. Whether his philanthropic endeavors help to ameliorate his ruthless reputation is left to the individual to decide.

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