Andrew Carnegie was born on November 25, 1835, in Dunfermline, Scotland, which was the center of the country’s linen industry. His father, William, was a skilled linen weaver who wove his cloth in the family’s small cottage. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, hand weaving gradually became obsolete and William eventually lost his livelihood. Carnegie’s mother, Margaret, who was very concerned with status and wealth, opened a small grocery shop in their cottage and took in mending of shoes to make ends meet. By 1848, many in their town were starving, and in his writings, Carnegie detailed how he had to watch his father beg for work, and how he vowed that when he grew up, he would make sure that he would never have to do that.
In addition to linen weaving, Dunfermline was known for its Abbey Church and the adjacent historic ruins of Pittencrieff Glen, a 60-acre private park controlled by the Laird of Pittencrieff. Young Carnegie used to gaze longingly into the park, wishing he could go into what appeared to him to be paradise. But he would have to wait many years before entering, because Carnegie’s father and maternal grandfather, Tom Morrison, were political radicals. They favored abolishing the monarchy and spoke out for equality for all men. The park was opened to the public once a year, but young Carnegie was never allowed in; the Laird had banished Carnegie’s entire family in revenge.
When the Carnegies could no longer eke out a living in Scotland, they borrowed money and immigrated to the United States in 1848, when Andrew was 12 and his younger brother was 4. They settled in Slabtown on Rebecca Street in Allegheny City, renting two rooms from his mother’s sister. The poverty and squalor they had hoped to escape in Scotland were awaiting them in Pittsburgh, but at least here in America there were jobs. With only five years of schooling, Andrew went to work at the age of 13 stoking boilers in a textile factory for 12 hours a day, a job that often gave him nightmares. In 1849, he escaped the mill and went to work as a messenger boy in a telegraph office. This position afforded him the opportunity to meet businessmen from all over the city. Carnegie made it a point to commit their names and faces to memory, ingratiating himself with these businessmen by greeting them by name whenever he came across them on the street.
Seven years after arriving in America, his father died at the age of 51. Carnegie then went to work for the most prominent railroad in the country, the Pennsylvania. His supervisor was Thomas A. Scott, the superintendent of the railroad’s Western division and one of those business executives young Carnegie had made it a point to remember from his days delivering messages. With Scott as his mentor, Carnegie worked to streamline the railroads and minimize costs. The pair collaborated, investing in the new sleeping cars that were brought on line on the railroad, and Carnegie saw his investment earn a profit of $5,000 a year. A keen observer, Carnegie realized that iron bridges would be needed to replace the old wooden ones and formed an iron company to make them for the railroads. This investment soon made him and Scott, as well as J. Edgar Thomson, wealthy men. Thomson was president of the railroad and had invested in Carnegie’s company using his wife’s name to avoid the perception of conflict of interest.
In 1865, Carnegie left the Pennsylvania Railroad, and he and his mother moved to New York City, taking up residence in the posh St. Nicholas hotel. There, Carnegie encountered the philosophy of classical liberal Herbert Spencer, who advocated Social Darwinism, or “survival of the fittest,” in the marketplace.
In his early 30s, Carnegie wrote of aiming to retire at 35, but a trip to England in 1872 spurred him to work another 30 years. During his trip abroad, he saw English iron mills expanding into steel mills because of the invention of the Bessemer Furnace, which made converting great quantities of iron into steel easier and more profitable.
Carnegie borrowed money and opened a steel plant in Braddock, bringing in Bessemer furnaces. On August 22, 1875, the first steel was produced at what would be Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Works, named for his friend and the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Carnegie promptly set out to corner the rail market. At a meeting of steel mill owners, Carnegie showed up and demanded an equal share of the production of rails for the railroads. When the other owners protested, Carnegie spoke up telling them that he knew that the other owners were making $50,000 to $80,000 a year and had enormous expense accounts. He told them that he only made $5,000 a year and had no expense account. He also told them they couldn’t compete with him and that he’d put them out of business. And he did.
The Edgar Thomson Works a success, Carnegie opened the Homestead Works. While there were labor tensions at the Edgar Thomson Works, they had usually been settled amicably. That would not be the case at Homestead.
While living in New York, Carnegie met fellow Pittsburgher, Henry Clay Frick, who was honeymooning in the city. Frick was known as the “King of Coke.” Coke is a vital ingredient in the steel making process. When the pair agreed to team up to make steel, Carnegie got Frick’s coke as well as Frick himself, who was known as a capable manager and businessman. During Frick’s first year on the job as Carnegie’s Chief Executive, profits doubled.
In October 1886, Carnegie’s younger brother Tom died, and in November of that same year, his mother died while Andrew was stricken with typhoid. Five months after his mother’s passing, he wed, at the age of 51, Louise Whitfield, who was 30. They had one daughter, Margaret, who was born on March 30, 1897, and named for Andrew’s mother. He purchased Skibo Castle in the Scottish Highlands, making it a sporting estate.
Although he only had five years of formal schooling, Carnegie educated himself and credited Col. James Anderson in his autobiography, which Carnegie penned in 1920, for opening his library to the working class. “Colonel James Anderson, I bless his name as I write, announced that he would open his library of four hundred volumes to boys, so that any young man could take out, each Saturday afternoon, a book which could be exchanged for another on the succeeding Saturday.” Consequently, Carnegie would go on to write several books.
Ironically, it was also during his early steel-making days, that Carnegie penned several essays championing union rights, and settled several labor disputes at various plants. While he may have been, or perceived himself to be, a friend of labor, Frick clearly was not.
In 1889, only Carnegie’s Homestead mill had union labor, and during that summer, they had won concessions from Carnegie. However, in 1892 when their contract expired, they faced negotiations with Frick, who was still seething after Carnegie had forced him to back down in a previous labor dispute.
The summer of 1892, Carnegie took off for his annual vacation in the remote Scottish Highlands, leaving Frick in charge with the instructions that if the workers didn’t accept Frick’s terms, to close the plant and wait the men out. Instead, Frick built a fence 3 miles long and 11 feet high around the plant, locking the workers out and announcing that he would not negotiate with the union, but with individual workers. With 1,100 workers locked out by the end of June 2, four hundred more went on strike on July 1. Frick planned to reopen on July 6 with a non-union workforce.
While Carnegie was out of the country and out-of-touch, whether conveniently as some have speculated or not, on July 6, two barges filled with 300 armed Pinkerton guards glided up the Monongahela River toward Homestead. Workers on shore urged the guards not to disembark, but they were not deterred. No one knows for sure who fired first, but for 14 hours, union workers and armed guards traded gunfire. Strikers set a railcar on fire and sent it down the tracks toward the barges. They 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 them with clubs and rifle butts. When the fighting ceased, three guards were dead as well as nine workers. The workers took over the plant, but the governor sent in the militia to reclaim it for Carnegie.
In public, Carnegie criticized the workers, but in personal letters to relatives, he took Frick to task for the debacle. Frick reopened the plant with strikebreakers, and a Russian anarchist not affiliated with the union fired two bullets into Frick and stabbed him three times in the neck. After surgeons dug the bullets out of his neck and patched his wounds, Frick went back to work and put in a full day.
Fallout from the Homestead riots was enormous. Workers had no jobs and their union leaders were blackballed. For 45 years there would be no steelworkers union. 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. Infuriated, 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, and Frick won, walking away with $31 million, making him the only man ever to challenge Andrew Carnegie and win.
Carnegie was also associated with another fiasco: the Johnstown Flood of 1889. He was a member of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club. Sixty-one of Pittsburgh’s leading industrialists had purchased the Western Reservoir (later known as Lake Conemaugh), which provided water for the Pennsylvania Canal that ran between Pittsburgh and Johnstown. Before the group bought the property, the dam there had been neglected and previous owners had removed its drainage pipes. Nevertheless, the elite of Pittsburgh purchased the lake and surrounding area as a refuge from the dirty, crowded city of Pittsburgh, and like their predecessors, they failed to reinstall the drainage pipes and made modifications to the dam that spelled doom for Johnstown.
When an enormous storm blew through the area on May 31, 1889, the dam burst, sending a wall of water downstream to Johnstown, killing 2,209 people in its wake. The Johnstown Flood Museum put the significance of the disaster into historical perspective.
The Johnstown Flood resulted in the first expression of outrage at power of the great trusts and giant corporations that had formed in the post-Civil War period. This antagonism was to break out into violence during the 1892 Homestead steel strike in Pittsburgh. The Club’s great wealth rather than the dam’s engineering came to be condemned. The Johnstown Flood became emblematic of what many Americans thought was going wrong with America. In simple terms, many saw the Club members as “robber barons” who had gotten away with murder.
Carnegie rebounded, and by 1900 was producing more steel than the entire steel industry of Great Britain. Also in 1900, Carnegie faced a new challenge when customers stopped buying Carnegie’s steel because of an upstart named J.P. Morgan. Morgan began to purchase finishing plants that fashioned steel into rods, nails, etc. as well as opening his own steel production plants. Carnegie’s plants were more efficient and cost effective, and Carnegie knew he could crush Morgan if he chose to. Morgan knew it as well, which left him only one option: to buy out Carnegie Steel.
Carnegie was 65 when Morgan made his move, and earlier in his life, he had written that a man should spend the first third of his life acquiring an education, the second third acquiring wealth, and the last third, giving wealth away. For whatever reason, Carnegie accepted Morgan’s offer of $480 million, a sum that many felt was way below the company’s true value.
Nevertheless, Carnegie made good on his aim to give away his wealth, and adjusted for inflation, he has become the most generous donor in the nation’s history. It is estimated that he gave 90 percent ($350 million) of his wealth away. He established nearly 3,000 libraries, two-thirds of those in the U.S. He founded Carnegie Technical Schools, which evolved into today’s Carnegie Mellon University, as well as the Carnegie Hero Fund that honors those who have risked their lives to rescue others. He also started the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Carnegie Relief Fund; which aided injured steelworkers; Carnegie Corporation, a grant-making organization, which among its many accomplishment has been the development of Sesame Street; Carnegie Dunfermline Trust; and Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland. Although not a religious man, he purchased 7,500 organs for churches. In Pittsburgh, he funded the Carnegie Museum and Carnegie Music Hall in addition to numerous libraries. His love of books and learning was evident in that one of the first things he did was to remember Col. Anderson, who had opened his library to the working class, with a monument in Pittsburgh.
In a stroke of poetic justice, Carnegie also became Laird of Pittencrieff Glen and donated the park, the park he had never been allowed to enjoy as a child, to the public.
Carnegie was also interested in world politics. He urged the formation of the “league of nations” and endeavored to bring together Theodore Roosevelt and Kaiser Wilhelm, who was creating tension in Europe. Carnegie got his wish. The two met; however, Carnegie fell into despair when his efforts to broker peace failed, and World War I erupted. In 1914, with war on the horizon, Carnegie left his beloved Skibo Castle for America. In 1916, the Carnegie family moved into Shadow Brook, a 100-room mansion in Massachusetts, and lived there for several more years. Four months after giving his daughter away in marriage to Roswell Miller, Jr., Carnegie died on August 11, 1919, at the age of 84, from pneumonia.
While he was on his deathbed, he sought to reconcile with Frick and dispatched a message to him, inviting him to come to his house. Frick sent back a note, “Tell Mr. Carnegie I’ll meet him in hell where we are both going.” Frick died four months later of a heart attack at the age of 69.
Carnegie was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. His grave is marked with a headstone made of stone from Skibo Castle, and is simply inscribed:
Born in Dunfermline, Scotland
25 November 1835
Died in Lenox, Massachusetts
11 August 1919
It was an understated epitaph for a man who had lived such a grandiose life.