Monday, July 9, 2012

Pinkerton Agents Return to Chicago after Homestead

Found in The Chicago Tribune, this event occurred on July 9 of 1892 . . .

Lake Shore Depot (Wikipedia Photo)
At 2:45 in the afternoon on this date in 1892 a special train of five coaches pulled into Chicago’s Lake Shore depot on Van Buren Street.  A dozen men emerged from one of the coaches and headed south.  One man had his arm in a sling, another had welts and scars on his face, a third was missing his coat.  They did not stop to chat.

The train was secured by the Pinkerton Agency, and it carried 85 men returning from New York City after the horrific confrontation at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead steel mill just three days earlier.

The trouble at Homestead had been brewing for awhile, but tension began to increase in May of 1892 as Andrew Carnegie headed off for a summer in Scotland, leaving operation of the Carnegie Steel Company in the hands of his partner, Henry Clay Frick. 

Henry Clay Frick (Wikipedia Photo)
The nation’s largest union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, had been negotiating for better working conditions and higher pay throughout the spring, but on June 29 Frick closed the mill and locked out 3,800 steel workers.  The union reacted by taking over the plant and encircling the town to block strike-breakers from entering.

It was then that Frick summoned 300 Pinkerton Detectives from Chicago, many of them brand new to this line of work, in an effort to protect the new hires that he planned to recruit in order to break the strike on July 6. The plan was to assemble the Pinkerton agents on two barges that would float down the Ohio River to the point where it joins the Monongahela River, at which point the agents would re-take the heavily-guarded mill from the river.

No plan ever totally works out the way it is drawn up, and this one went to pieces in a hurry.  Strikers had gotten news of the plan, and a company of strikers aboard a steamboat met the barges, verified their intent, and alerted the strikers at Homestead.  At 2:30 in the morning the mill’s whistle was sounded, and thousands of individuals made their way to the bluffs along the waterfront to meet the planned invasion.

The Pinkertons attempt to land (Google Image)
The Pinkerton men attempted to land at about 4:00 a.m.  It will probably never be known who fired the first shot, but once the firing started two strikers and two Pinkerton agents were killed within ten minutes, and another 11 strikers and 12 agents were wounded.  More than 5,000 strikers and their families occupied the high ground.

The agents attempted to make another landing at about 8:00 a.m.  Four more strikers were killed in the attempt even though the Pinkerton men did not make it ashore. 

“The noise that they made on shore was awful, and it made us shake in our boots,” one agent said.  “We were pinned in like rats and we went at the fighting like desperate wild men . . . All of our men were under the beds and bunks, crying and trembling.”  []

By the evening 5,000 additional men had arrived from steel mills in the vicinity.  At 5:00 the Pinkerton agents raised the white flag, the fourth time they had tried to surrender during that long day.  They were in a terrible position.  They were being picked off, one by one, on the barges and on shore there were thousands of angry steel workers who had watched as the agents killed and wounded their fellow laborers. 

On shore, but hardly safe
(Wikipedia Photo)
But the Pinkerton men did come ashore, were stripped of their weapons, and then walked a savage gauntlet on their way to the Opera House, the temporary jail, in Homestead.  Men were spat on, had rocks thrown at them, and were beaten. 

Finally, at 12:30 a.m. on July 7 a special train arrived and carried the defeated agents to Pittsburgh.  It wasn’t until 10:00 a.m. on July 7 that the train began its trip to New York City and from there its trip back to Chicago.

One of the crewmen on the train that rolled into Chicago on July 9 described the men in The Tribune’s coverage of the story.  He observed, “They were a badly scared set of fellows—the worst scared lot I ever saw, in fact; and as they claim they had gone to Homestead not fully understanding what their duties were to be I felt rather sorry for them.”

He continued, “So far as I noticed there wasn’t a sound man in the lot.  Every one of them appeared to have been caught in the shuffle and hurt in some way or other.  Blackened eyes were most popular in the party, with broken or bruised heads a close second.  Some of the poor fellows limped, while others were unable to use their arms and hands on account of cuts and bruises.  A number of the men had lost their coats and hats during the assault made on them.”

Many of the men were fearful that a mob would be waiting for them in Chicago, and the closer the train got to the city the more uneasy they became.  Men got off the train from South Chicago all the way to Twenty-second street, any place where the platforms were empty.  If they saw a crowd on a train platform, they crouched down in their seats.

Homestead Steel on the Monongahela (Google Image)
The biggest casualty of the events at the Homestead Works was the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.  From a membership of 24,000 in 1891 the union lost over 14,000 workers by 1894.  And the Carnegie Steel Works remained a non-union shop for another four decades.  


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