Battle Hymns of Homestead | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Battle Hymns of Homestead

Three new Pump House exhibits for 112th strike anniversary

Local labor historian Charles McCollester has a radical solution for the city's economic problems: "If Pittsburgh could deal with the issues of [the] Homestead [Strike], this area could be turned around. But the people who run the city don't want to deal with it."


McCollester says we have unfinished business that's 112 years old, dating to the famous Battle of Homestead, in 1892. "The whole attitude of labor and management was shaped by what happened in Homestead," McCollester says. "It was whether workers should have a voice. The answer was 'No.'"


At dawn on July 6, 1892, Homestead citizens joined steelworkers locked out of a Carnegie Steel plant, waiting to confront two barges of 300 Pinkerton guards making their way up the Monongahela to break the workers' strike. Contract negotiations between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and Carnegie had failed. Someone -- no one knows who -- fired the first shot and an all-day battle began. Outnumbered, the Pinkertons were defeated and then beaten by the townspeople, who took brief possession of the steel works. Six days later, Pennsylvania's governor sent the state militia to reoccupy the plant, clearing the way for strikebreakers. The union was broken, wages dropped, and the workweek was once again 7 days of 12 hours each.


"The Battle of Homestead," McCollester says, "is the best-known labor history event in the U.S., but that's not saying a lot. It's known in Europe, too, but that doesn't mean people around here even understand what it was all about."


On July 10, McCollester and his fellow grassroots historians in the Battle of Homestead Foundation hope to spread the word further, opening three new permanent exhibits at the Pump House, which once helped send water to cool equipment at the Homestead mill.


After several years of negotiations, the Steel Industry Heritage Foundation acquired the Pump House -- near the site of the Pinkerton landing -- from the Waterfront developers, Continental Real Estate. That will allow the Battle of Homestead Foundation to spend a $20,000 state grant and $20,000 of union contributions on interpreting the site for visitors.


Sculptor Brian Reneski created a bronze rendition of a well-known image of the Homestead Strike, "Workers Cannonading the Barges," a drawing created by a Homestead local shortly after the event. "Versions hung in bars all over Homestead," McCollester says.


Local industrial modelist Don Stentner has built a 7-by-3-foot interpretive scaled model of the site as it existed in 1892, complete with the Pinkerton barges pushing ominously upriver -- and light-up buttons to explain it all. And artist and retired asbestos worker Bill Yund created 12 carefully researched portraits of steelworkers and industry-scapes from the past 100 years, evocative reconstructions of the "shadow forms moving along the tracks and rivers" that Yund recalls glimpsing near the mills at night.


There's one more new addition, McCollester notes: "This is the first time we've had electricity. Next goal, bathrooms. Suddenly people will realize something's really happening here."

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