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Frickin’ Hell

January 24, 2011

Men worked 12 hour shifts, sometimes back to back, 7 days a week, 364 days a year. By the 1890's Carnegie was working 3 hours a day, a few days a week, and relegating day to day decisions to Henry Clay Frick.

It was  5am and preparations were being made for the morning melt at the Edgar Thompson Works steel mill in Braddock, PA, on August 23, 1895.  The top filler, John Grengo, was exhausted and drenched in sweat from the unbearable heat of the furnace, and it would take every ounce of effort to make it through the last hour of work in this 12 hour shift. As John dumped a barrow full of ore into the bell shaped furnace, he failed to raise the boil and accidentally dropped the barrow in with the melting ore.  Foreman James Harrison quickly called the other fillers over to the top of the furnace and instructed them to remove the barrow with  huge iron crowbars.

Bessemer Furnace. After British philosopher and social Darwinist Herbert Spencer convinced Carnegie that it was his destiny to rise to the top, Carnegie wrote the "Gospel of Wealth" in 1889, in which he concludes that it also his duty to ensure that his money is spent on furthering "the fittest" race.

Deaths in Coal Mines 1900 to 2005. I wasn't able to find one dating back this far on steel mills, but numbers are even higher. As many as 20,000 workers across the nation each year died or were injured through the 1920s in industrial accidents. Steel worker deaths included being crushed, falling from great heights, burns, even being "whirled to death" after getting caught in a machine.

As they worked feverishly to extract the barrow, the refuse material which had been accumulating over the furnace, called the “hang”, suddenly dropped into the molton metal at the bottom of the furnace.  At the same time gases which had been unable to escape because of the  blocked opening burst into flame and belched out of the furnace, shooting up over 300 feet in the air with a deafening roar that was heard by every person in a 3 mile radius.  John and the other fillers, Slovaks Joseph Luckni, John Prokopovic, Stephen Havlin, John Mika, Joseph Csop, Andrew Drobuah and Mike Kafines were blown in all directions and down hundreds of feet to the ground below, engulfed in burning lava and gas.  One flew over the elevator and dropped down the shaft landing on a car at the bottom, which split him in half.    Several others were burned beyond recognition, identifiable only by their clothing or some physical uniqueness, such as height.  Only one died at the scene, while the seven others, writhing and screaming in pain, were carried off by horse driven ambulance where they later died at the hospital.

Lewis Hine, 1907. As many as 25% of Slovak workers were killed or injured working for Carnegie and other steel mill owners.

The explosion dragged hundreds of wives and children out of their beds and down the road to the mill to see if their husband or father had been killed; accidents like this  happened daily in the steel mills (and coal mines) at the time. Without insurance, death benefits, savings or any other social safety net, the families of the dead would be thrown out onto the streets. If the worker was lucky, a mill owner would offer to cover the cost of the funeral or medical care, but there was no guarantee.  The owners were protected from lawsuits and had no economic reason to institute safety precautions such as job training, warning signals, safety gear or better working conditions.   To Andrew Carnegie and the other mill owners, these men were disposable; for every man who died, four more were ready to step in to take the vacated job.


As the carnage of steel workers rose, Carnegie's profits skyrocketed from $2M to $40M a year. A dispute with his partner Henry Clay Frick in 1899 led to Frick' departure and a lawsuit, as Carnegie attempted to swindle him out of millions of dollars. In return, Frick's lawsuit threatened to expose Carnegie and his unseemly profits. They ended up settling, and not meeting again until hell, when they both died months apart in 1919.

Official cause of death recorded for the steel workers: carelessness or ignorance.

Carnegie insisted on bringing Spencer to Pittsburgh in the 1880s, and proudly showed him around the steel mills. Spencer, a sick and weak hypochondriac, complained about the smoke and polluted air, which caused him to collapse at one point. Upon his departure, he told Carnegie, "Six months residence here would justify suicide."

The term “fricking” was coined in 1892 after the Homestead Strike, when Henry Clay Frick locked out the Slovak steel workers.  His militant resistance to the labor dispute and the resulting deaths forever tarnished his name and Carnegie’s, and the yerm “fricking” began to be used to describe something disgusting.

More reading:

The Shadow of the Mills: Working-Class Families in Pittsburgh, 1870-1907, By S. J. Kleinberg

Gen Disasters, Braddock, Pennsylvania Edgar Thompson Steel Works Explosion August 23, 1895

Andrew Carnegie Gospel of Wealth, 1889.

Actual Gospel text.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    January 24, 2011 12:29 pm

    Horrible….. in every respect. Land of opportunity at what cost? Easy to see why the union movement became so strong in the manufacturing industries.
    By coincidence, “Valley of decision” movie was shown on television yesterday. Hollywood treatment of course of the steel mills and the strike.
    Thanks Tonya for a very disturbing post.

  2. January 24, 2011 12:49 pm

    The newspapers reported the daily accidents in gory detail, nearly always imparting blame on the workers themselves. The apparent goal was to warn them of the dangers in the steel mill, so that they would be more cautious.

    Most of the reports failed to bother or correctly identify who was Slovak – anyone of eastern or southern European descent was just a “Hunky.”

    I’ve never heard of the movie you mentioned, and I’ll have to look for it here. I have come across two books that I recently ordered:

    Hunky, by Nick Karasis, copyright 2009

    Out of This Furnace, by Thomas Bell, copyright 1976. In the last 20 years, this book has become a classic, taught in schools to educate kids about immigrant experiences and the industrial era. There is a horrific story in this book that is very telling of what Americans thought of immigrants back then.

  3. Donna permalink
    July 1, 2012 1:33 pm

    i’m glad 2have found this site. My father died in Edgar Thompson Steel Mill in 1964, at the age of 52. He also was a “Hunky”! I’m proud of my heritage and the term “Hunky” doesn’t offend me…rather, it gives me great pride in the tenacity of the men who worked in the mills and the women who stood behind them in their plight. Nazdravye to those men!

    • July 1, 2012 3:05 pm

      Donna, I completely agree. The men of the steel mills and coal mines were courageous, hard working and admirable. Thank you for writing! Tonya

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