A Glimpse of Pittsburg
HERBERT SPENCER, after visiting a large rail mill of the Pittsburg district, once remarked that what he had seen there had enlarged his previous ideas of the capability of the human mind. A well-known painter of the impressionist school came to Pittsburg a year ago, as a member of the international jury of the annual art exhibition, and during his stay painted a picture representing a squalid cul-de-sac, where sky, bluff, goat, chicken, house, and woman, all seemed painted with soot. The majority of those who know the Smoky City imperfectly, or only by reputation, fancy it throughout like this picture. Very few study it with the eyes of the philosopher, who, penetrating the non-essential though at times displeasing veil, at once understood its real meaning and mission, namely, the conquest of nature by intelligent energy directing suitable machinery, whose life comes from that smoke and dirt producer, bituminous coal.
The origin of Pittsburg dates back millions of years ago to the Carboniferous Period. Then immense forests of trees and dense vegetation grew in swamps upon a warm earth and beneath a tropical sun; while the atmosphere was laden with carbonic acid, from which the plants extracted the precious carbon, leaving oxygen in the air for the future use of man.
Before the Glacial Period the Monongahela River was much larger than it is now. It then covered most of the triangular site of the present city of Pittsburg, which owes to it the deep strata of sand, loam, and gravel that have contributed largely to the health, industries, and buildings of the inhabitants. The Ohio River was then a part of the Monongahela, but subsequent glacial deposits not only filled the ancient channel, but completely turned the course of the river, which accounts for the sudden southward bend of the Ohio at Rochester.
During the later geological periods, the undisturbed strata of coal and clay schist were deeply cut and eroded, leaving coal beds, the height of a man, exposed along the cañon-like valleys and above the streams which now transport, at very small expense, the cheaply mined fuel to adjacent and distant markets. As a final result of the decomposition and compression of the vegetation of the Carboniferous Period, western Pennsylvania possesses to-day deposits of coal which a German geologist has declared to be the finest in the world, considering their extent, thickness, quality, and avail ability.
Thousands of years of erosion, and the wild growth of vegetation, finally left the region picturesque and beautiful, as Washington probably saw it from the top of the high bluffs which still bear his name. Several hundred feet beneath him, the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers flowed in majestic curves to mingle their waters in the broad Ohio. At their angular intersection, now appropriately named the Point, was the site of Fort Duquesne, and of its successor, Fort Pitt, — commanding the navigation of the three rivers, — of which Colonel Bouquet’s redoubt alone remains, sole witness of the incredibly rapid transformation of a savage wilderness into the iron, steel, and glass centre of the world.
When James Parton, the historian, looked down at night, from the encircling hills, upon the weird fountains of flame and smoke, he could think only of “ hell with the lid off.” A stranger, looking to-day from the top of Mount Washington down upon the narrow strips of land left between high bluffs by the eroding rivers, must notice the tremendous activity, and he cannot fail to recognize the prime mover in this intense industrial drama. The housetops and hillsides wear its colors ; and numberless columns, like gigantic organ pipes, breathe forth graceful plumes of black and white. The city and its environs bear testimony to the sovereignty of Coal. Foreign engineers say this region is the world’s industrial school, because here they find men manufacturing iron, steel, and glass cheaply enough to sell throughout the world, in spite of the fact that the highest wages are paid to all, and that many of the workers earn more than most professional men.
A little over a century ago, Pittsburg was noted chiefly for its Monongahela whiskey and its independent, belligerent Scotch-Irish settlers, who cared very little for the dark bands of coal everywhere visible along the hillsides. The growth of Pittsburg, however, in wealth, population, and production has been directly in proportion to the amount of coal it has mined and consumed. Yet its coal still unused represents a future market value greater than that of the world’s present total stock of gold, aside from the vast treasures of petroleum and natural gas in this district. It is therefore not surprising that all the great manufacturing corporations are buying up available coal lands, to cover their future requirements.
Early in this century, the steamboat and steam engine were introduced here, to utilize these precious deposits ; and Pittsburg began to manufacture a large variety of articles of iron, copper, glass, and other materials, for distribution by river over the West and South. The subsequent extension of railroads greatly increased its manufactures, but temporarily diminished its relative importance as the navigable key to the West and South. During the Civil War, however, its production and wealth were enormously increased. Its gunboats and ordnance and its efficient men were of the greatest service in that struggle. If members of Congress are wise, they will do all in their power to encourage the attempt now being made to connect this most important manufacturing centre with the Great Lakes by a ship canal, which recent surveys have shown to be entirely practicable at a reasonable expense. Its annual tonnage would probably exceed that of the Suez Canal; and it would enable the Northwest to receive cheap fuel, iron, and steel, in return for its cheaply transported ores. The probable profits for this year of one Pittsburg corporation which uses the largest quantity of Lake iron ores would suffice to build the entire ship canal as recommended by the Commission ; and the saving on the present coal freights by rail to the Lakes would alone warrant its construction, to say nothing of the vast tonnage of heavy and bulky manufactured products now shipped to the Northwest from this region.
The industrial history of Pittsburg is largely the history of the steam engine and of modern applied science. We are astonished at the low wages in China, where a man will work for ten cents per day; yet in Pittsburg machines are doing, at a cost of less than half a cent per day, more and better work than any unaided artisan could do. At almost every step, in many works, one can see a youth or man operating, with little effort, a machine accomplishing results which three thousand skilled handworkers could not duplicate in the same time. And yet three men can mine all the coal necessary to supply the energy for such a machine ; while the total coal product of the region could supply steam engines of greater horse power than could be obtained from the entire falls of Niagara. So concentrated and intense is the activity of machinery and men in the Pittsburg district that their efficient work is more than could be done, without machinery, by the entire working population of the United States; while their annual product is about equal in value to the yearly gold production of the whole world.
Pittsburg’s machinery is the result of the world’s best mechanical thought and of the expenditure of possibly half a billion of dollars, most of which will be destroyed or displaced in less than a generation ; for the struggle for existence among men is nothing compared with that among machines, in this region.
Pittsburg has always been noted for its population of intensely active and efficient workers. It has never had a leisure class. The first question asked about a new acquaintance is, “ What does he do ? ” If there be a latter-day idler in Pittsburg, he is compelled to have a nominal occupation, to receive any consideration from others. He is led to make periodic trips to Philadelphia, New York, or Europe, in order to preserve his self-respect and to find congenial friends; for here his acquaintances are likely to regard him as a “degenerate.” Pittsburg’s aristocracy, if it recognizes any, is founded on continuous productive labor. Its chief worker is the large manufacturer, who has grown with his mills, and has become so saturated with his business that it engrosses his waking hours and colors his dreams ; follows him to his home, to his amusements, and does not always leave him at church.
Such a man, having succeeded without much schooling, is apt to agree with the view of life indicated by a fellow townsman’s remark apropos of an acquaintance of scholarly attainments : “ What a hell of a lot of useless information that man possesses ! ” Yet, in all that pertains, directly or indirectly, to his business interests, the Pittsburg manufacturer is thoroughly informed, and eager to adopt improvements from any source ; but he must first be convinced that they are genuine improvements, and that he can afford to make them. He is extremely practical and matter of fact; keen of observation ; logical and accurate in his judgment of men and things, in so far as they affect his business interests. Like the original Scotch-Irish settlers, he is energetic, independent in thought and action ; generous where his sympathies are aroused ; peaceful if let alone, but a fearless fighter if threatened or attacked. He is a manly man, a judge and leader of active men. Personally economical, his home and family are his sole objets de luxe, aside from his works, which often absorb all of, or more than, his capital. He makes a fine executive committee of one, but is not always a tractable colleague or subordinate. Whatever his religion may be, the first article of his daily creed is to fulfill his contracts at any cost, be they large or small, verbal or written. Easily approached, careless as to dress during business hours, unpretentious socially, clear and laconic in his statements, he inspires confidence and respect in any one who confers with him on business matters. He is the effective type of the modern industrial general, possessing all the personal qualities of an army commander, plus that power to manage human pride and prejudice which may be called business tact. He is a modern Stoic determined to succeed in business; his usual lack of ready money, due to constant betterments of his works, reminding one of the industrious American boy who boasted to a playmate that his father intended to buy him a fine new axe with the money he earned by chopping with the old one.
The successful manufacturer must be something of a prophet, to foresee coming changes in the supply and demand of his products in different parts of the world. He must prepare for labor troubles, often caused by distant events over which he has no control; must see that his personnel and plant keep pace with those of his competitors, or he will be impoverished and ruined. He is constantly menaced by fire, explosions, business failures and changes, serious accidents to men and machines : all of which may come suddenly, without warning, and must he met at once with appropriate remedies. The world at large does not, in fact, appreciate the great executive power, special knowledge, inventive ability, courage, fidelity, perseverance, continuous thought, and patience required of an active and successful ironmaster. Perhaps his daily experience might be likened to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrs, in its intensity of action, its apparent noise and confusion, its terrific rushing to and fro of struggling energies; while above all the strife and din there presides a rhythmic control, — a dominating force or fate, ceaselessly directing to some specific end this seeming mixture of chaos and battle of the giants.
Scarcely less remarkable is the daily experience of the glass manufacturers. Although still somewhat behind the ironmasters in the use of machinery, yet so great has been their progress in this direction that one company has fifteen thousand different objects for use or ornament, which it sells at a profit not only throughout the continents of America and Europe, but even to the distant empires of China and Japan ; another company sends its products around the world to help our petroleum light the humblest dwellings; while a third has, in a few years, beautified and illumined numberless habitations with plate glass, so long a luxury for the rich alone. Meanwhile, the manufacturers of ordinary window glass, by using continuous melting furnaces, have so cheapened their product that it is now within the reach of all.
As abundant coal caused the erection of the first glass works here over a century ago, so the use of natural gas, formed ages before the coal, has of recent years confirmed the Iron City’s supremacy in glass manufacture, which had been gained by means of its coal and ingenious machinery. Considering the enormous increase in the uses of glass, and the possibilities of the toughened varieties inroad and building construction, may we not reasonably expect that, with the help of Pittsburg, some future century will be known as the Glass Age ? But before that epoch the Iron City will probably hasten the advent of an Electrical Age, although glass is the oldest, and electrical machinery one of the youngest, of its important industries. The recent giant strides of applied electricity almost baffle description and comprehension, so diverse and intricate are the ramifications of these “ etheric ” applications.
When one considers the great Pittsburg dynamos which lighted the World’s Fair, and the five thousand horse-power generators which utilize a fraction of Niagara Falls ; when he calls to mind the motors which animate, and the currents which heat and light, the ubiquitous trolley cars, — Holmes’s broomstick trains, whose witches ” are banishing horses and even locomotives from city and suburban service in all parts of the world ; when he thinks of the sensitiveness of the telephone, of the multiplex telegraph, and of the multitude of electrical instruments, in connection with the dazzling light, the irresistible heat and power of electrical currents, he is forced to the conclusion that electricity is the form in which our successors will utilize most of the sources of power which nature has placed at their disposal.
Pittsburg has, of course, the failings of its virtues, of which individualism is perhaps chief. Individualism characterized the original settlers, and, later, shaped the industrial and social development of the region ; which correspondingly suffered in much that depends upon public and private coöperation. The resulting exclusive and exhaustive attention to business has caused what might be called civic absenteeism, — the abandonment of personal public duties to the political “ boss ” and “ ring ; ” for bossism in public life parallels individualism in private life. “ After me the deluge,” is the motto of both. But fortunately they have reached their culmination. Even Pittsburg, although at times enshrouded in the smoke of its industries, and still in its pioneer, all-laboring condition, has already broken with its political Dark Ages, and entered its Renaissance of better municipal government.
The universal use of natural gas, some years ago, demonstrated to the inhabitants that, with clear skies, a clean city, and a site of great natural beauty, Pittsburg might be made one of the most attractive places of residence in the United States. Accordingly, with the gradual disappearance of natural gas, and the return to coal consumption, there has been developed a very strong movement toward smoke prevention, which has already accomplished a great deal, and bids fair to be ultimately successful. As a slight indication of the drift of public opinion may be mentioned the pictorial advertising signs of a prominent manufacturer, which show the sunlight breaking through a mass of black clouds, and illuminating a large edifice marked “ A Clean Spot in Pittsburg; ” while a restaurant, once painted white, puts forth this inviting sign, — alas ! now growing dim, — “ Cleanliness next to Godliness.”
Pittsburg’s æsthetic growth is shown by the establishment of beautiful parks and conservatories, during the past few years, and by the quiet enjoyment of the vast working population who visit them, principally on Sundays. It is doubtful if the magnificent Easter displays of massed flowers in the Phipps Conservatory are equaled anywhere, at home or abroad. They might well be called Easter choruses, divinely chanting “ Peace on earth and good will to men ” to the tens of thousands of toilers of the Iron City, whose skill, fidelity, courage, and energy can be appreciated only by those who see them daily exercised, in spite of troubles, accidents, sorrows, and discouragements of every description. From the conservatories it is but a step to the Carnegie Institute, which contains the Museum, already noted for its collections, with the Academy of Science and Art, and associated societies, to aid its educational work ; the reference and circulating libraries, with their phenomenal growth ; the art galleries, with their choice collections, and their yearly Salon of established international character and influence ; finally, the beautiful Music Hall, where the working population show their appreciation of the weekly free organ concerts by a master of the instrument; while every winter cultivated and attentive audiences assemble to listen to their Symphony Orchestra, which private generosity and exertion have made among the best in the country.
Science also has its votaries here, and a fitting temple under the care of the Western University. Thanks to the industry and generosity of its friends, the old Allegheny Observatory, whose work and astronomers hold a high rank in the scientific world, is soon to have a worthy successor. The new Observatorv will occupy a well-chosen site, surrounded by an atmosphere especially adapted for solar and other work, and possessing a home-made equipment superior in many respects to that of any existing observatory. There celestial images will be carried down into the various physical laboratories, and be made to reveal to the astro-physicist the secrets of infinitely distant, and perhaps long-vanished worlds.
Would it not be a remarkable example of cosmic compensation if this new Allegheny Observatory — standing on the very coal where ages ago the sun stored his abundant treasures of heat, and founded the future Pittsburg — should be the means of revealing to the world the intimate history and probable future of the sun, whose extinction would sweep all life from the planet ?
William Lucien Scaife.