The History Channel aired the second episode of its “Men Who Built America” series on Tuesday, and there was very little history in it.
In my review of the first episode I said the makers were “more concerned with telling a dramatic story than they were with historical accuracy.” The second episode is far worse in this regard. It’s basically just fiction in a period setting.
The episode starts with Andrew Carnegie standing over the grave of Thomas Scott, the recently deceased president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Narrator informs us that John D Rockefeller had crushed the railroad, and Scott, by his ruthless business practices. Scott had been Carnegie’s mentor (that bit is actually true), and “the loss is an enormous blow to Carnegie” because of the close personal relationship they had.
Scott, we are told, died “a broken man, defeated and humiliated at the hands of John D Rockefeller.” Carnegie vows to get revenge against Rockefeller. The rest of the two hour episode pretty much sticks with the narrative that Carnegie is obsessed with defeating Rockefeller.
None of this is true.
When Scott died in 1881 his Pennsylvania Railroad was one of the two largest railroads in the nation, partly because of all the business they’d gotten from John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Scott had had some financial troubles, but he was certainly not a “broken man.”
And the financial hardships Thomas Scott was suffering at that time had very little to do with Rockefeller. Scott had over-extended himself investing in a southern railroad in the early 1870’s, and then tried, unsuccessfully, to get Carnegie to bail him out financially. The relationship between Carnegie and Scott was always frosty after that. By the time Scott died he and Carnegie had long since ceased to be close personal friends.
It’s true that Standard Oil was always haranguing the Pennsylvania, and the other railroads, for lower freight rates; but so was Carnegie Steel. That was the nature of business, then as now.
After this phony tale of Carnegie having a vendetta against Rockefeller, the program goes into a highly fictitious account of the building of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River.
In the TV version Carnegie’s Keystone Bridge Works hired James Buchanan Eads to design the bridge, but Eads couldn’t figure out how to make an iron structure strong enough to withstand the distances it had to span, and the currents of the river. Carnegie has an epiphany while standing outside a blacksmith’s shop, and tells Eads that he must use steel rather than iron. The bridge project consumes Carnegie’s money, time, and passion; until he is on the verge of bankruptcy. When his vendors refuse to ship him any more materials, and threaten to sue him, he has to stop construction on the bridge until he can beg some additional financing from the government.
Nothing like that ever happened.
In actual fact Carnegie’s company was not the prime contractor for the bridge project, it was only a sub-contractor. It was Eads who insisted on steel for various parts of the bridge, while Carnegie argued fiercely that iron should be good enough. Carnegie’s part of the job was profitable from start to finish; he even made some extra money helping the government sell bonds to finance the project!
The fictional story of the bridge is followed up with more stories about the vendetta Carnegie supposedly nursed against Rockefeller. It’s a shame that History didn’t offer a more accurate account, because the relationship the two men actually had was pretty interesting.
The only major business deal the two of them ever made in the real world involved some iron-bearing lands in the Mesabi Mountain range of Minnesota, which Rockefeller ended up leasing to Carnegie on terms very favorable to Carnegie. The Mesabi Range deal ended up having repercussions all around the nation. No mention of the Mesabi Range deal was made in the History program, and that’s a pity, because the story would have been far more interesting than the fiction the network chose to broadcast.
The last forty-five minutes or so of the program is an outrageously phony account of the violence that broke out at Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Mill during a labor strike in 1892.
In the TV version the mill manager brings in a private army of Pinkerton Agency mercenaries to kill off the striking workers and force the survivors to go back to work for slave wages. The striking workers are standing their ground, unarmed, in the mill; standing on principle. Historian David Nasaw is interviewed, and as he phrases it, the workers were virtuously trying to “defend their mill.” The leader of the Pinkerton men addresses the strikers and threatens to “mow you all down,” then quickly orders his men to do just that. The unarmed workers run around in confusion while the mercenaries shoot them dead one by one.
(From various political comments David Nasaw made during the program I guessed that he was either a professor at, or a graduate of, Columbia University. During a commercial break I googled his name and learned that I was right.)
To increase the shock value, the script writer even shows one smooth-cheeked young Pinkerton employee who is unable to make himself shoot at the helpless strikers. The Pinkerton leader struts up to him and orders him at pistol-point to start killing strikers. The poor lad struggles between fear and conscience, and finally shoots and kills a wounded worker, forever soiling his tender young soul.
All of this is complete hogwash. Nothing remotely like this ever happened during the Homestead Strike.
Joseph Wall gives all the details of the Homestead strike in his exhaustively researched and abundantly footnoted (and very readable) 1,047 page Carnegie biography. The workers were not in the shuttered steel mill when the Pinkerton men arrived. The management team, fearing vandalism and arson, had been able to keep the workers out of the mill by putting up a fence and standing guard around the clock. They sent for Pinkerton guards to protect the mill, and to protect the safety of any strike-breakers who might eventually be hired.
The Pinkertons arrived in a barge, and the strikers were waiting for them, having been alerted by scouts who were patroling the river in a steamboat. By the time the Pinkerton barge landed, the strikers were arrayed on the hills above the river, armed with rifles, dynamite, and even a cannon. The strikers opened fire when first Pinkerton man set foot on the gangplank to leave the boat. The guards hunkered down inside the barge and returned fire through the windows.
The thing that probably saved the Pinkerton guards from mass slaughter was the lack of military expertise among the strikers. The strikers blew up their cannon through a loading error, and failed to get any of their dynamite bombs to detonate on the barge. The shooting stopped when the Pinkertons raised a white flag and agreed to disarm and leave Pittsburgh.
Next week’s episode will be about JP Morgan. It will be interesting to see what kind of stories the History producers make up about him.