The Men Who Built America Episode Two: Twice as Phony

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.

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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.

Al Fuller

Click here to read Al’s review of the third episode.

Click here to read Al’s review of the Fourth.

 

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29 thoughts on “The Men Who Built America Episode Two: Twice as Phony

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  • Many viewers still watch the History Channel assuming it’s a credible source of historical information, but in many cases it isn’t. They’re turning to drama to please the viewership.

    In response to John Q and those who feel the same, not every viewer knows to approach the fictitious side of the History Channel with caution. “The Men Who Built America” never includes the “based on a true story” notice. It’s presented as fact.

    It’s a good thing to correct false information, and a good use of time. The author’s tone holds some irritation with this program but he isn’t whining. Considering what the History Channel is trying to pull here, I think irritation is warranted.

  • I lived in Carnegie Pennsylvania a suburb of Pittsburgh. When I was in the
    4 or 5th grade I talked to a man who participated in the strike and he told
    me about shooting the cannon at the pinkertons. The TV account is BS
    based on what I heard as a kid.

  • Thank you for this very helpful article. I found the show ponderous, doling out facts at too slow a rate, so decided to split-screen my laptop and learn more about the men and incidents while it was playing. I quickly learned that the History Channel wasn’t doling out facts at all. They were feeding us garbage.

  • John Q, are you high?

    “A show on TV?” How can you gloss over the fact that it’s a “show” on the “history” channel. Unless you’re willing to admit “history” is as good as fiction in today’s culture (I know quite a few people who will take umbrage with that assertion) and the History Channel, famous for “ANCIENT ALIENS” which tries to prove boulders on the tops of mountains were placed there by tractor beams millions of years ago, is, as a network, full of .

  • I also found it interesting while discussing the Johnstown flood that they said it was the American Red Cross first domestic, peacetime disaster response. Wrong! The first response was in 1881 in the thumb of Michigan after a forest fire. More interesting for the story though…

  • I’m not sure you should be all the critical of the History Channel, sir. According to what I have read, no one is sure who fired first, but there was a 14 hour firefight. People were killed, and Carnegie accomplished his goal, which was to break the efforts to create an efficient union and make a statement about his power. That is the truth of it.

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  • Agreed – pretty crappy version of history. Carnegie didn’t 1) figure our crucible steal nor 2) own the largest steel company – that was Park. Feel free to google “park & steel & Pittsburgh”. Also – it was Park who created the Park Building (still standing) in Pittsburgh – 1st skyscraper to be build out of steel.

  • @ Cory:

    A short but good introduction to the history of this era is The Tycoons by Charles R. Morris. It’s only 318 pages but it’s a good thumbnail sketch of the careers of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Jay Gould.

    Al

  • It has become harder and harder to find reading material referencing poignant chapters of history without the helping hand of political correctness rewriting the pages. After watching the aforementioned episode of “The Men Who Built America,” the labor infused rhetoric awoke enough skepticism to seek out alternative sources which, thankfully, leave pantomime where it belongs: The theater. With that, are there sources other than the one mentioned which you would recommend in an effort to rebuild my own personal academics?

  • Sometimes I’m shocked by the comments people leave on my website. Spencer D seems to have made a choice between blind faith in my website and blind faith in the History Channel, opting for the History Channel. I find that frightening.

    Ted W responded with the very sensible observation that blind faith in any one source is always a bad idea.

    Kudos to you, Ted W. Skepticism is always a student’s best friend, and I would argue that this is more important in the study of history than anywhere else. An accurate understanding of history is our best protection against all sorts of evils, and history is probably the one field of study where bad information is most common.

    In addition to all the usual sources of error, history is more subject to political bias than other subjects, and political bias is not the only problem. In the case of the “Men Who Built America” series I suspect that much of the phony information came from nothing more than someone’s desire to write a dramatic story for a TV audience.

    As for the question of my not citing all my sources, that is simply a time issue. I don’t make my living from this website; I write it as a labor of love, and it takes up a fair amount of my time as it is. The history textbook reviews that you’ll find in the “Columns” section of this site are pretty thoroughly footnoted, but I don’t usually footnote these weekly blog posts.

    I do, however, provide source information whenever someone leaves a comment asking for it. If someone cares enough about his/her question to ask a question in the comments field I always make the time to respond with detailed information.

    Al Fuller

  • The point is you should not blindly accept historical information from any one source, especially the History Channel, without first verifying through several sources.

  • Who would trust this random blogger over the history channel. This man doesn’t even cite his sources.

  • Thank you for your insightful analysis. While watching this series many events depicted just did not ring true but I thought, well, the History Channel would not make things up. Wow was I wrong. Serves me right for believing anything in modern media without verifying it from several sources.

  • Hey, whoever made this thing picked the wrong guy to narrate it. I mean, this dude has a certain guttural, constipated urgency in his tone of voice. And even worse, he over-pronounces words in a manner that sounds very unnatural. People don’t talk that way, with extra emphasis on T’s and D’s and P’s and so forth. Sounds rather sputtery, with lots of popping sounds — and snake-like hissing when he pronounces S’s as well. Very distracting and annoying. Completely ruined the series for me.

  • It MATTERS when it is the History Channel. I tend to have somewhat of a critical mind but may have been too trusting of the History Channel. I am not saying that much of what they do is not accurate. Possibly. In this case, if it is fictionalized dramatization drawn from history, say so repeatedly during the broadcast. It they want to do a SHOW fine, but make sure to distinguish between that and a true DOCUMENTARY.

  • I am not an expert in this area…just a guy entering retirement who luvs the history channel…I expect this channel to have higher standards…at least that’s what I get from the “history channel”…

  • I think the most obvious part was the fact that the revisionist fiction was nothing more than a chance for the nouveau riche to flash their over-achieving faces an add to their hit resume.

    The biggest question is who died and left the British Council in charge of American history?

  • When I saw there version of the Homestead Strike I was mortified! History Channel is to history as Fox News is to politics.

  • Re: John Q. – Methinks you may be one of the writers of the series. Otherwise I have no explanation for you getting in a twist because someone decided to hold the “HISTORY CHANNEL” accountable for the fact it is selling nonsense as “history”.

    And, just to make an observation: According to you this blogger should “get a life”, yet you are taking the time to criticize him. Hmm. What do you suppose that says about you and how you spend your time?

    To: The Other Half of History – Unlike John Q, I’ve found your analysis well worth both your time and mine. My history was rusty, but good enough to realize something smelled rotten. Your blog serves as a nice compendium to the show. It’s amusing to see how much they’ve made up. (And, so far when I’ve checked you – you were correct.) Well, it would be amusing if it weren’t so infuriating!

  • Thanks so much. I’ve harped on their ‘versions’ of history through many series. It does my heart good to see anyone value the truth and lessons of history.

  • U have too much time on ur hands. U have an entire website where u whine about a show on tv. It’s tv, and it’s a SHOW, not a DOCUMENTARY. How many movies have u seen that were “based on a true story” that didn’t stretch and embelish the truth for sake of the movie. BASED, is the key word. Put away the tissue and get a life.

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