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Economics of Pennsylvania in the 19th century


John D. Rockefeller in Pennsylvania
John D. Rockefeller in Pennsylvania

From the time of its founding, Pennsylvania possessed a diversified economy. Its farmers made the state the breadbasket of the colonies. Milling, mining, printing, and shipbuilding were among the commonwealth’s early industries. Philadelphia expanded as a manufacturing center, producing cotton and silk textiles, iron machinery, and pharmaceutical chemicals.

Vast resources of coal, iron, and petroleum, combined with a transportation network, made Pennsylvania an important industrial state after the Civil War. In the 1840s railroads became the major means of transportation and an important industry, carrying coal and other products. By 1850 the Pennsylvania Railroad was the nation’s largest rail system and the world’s largest freight carrier. Its leaders wielded great power over the state legislature.

The face and economy of America were transformed after 1859 with the discovery of oil at Titusville in the state’s northwest corner. In addition to spurring regional growth, oil quickly led to the creation of the refinery industry and the development of multimillion-dollar corporations, especially the Standard Oil Company founded by John D. Rockefeller. By 1879 Rockefeller held about 95 percent of the country’s oil-refining capacity and controlled much of the world market for oil products. A similar concentration of power prevailed in the iron and steel industry, which was dominated by Andrew Carnegie. After building the largest steel mill in the world near Pittsburgh, Carnegie created a business empire that controlled every phase of steel processing, from mines that provided raw material to ships and rail cars that delivered the finished product. He sold his company in 1901 to the newly formed United States Steel Corporation, which soon became the world’s leading steel producer.

As an industrial center, Pennsylvania played a major role in the development of the labor movement and became the site for some of the largest confrontations between giant companies and workers. Much of the labor for the steel mills and coal mines came from a wave of immigration after the Civil War, which brought about 25 million people into the United States by 1920. Earlier immigrants had come mostly from northern Europe, but after the war Russians, Italians, Poles, and other Eastern European laborers transformed the social fabric of the state. They faced dangerous work in the mines, steel plants and on the railroads, and often lived under harsh conditions controlled by their employers. Steel and oil-refinery workers often labored 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Joining together in unions, workers sought higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions.

railroads from Baltimore to Saint Louis
railroads from Baltimore to Saint Louis

Unions for specific skilled crafts developed early in the 1800s in the state’s larger cities. In 1869, a Philadelphia garment worker, Uriah S. Stephens, helped found one of the first major national unions, the Knights of Labor. It offered membership to workers of all trades and backgrounds and at its peak in the mid-1880s had about 700,000 members. Stephens was succeeded in 1883 as leader of the union by Terence Vincent Powderly, who also served as mayor of Scranton. The first national strike in the United States occurred in July 1877.

Shortly after cutting wages, the Pennsylvania Railroad ordered the running of more “doubleheaders,” trains with twice the normal numbers of cars but no extra workers. Rail workers in Pittsburgh refused to handle the trains, and the local militia, called out to break the strike, sided with the workers. A militia brought in from Philadelphia fired on demonstrators, killing about 20, and were attacked by an enraged crowd, which burned railroad buildings and looted cars. The strike spread to other railroads from Baltimore to Saint Louis, shutting down two-thirds of the nation’s track. The president repeatedly called out federal troops to restore order as riots occurred in Pittsburgh, Reading, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre. With no central organization, the strike ended by August, after hundreds of strikers and other people had been killed.Another source of violence was a secret society named the Molly Maguires, formed after the Civil War by Irish immigrant coal miners. The group organized a campaign of violence against mineowners, police that were controlled by the companies, and others the miners considered their oppressors.

In 1877 railroad executive Franklin B. Gowen used private detectives and an industry police force to smash the Molly Maguires. Two dozen of the group’s members were convicted of crimes and hanged. Continuing problems in the anthracite coal area gave rise to the United Mine Workers union, which brought together skilled miners and immigrant mine laborers. In 1902 the union went on strike for five months, seeking higher wages and safer working conditions, while the mine owners refused to negotiate. The strike ended when President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, forcing the mine owners to accept arbitration and setting a pattern for nonviolent arbitration between labor and management.

In the steel industry, however, unions suffered a violent setback in the Homestead Strike of 1892 against a Carnegie-owned plant east of Pittsburgh. The company tried to cut wages and, when the union wouldn’t agree, locked workers out of the plant. The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers then went on strike. The company hired 300 armed guards, and several people were killed in a violent confrontation. The governor called out the state militia, strikebreakers were brought in, and after nearly five months workers returned to the job. Another strike in 1919 included at its height about half the nation’s steel workers, but it also failed. The effort to organize steelworkers slowed until the 1930s.One of the worst floods in the country occurred May 31, 1889, when a dam broke and sent a huge wall of water pouring through Johnstown, killing more than 2,200 people. "Pennsylvania" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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