American Bridge Builds a Town… and a Nation

continued from the previous post…

Less than a year after J.P Morgan bought 130 acres of riverfront property from the ransacked Harmony Society, his new conglomerate – the American Bridge Company went into operation. Opening in 1903, the company set out to distinguish Ambridge from older steelmaking communities by promising it would be “smokeless”—inviting only manufacturers that shaped and assembled the steel made in dirtier precincts around Pittsburgh. The company put out a call for workers, and they flocked in from the rural South, Europe, Canada and Mexico. The incoming immigrants who passed Economy’s outlying orchards and vineyards looked upon the German enclave at the northwest corner of town with awe, inspired that they, too, could build heaven on Earth in this land. And what was true in 1804 would be true in 1904: the new arrivals invested their own vision of Utopia in powerful men who courted their belief.

The Bridge Company’s real estate arm, Liberty Land Corporation, laid out a prototypical company town. After completing the American Bridge office building—a brick monstrosity where my father worked as a draftsman for thirty years—the company laid out a leafy park that ran beside the river. Along the park, American Bridge built spacious houses for its executives. One block back sat smaller houses for foremen and supervisors. Farther back were row houses for laborers.

Marshall Alley, by Arthur Rothstein

Construction hit a feverish pitch, matching the company’s instant success. Demand for bridges and buildings climbed every day, and American Bridge trained its laborers and steelworkers to fabricate segments of structures that could be loaded on rail lines and barges. The company made its own barges to transport its finished pieces.

But the rush into operation demanded that Liberty Land throw up tenements for new workers. At the southernmost edge of town, nearest the Bridge Company, these four-story structures soon overflowed with immigrants, most of them Greeks. First Street stood as the counterpoint to idyllic Economy, thirteen blocks north. The crush of humanity situated on First Street, its chaos and nascence, made it seem like a world away, yet it thrived with the same determination the Harmonists possessed when they arrived. For decades, this avenue of tenements held its distinction as the town’s oldest ghetto, the place most workers wanted to leave as soon as possible. Some striking scenes of life on First Street hang in museums throughout the country, captured by noted Works Progress Administration photographer, Arthur Rothstein.

Residents of the lower numbered streets of town could reach the mill within minutes on foot. New factories followed closely behind the Bridge company — H.K. Porter Locomotive Company, National Metal Molding Company (eventually, National Electric) and The Central Tube Company, makers of pipe for transporting oil. It was hard to imagine a more hospitable place for heavy industry – with oil and gas wells operating on the site and hopeful laborers lining up at the gates. At Economy’s peak in the 1850s, roughly 900 residents lived there under the care of the Harmony Society. By 1900, their numbers had fallen to 620. Once the industries and speculators got going, the population of Ambridge shot to 5,205 by 1910.

First Street, Bridge Co. in the background

More houses were built as the new immigrants poured in and staked themselves by mortgage, credit, new babies, and old-fashioned loyalty to their employers. They established toeholds, and later brought in their families, friends, and their fellow countrymen. Several families lived under one roof until each could buy a house of their own, often within sight of one another. Ethnic islands formed and churches grew in their midst.

Ten new congregations formed before 1910—Baptists, Jews, Protestants, Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox. Soon, Ambridge became notable for the density of its churches and bars.

By 1920, the population more than doubled, to 12,730. The gentle hills that once shimmered with barley and wheat, the smart orchards of the Harmonists, were stripped and decked with massive brick and metal factories, smokestacks and gantry cranes. Forges and sheet metal plants, more makers of pipe and rails and machinery snapped up inexpensive land. Their loading docks and railroad sidings formed tributaries that snaked toward the river where barges and freight trains carried away megatons of metal.

Jones & Laughlin Steel, Aliquippa

Amid the fury of this building boom on the east bank of the Ohio, two steelmaking magnates joined in erecting a massive integrated steel mill on the opposite side of the river. The Jones & Laughlin Steel Works gobbled up mile after mile of shoreline, producing beams, billets, bars, cans, wire, sheets, rolled steel—nearly every imaginable finished product—upwind from Ambridge, smothering the claim of “smokeless.”

The town of Aliquippa grew up around J&L, but couldn’t grow fast enough. Workers were needed from the Ambridge side of the river. With a bridge-maker  for a neighbor, the J&L forged the steel for a bridge that would connect it to Ambridge, and shipped the beams and girders one mile up the river to

The Woodlawn Bridge

American Bridge for fabrication. The two companies finished the Woodlawn Bridge in December of 1927, allowing the communities to draw on each other’s labor pool by making the crossing over the Ohio River a five-minute walk.

I could see all of the American Bridge Company and more from my grandfather’s lap when we sat on porch of their house above Third Street, high enough to survey the entire town, the river and J&L. We could see the Bridge Company office building and hear the whistles that marked the shift changes. The noon whistle meant my father would soon arrive for lunch.

The house behind my grandparents'... so much for "smokeless"

Milt maintained independence from his parents by packing his own sandwiches, and yet nearly every day, he joined them for lunch in their kitchen. On summer days, we sat on the porch afterwards, and could see our parish church down the hill below us, the parochial school he and my mother had attended and I would attend, too. All of it lay at our feet. Our relatives, our spiritual and social center, our source of livelihood and our school could be reached within minutes.

Beneath the gray sky-lit roofs of the Bridge Company, men and women cast millions of rivets, bolts, fittings and specialized pieces of steel. They rode crane hooks and beams that hovered into place while catching red-hot rivets tossed from furnaces on the ground, placing them into holes that matched beam to beam. With gloved hands and tongs they held the rivets while co-workers hammered them into solid connections. Others stood beneath showers of sparks, welding heavy plates into position, plumes of acrid smoke rising around them. Ear-splitting collisions rang through the shipping bays and joined the metallic cacophony that filled the valley.

My father spent his days bent over vellum sheets filled with drawings that showed how the beams and plates fit together, with precise measurements, the rivet placement and the thickness of the steel. He worked side-by-side with other draftsmen, all former soldiers and sailors like him, who had served time in the mills or bypassed them, taking their math and drawing skills into the American Bridge drafting rooms. They were organized in “squads” and sat behind tall oak tables in a vast pea-green room, illuminated by long lines of humming fluorescent lights. My father constantly worried over accuracy and the potential expense of his mistakes. Squad bosses circulated among the tables, cracking the whip, in a way, pushing the men to draw, figure, and double-check faster.

Sheet by sheet, piece by piece, they detailed the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Sears Tower and the Astrodome. During its eighty-three years in Ambridge, American Bridge fabricated the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the Woolworth Building in Manhattan, the Hancock Towers in Chicago and Boston, the San Francisco Bay Bridge and thousands of other bridges and structures. During WWII, they built 5,000 troop-landing barges and 120 tank-transport ships. Each one splashed into the Ohio River amid fanfare and prayers that it would help win the war.

Life as They Found It

Milt’s father’s family landed in Baltimore from Hungary. They were typical of the millions whose crossings from Europe were undocumented. My great-grandparents and their children settled into a crowded triple-decker in rural West Virginia where my grandfather entered the coal mines at age twelve. My research indicates that they came from a village in the Carpathian Mountains, called Hertnik. Many villagers fled to the United States and kept their names, but my great-grandparents, perhaps because they arrived on a boat full of Ukrainians, were assigned the approximate name of their village, plus a “Y” on the end, to give them kinship with all the other souls standing in line.

My grandfather escaped the mines and West Virginia in the early 1900s when Ambridge exploded with industry. His parents sold their boarding house near the coal fields and his father came north to work at the Bridge Company. He arranged work for his oldest son. But at the end of his first day at the Bridge Company my grandfather told his father it would be his last, giving his reason without hesitation and with characteristic concision, “I watched a girder cut a man in half.”

He found safer work that would take only two of his fingers in thirty years, as a die-maker at National Electric – an essential wartime job that kept him off the battlefields of Europe. He soon found jobs at the plant for his six brothers and sisters and the family reunited in Ambridge. His bride, whose family had come to Pittsburgh from Czechoslovakia, joined him, his parents and his siblings in an apartment on Sixth and Melrose.

Like most new arrivals in Ambridge, my father’s family quickly found their European countrymen. They joined the Slovak-speaking congregation at Divine Redeemer and kept their Hungarian-Gypsy roots to themselves.

Ambridge had much in common with the steel towns elsewhere in western Pennsylvania. When the mills opened, they were owned by old-stock American families mostly from England and Germany, and were managed by their peers. These bare-knuckles businessmen, writes John Bodnar in The Ethnic Experience in Pennsylvania, recruited Hungarians because they were “cheaper and more docile material.”

Credit: W. E. Smith

The best, cleanest, and safest jobs went to immigrants from Anglo-Saxon countries like Scotland and Ireland, because they spoke English to the owners and supervisors. The worst, most dangerous jobs were given to those who could not be understood: Italians, Greeks, Slavs — Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Croats, Serbs — and, lastly, African Americans, who were consigned to the coke ovens, a circle of hell. Discrimination against blacks, Italians, and “hunkies” (considered a friendlier slur than “hun,” for all Slavic people) resulted in an elaborate web of segregation and tension.

In many ways, ethnic life in Ambridge, with all of one nationality working in a single department in the mill, worshipping at the same church, supporting merchants within each neighborhood, was more Balkanized and less culturally diverse than life in the immigrants’ home countries. In Hertnik, Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, gypsies and Austrian nobility lived side-by-side. But in Ambridge, each nationality had its own church, school, grocery, bars, and social clubs. According to John Hoerr, who described immigrant life in And the Wolf Finally Came, the separation and segregation played into the hands of the mill owners, who used their authority in the mills to manipulate community leaders. The early unions failed at bringing the neighborhoods together for common benefit partly because they refused to admit unskilled workers and African-Americans. Hoerr points out that “lacking democratic traditions and accustomed to authoritarian leaders, the European immigrants accepted American life as they found it. Along with the blacks, they were denied promotions and confined to low-paying jobs… Without economic advancement, there could be no social mobility.”

Ambridge Steelworker and family, by John Vachon

Hoerr’s analysis and the research work by John Bodnar help me understand the culture that persists in Ambridge – one of powerlessness against well-established families, businesses and entrenched political authority. As ethnic neighbors formed alliances to fight for better treatment, the labor movement finally became more inclusive and supplied an institution that could unify the immigrants in their struggle.

But the unions took fifty years to mount a serious threat to business as usual. The violence that erupted on Duss Avenue during the 1933 steelworkers’ demonstration had been festering for a decades. Meanwhile, the dominant class of executives and foremen filled the seats on county and municipal commissions, expanding their power into political circles. As such, they supervised ethnic leaders in the mills, who, in exchange for favors, delivered blocs of voters from their neighborhoods. It was good old-fashioned ward politics, but in this case, the mill stood at the center. Patronage became a way of life.

coming: Safely at home, at sea, and at Mickey D’s…