Part 2: From Johnstown to Homestead
It’s 65 miles from the site of the Great Flood to that of the Battle of Homestead, “the deadliest clash between workers and owners in American labor history.”* Two men featured in both events: Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.
Both were members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club that owned the dam above Johnstown, and they also owned the Homestead Steel Works, where, in July 1892, Frick called in Pinkerton “detectives” – and ultimately 6,000 state militiamen – to crush the strike. Twelve people were killed; union organizing efforts were set back 50 years; and Homestead remained a “company town.” Its workers, mostly recent Eastern European immigrants who spoke little English, returned to six-day weeks and 12-hour shifts. Powerless once more, they were paid in scrip redeemable only at the company store.
Today, the vast mill complex is gone, replaced by what must be the world’s longest strip mall, with every imaginable big box store and restaurant chain. The town, too, is gone – a crumbling place of 3,000 people without a center.
When the steel workers did finally unionize in 1942, they formed the backbone of the Democratic Party, which has dominated politics ever since. Although it produced high wages and improved working conditions for its members, the union couldn’t keep their jobs from leaving – and as memories of the industrial violence and class hatreds faded, the difference in party registration narrowed.
Today, little differentiates Republicans and Democrats, both fiscally and socially conservative in this place of ubiquitous churches and American flags
and a fanatic devotion to the second amendment. The old ethnic names live on in the phone books and cemeteries, but yesterday’s divided immigrants now live amicably together. It’s the American melting pot, with one missing ingredient – the population is 95% white.
“Since the beginning of the year there has been an unprecedented change in party registration,” said Cambria County Republican Chair Jackie Kulback. “People are beating down the door” for Donald Trump.