Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"The Men Who Built America" on History Channel: Carnegie and Frick; the Johnstown Flood

The History Channel has been running a series “The Men Who Built America”.  Tuesday night, at 8 PM< it aired a one-hour episode “Blood in America”, about the role of Andrew Carnegie.  Early on, there’s a scene at Carnegie Hall in NYC with the Tchaikovsky Fifth playing (second movement, not the chills-and-fever climax).

The episode begins be reenacting the Johnstown Flood of 1889 (which is also covered by a 2003 documentary “Johnstown Flood” from Inecom, narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, directed by Mark Bussler), one of the worst disasters in American history. It was supposedly caused by heavy rainstorms after questionable modifications to a dammed Allegheny lake owned by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. This club had links to Carnegie Steel, and some modifications had been made by Henry Clay Frick.  Afterwards, both Fricl and Carnegie tried to make some amends. 

The documentary focuses then on the labor issues for the steel company.  Carnegie hired Frick, who (to cut costs and maximize short term profits) managed labor issues brutally, imposing 72 hour weeks, in the days before unions.   Accidents, with maiming injuries and deaths on the smelter floors, were common.  When workers tried to organize,  leading to the Homestead Strike of 1892, there was armed violence, apparently with the company hiring mercenaries to control the workers.

Frick had certainly made personal enemies by inspiring indignation. In the summer of 1892, an anarchist Andrew Berkman tried to assassinate Frick in his office.  The episode ends with a vivid dramatization of the assassination attempt.  The look of corporate offices, with their limited technology, is quite vividly depicted.
The episode could be taken as an ideological commentary on capitalism.

I visited Johnstown myself in 1994 (after visiting the Horseshoe Bend near Altoona), again in 2007, and then passed through very briefly in 2010.

The link for the series is here

Pictures, from my May 2007 trip.  The film seemed to be overexposed. 

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