I’ve never worked in the steel industry but I’ve visited the steelworks at Redcar and Scunthorpe and it’s an industry that, as a photographer, continues to fascinate me. The sights, smells and sheer physical size and complexity of the plants are rivaled only by oil refineries. The American steel industry, like the British one is a fraction of the size it once was, but what’s left still eclipses almost every other country on the planet.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of photographs of the steel industry at the Library of Congress which maybe demonstrate both the extent and importance of the industry to a rapidly developing America in the early years of the 20th Century. This was a time when Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant, started with nothing and built up a steelmaking empire that made him one of the richest men in the world – over $350 million dollars which he proceeded to give away in a philanthropic exercise that still has foundations and libraries in his name nearly 100 years after his death.
Homestead Works (below) was Carnegie’s primary plant and was the scene of another bleak episode in American industrial relations when 10 people died during unrest caused by an industrial dispute in 1892.
What is staggering is the scale of these places as they were all comparatively new at the time, but also the vast demand for iron and steel they were built to satisfy. The social consequences cannot be discounted as well, as this was a period of huge immigration and the knock on effect of that was the rapid expansion of towns and cities to accommodate the expanding workforces. The impact of this time can still be felt today with the closure of many of these plants resulting in large scale unemployment and related social issues especially in towns that were built to serve plants. But that’s another story!