January 28, 2021 Organ Note

Melodious Organ Strains – At a Steep Price

Carnegie Library of Homestead

Pennsylvania received more Carnegie organ grants than any other state—1351. Not everyone was grateful. Especially the steel workers of Pennsylvania. Their response, published in 1894, included the following: “Oh master, thou hast given us one great enjoyment which man has never dreamed of before—a free church organ, so that we can take our shabby families to church to hear your great organ pour forth its melodious strains.”

Only anonymity protected the authors of the Workingman’s Prayer (quoted above) from retribution. Carnegie had installed a spy network in his plants to root out labor organizers and fire union members and sympathizers.

A decade earlier, Carnegie had styled himself as a friend of working people. But friendliness lost out to Carnegie’s belief in progress through unbridled capitalism. As Carnegie said, “Organized capital can beat organized labor.” And, in the steel towns of Pennsylvania, he proved it.

During the 1880s, Carnegie Steel workers unionized at many plants and negotiated wage increases and the eight hour day. In 1892, steel prices fell. Carnegie broke the unions at one steel mill after another. He demanded that workers accept longer hours for less pay. The last remaining union was in his plant at Homestead. There, the union was willing to negotiate on every point, except its dissolution. Carnegie was intransigent; the union called a strike.

Console of the organ in the Carnegie Library of Homestead

Carnegie authorized his partner, Henry Clay Frick, to break the Homestead strike by any means. Frick did so, first by hiring a Pinkerton private police force, and then by recruiting the Pennsylvania National Guard, 8,000 members strong, to take control of the town and steel mill. The town became a battlefield, a horrific scene of injury and death. Faced by the combined power of corporation and government, the union was defeated. Carnegie got what he wanted:  12 hour work days, slashed wages, blacklisting of union members, and the elimination of 500 jobs.

Six years later, Carnegie visited Homestead to dedicate a building on a hill. It was built on the exact spot where the state militia had set up camp during the Homestead strike. The new Carnegie Library of Homestead housed a 20,000 volume library, a gymnasium, a basketball court, a track, four bowling alleys, a billiard room, a swimming pool, and a music hall. Each floor was lavishly adorned with marble, oak and ivory. The music hall had a three manual organ paid for by Carnegie and a Steinway piano given anonymously by Frick.

The elaborate physical plant was intended to facilitate Carnegie’s master plan of moral uplift to the working class. Workers replied that they would “sooner enter a building built with the dirty silver received for betraying Christ than enter a Carnegie Library.” They also pointed out the irony of offering libraries to exhausted working people who labored a minimum of 12 hours a day. Homestead’s elite managerial class visited the library, used the gymnasiums, and attended the organ concerts. But the working people stayed away. The Homestead library was described by its own staff as “a deserted Parthenon.” In the three decades following the Homestead strike, 20 of the 46 Pennsylvania towns offered a library rejected the offer.

The Carnegie Library of Homestead still stands. Its organ, which Carnegie had envisioned as wooing workers away from vaudeville entertainments and immigrant musical traditions, is now silent. But, pre-COVID, the music hall has been busy—hosting popular movies and musical performances ranging from heavy metal, to rock, to bubble gum pop, to reggae.

We look forward to our return to Christ Church sanctuary. Charles may not play K-pop, but he will utilize our organ to its fullest advantage to provide us with glorious music spanning centuries and continents.

Read past organ notes here.