Meet You in Hell by Les Standiford is the story of the bitter partnership between Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. Carnegie was born poor and is an American story if ever there was one. As told by Standiford, he amassed a fortune and created the largest steel company in the world with a small startup investment and a deft business cunning, sometimes operating by what today would be illegal methods. Frick was born to wealth and privilege and used his connections and influence, as well as a creative and ruthless business sense, to build the largest coal and coke empire in America.
The book recounts how the two men separately built their fortunes and their empire, and then how they met and began to form a business relationship. The coke that Frick made was the main source of fuel to create the steel that Carnegie made. Carnegie was a smart manager who believed the best way to ensure profit was to tightly control costs.
Standiford theorizes that the Homestead Strike of 1892, in which several striking steel workers and Pinkerton detectives were killed, was a decisive moment in the breakup of the business relationship of the two men. Frick’s method for dealing with the strikers was to start a war with them, while Carnegie simply wanted to close the factory and starve them out. The backlash over the way the strike ended fell on both their shoulders, though most of the public outside of Pittsburgh seemed to blame Carnegie.
This basic premise falls apart, however, as the book tells of their continued relationship. While it may have been strained for a while, the two men continued as friends. Carnegie may not have liked the way Frick handled the strike but he put his faith in the man who was in charge of Carnegie Steel at the time. It was only years later, when Frick secretly tried to oust Carnegie from his own company, that their relationship soured completely.
Where I find the book most interesting is in the telling of the Homestead Strike itself. This event takes up a significant part of the book, and Standiford goes into great detail not only about the leaders of the union, but also about the striking workers themselves, how their daily lives were lived, and their reasons for striking. As a writer of historical fiction that takes place in the same time period, I was struck by how different were the lives of the men in Pittsburgh versus Arthur Maki and his crew of pioneers in Mountain Iron.
The business attitude toward labor and unions during this industrial period was not a positive one. Frick’s tough stand against organized labor spread like wildfire through the Minnesota iron mines after the formation of US Steel in 1901. For the men working the iron mines there—the Iron Rangers—the decisive events came more than a decade later, in 1907 and again in 1916, when striking workers managed to almost completely shut down the mining industry over better pay, shorter work hours, and better working conditions. Frick had been ousted from the Carnegie Steel Company in 1900, but when US Steel formed a year later, he was back on the board of directors, making decisions that would affect workers for decades to come.
My stories are not about the big men, the Carnegies and the Fricks of the world, but about the Arthur Makis and the Matti Seppalas and the thousands of other miners and laborers who day in and day out climbed down into those pits and brought the red gold out of the ground. Without them there would have been no steel industry for Carnegie and Frick to dominate.