The first immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe began to arrive in Homestead in the early 1880s. The identity of the first Carpatho-Rusins to settle in Homestead and the exact date of their arrival is unknown. What is known is that those initial settlers had come to an area which had been remarkably transformed almost overnight from an unspoiled backwater of the City of Pittsburgh into an industrial powerhouse.
On May 16, 1786, a few years after the end of the Revolutionary War, John McClure, a trader, farmer and land speculator, purchased approximately 329 acres of land along the Monongahela River. McClure’s purchase, which cost around two hundred dollars, was a tract extending over an area from the Monongahela River to the present day cemeteries, from Amity Street in Homestead to Ravine Street in Munhall. On this site, McClure built a substantial farm which he called “Amity” or “the Amity Homestead.” It was from the name of McClure’s farm that the Borough of Homestead ultimately received its name.
In 1850, Abdiel McClure, the grandson of the original Homestead landowner sold a substantial portion of the McClure farm property. In that year, almost a decade prior to the start of the Civil War, the City of Pittsburgh purchased about half of McClure’s farm for use as a home for the indigent. This “Poor Farm,” an almshouse where the poor raised vegetables, was located by City Farm Lane in the vicinity of the present day Shop N’ Save supermarket.
In 1871, Abdiel McClure sold off more of his inherited farmland. Working with another wealthy landowner named Lowery H. West, McClure started a development company known as the Homestead Bank and Life Insurance Company. By September 1871, this company had subdivided more than 230 acres of land and offered the lots for public sale. McClure and West’s company touted their new development as a pleasant suburban refuge from the dirt, grime and smoke of industrial Pittsburgh.
The new Homestead development proved initially to be quite popular. By 1872, less than one year after the original public offering, several hundred homes had been constructed on the Homestead Bank and Life Insurance lots. Later that same year, the Pittsburgh, Virginia and Charleston Railroad extended its tracks some six miles along the southern bank of the Monongahela River and provided an easy transportation link to Pittsburgh. It thus appeared that Homestead was on its way to being what Abdiel McClure and Lowry West had envisioned: a thriving suburban community.
But an economic depression, the Panic of 1873, swept across America. By 1876, most of the lots plotted by the Homestead Bank and Life Insurance Company remained unsold. As suddenly as it had begun, Homestead’s days as a suburban residential community had ended.
In 1879, Homestead started to assume a new character. Bryce, Higbee and Company established a glass making facility near West Street directly under the present day High Level Bridge. Later that year, a group of Pittsburgh businessmen arranged financing and started construction on a project which would alter the area: a steel mill.
By 1881, the new steel mill known as the Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Works had begun operations. This new steel mill, designed and built by competitors of the American steel making giant, Andrew Carnegie, featured modern Bessemer furnaces, a rail mill, finishing mill and related facilities. At its opening, the new Homestead steel mill was truly one of the most advanced and innovative steel making facilities in the nation.
Within two years, however, the new steel mill ran into problems and was quickly acquired by Andrew Carnegie. Almost immediately, Carnegie set out to make the mill at Homestead the crown jewel of his mighty iron and steel empire. Insisting upon the latest technologies and methods, Carnegie installed the first commercially successful open hearth furnaces at the Homestead mill. Soon thereafter, Carnegie converted part of the mill to make steel beams and built new facilities to make armor plates. In less than a decade, Carnegie had transformed the Homestead Works, the most important plant in the Carnegie Steel Company, Limited, into the greatest steel mill in the world.
The arrival of the steel industry truly changed everything about Homestead: farmland was converted into industrial sites, the previously unincorporated village became legally constituted as a borough and new merchants opened shops and businesses. But most of all, Homestead grew astronomically in population.
In 1879, when construction began on the Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Works, fewer than 300 people lived in the small, rural hamlet called Amity Homestead. By 1881, the first year of operation of the new mill, the population of the new “Borough” of Homestead was 1,500. By 1882, the population was 3,000; in 1888, 7,000. Most of the newcomers seeking employment in the burgeoning Homestead steel works were Slav immigrants from Central Europe.
To say that life was difficult for these immigrants would be a vast understatement. They worked in conditions in the Homestead mill that most observers would universally condemn as wretched and intolerable.
The Slav emigres took the lowest, the toughest and most physically demanding jobs to be had in Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead steel mill: handling hot steel billets and bars, loading trains, working in cinder plants. They were laborers’ jobs all, jobs which required backbreaking, exhausting physical exertion. Working usually under the direction of English-speaking foremen whose commands they often failed to understand, the immigrant laborers toiled at their jobs for long hours at a time -- minimally six, but frequently, seven days a week, twelve hours a day on the day shift, thirteen and a half hours at night. They worked amid intense heat, smoke, dirt and an ever-present din of machinery. The danger of accidents lurked everywhere around them, from constantly moving machines and heavy equipment, from bars of glowing white hot steel, from locomotives clanging along railyard tracks. These Slav immigrant workers, who would be categorically lumped together and scornfully referred to as “Hunkies” because of their place of origin worked with little prospect for advancement from their lowly station as laborers. And all for pay perhaps as little as two dollars a day! Nonetheless, these “Hunkies” persevered in their new livelihoods provided by the steel mill of Homestead.
The living quarters in the Slav settlement of Homestead were as deplorable as the working conditions in the mill. In her book, Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town, a sociological study of the residents of early industrial Homestead, author Margaret F. Byington vividly described the conditions in which the Slavic immigrants of Homestead lived. Miss Byington wrote:
What for its part does the town [of Homestead ] offer? The section where the Slavs live is in itself gloomy. The level ground in the Second Ward cut off from the river by the mill and from the country by the steep hill behind, forms a pocket where the smoke settles heavily. There are oases in these wards, sections of street with yards and trees, but for the most part here on the original site of the town, garden plots as well as alleys have been utilized on which to build small frame houses till the blocks are all but covered.
From the cinder path beside one of the railroads that crosses the level part of Homestead, you enter an alley, bordered on one side by stables and on the other by a row of shabby two-story frame houses. The doors of the houses are closed, but dishpans and old clothes decorating their exterior mark them as inhabited. Turning from the alley through a narrow passageway you find yourself in a small court, on three sides of which are smoke-grimed houses, and on the fourth, low stables. The open space teems with life and movement. Children, dogs and hens make it lively under foot; overhead long lines of flapping clothes must be dodged. A group of women stand gossiping in one corner, awaiting their turn at the pump, --which is one of the two sources of water supply for the 20 families who live here. Another woman dumps the contents of her washtubs upon the paved ground, and the greasy, soapy water runs into an open drain a few feet from the pump. In the center a circular wooden building with ten compartments opening into one vault, flushed only by this waste water, constitutes the toilet accommodations for over one hundred people. Twenty-seven children find in this crowded brick-paved space their only playground; for the 63 rooms in the houses about the court shelter a group of 20 families, Polish, Slavic and Hungarian, Jewish and Negro.
Indeed, the cheerful gossip about the hydrant that enlivens wash day, like the card playing in the court on a summer evening, suggest the neighborliness of village days. Nothing in the surroundings, however, bears out the suggestion. Accumulations of rubbish and broken brick pavements render the courts as a whole untidy and unwholesome. Some of the houses have small porches that might give a sense of homelikeness, but for the most part they are bare and dingy. As the houses are built close to the street with only this busy court behind, the tenant can scarcely have that bit of garden so dear to the heart of former country dwellers. Only here and there a little bed of lettuce with its note of delicate green or the vivid red of a geranium blossom brightens the monotony. Dreary as is the exterior, however, the evils to the dwellers in the court lie deeper; in the inadequate water supply, in meager toilet facilities, and in overcrowding .
As part of the early Slav enclave in Homestead, the Carpatho-Rusins shared in the miseries and hardships of their new living and working environment. Like their fellow Slavs, they too persevered and set about to the task of creating a new life in the booming steel town of Homestead. But as they established firm roots in their new community, they soon began to realize that what had identified them, preserved them and sustained them both in the “Old Country” and in the long journey to America was painfully missing in their strange, new surroundings. They had no religious home, no place of worship which they could call their own, no church where they could practice their distinctive Greek Catholic faith. Thus, the Carpatho-Rusin community of Homestead would quickly come together and renew its journey of faith by attempting to form a church.