This is a photograph of a group of steelworkers in the early 1900’s taken in the steelyards of Republic Steel in Youngstown, Ohio. They are the sons of Irish immigrants, and represent second and perhaps in some cases, third generation Irish-Americans.
The gentleman singled out by the arrow in the back row, is Tom Conroy, a third generation Irish-American born in Youngstown, Ohio. Tom Conroy’s grandfather emigrated from Ireland in the mid 1800’s, and settled in the Youngstown area to carry on his work as a farmer. His son would also become a farmer and would own and farm the land in Youngstown, which is now a residential area located on the South side of the City, between Indianola and Market streets, and approximately five miles from the land that once housed the steel mills.
The Irish were among the first groups of immigrants to come to America in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s.Almost two million Irish men and women left their homeland in search of a better way of life, leaving behind the great agricultural depression that plagued Ireland in 1890. Their working class cultures had a great deal to do with shaping communities and creating new towns, as they sought freedom from oppression and poverty in America. The Irish working class struggled to find their place in this country and would emerge to play a role in the transformation of America and the restructuring of the working class.
The third generation of the Conroy family would become exposed to the steel mills, and two of the sons born to this family would work there: one as a millwright and one as a motor inspector. Life revolved around work in the mills and most unskilled immigrant workers who found themselves in troubled financial situations, would accept the jobs the mills had to offer, even if it meant working twelve hours a day, six days a week for a poverty wage. Every job in the mill was dirty and dangerous and exposed the workers to intense heat capable of melting a man's flesh in an instant. The day to day drudgery and the constant struggle to stay alive could rob a man of his youth and of any chance that he might have for a better way of life. The job of a motor inspector was such a job.
An inspector in the mill was given a steel toolbox containing all the
tools necessary for him to complete his repair work. One of the dangers
he encountered, was climbing the crane rails that hovered above the
furnaces to fix the motors that would break and temporarily
stop work. The toolbox that the inspector took with him as he climbed the
rail was made of steel and contained a variety of tools made from
steel, making the toolbox
its' contents extremely heavy. The job was dangerous and life threatening,
yet for the Irish immigrants, the ideology that there was dignity
in hard work, would help to shape the landscape of America to make it the
leader in industry world wide.
In the early 1900’s, the climate in America was changing in a movement from agriculture to industry, and people began to move away from the city to the country where housing wasn’t as crowded and dense. The automobile and the rise in consumerism gave people more freedom to move farther away from the industrialized areas of the city and enjoy a better way of life. However, work and conflict will continue to create and cause changes in the landscape as economic development and consumerism is ever present. It would be people like the Irish immigrants depicted in this website, that would help shape the landscape in this country and change the future of working class Americans.
Who Built America, Copyright 1992 by American Social History Productions, Inc., The City University of New York.
Herbert G. Gutman, Founding Director and Stephen Brier, Project Director and Supervising Editor. 1992, Pantheon Books, New York.
Many thanks to James Conroy Cartwright, who granted a personal interview
and submitted this personal photograph of his Uncle Tom and friends
in the steelyards of Republic Steel.