Forging America: The History of Bethlehem Steel - Chapter 3
Bethlehem Steel Graphic Banner: Chapter 3
Once, when relatives visited on a Sunday afternoon, he amused them with handsprings, magic tricks, jokes and songs, then told them when they got up to go, ''I can do something else yet!''
Doing ''something else yet, something plus,'' as Eugene Grace put it many years later, ''was a No. 1 Schwab principle.''
After grade school, Charlie's intelligence, determination and an almost photographic memory put him at the top of his class at local St. Francis College, which provided high school courses. But he didn't graduate. A torpedoed romance with a pretty, 16-year-old actress from Pittsburgh ended his formal education and led him toward a life in steel.
The girl, Mary Russell, was visiting her sister in Loretto, and Charlie started hanging around their house at all hours to see her. They got googly-eyed over each other, and Mary suggested that with his fine voice and acting ability, he could make the stage his career. He had visions of stardom.
When the pair got engaged, Charlie's parents yelped. They didn't want their bright son marrying an actress or making a living as a lowly entertainer. Charlie threatened to run away with her, but they managed to hold him back. And Mary's sister, believing Mary was too young to wed, sent her back to Pittsburgh.
The dashed affair left Charlie moping. His father thought he needed a taste of the real world to lift him out of his funk. So in 1879, with a year left to go at St. Francis, young Schwab went west to Allegheny County and worked at a grocery and dry goods store in Braddock, home of Andrew Carnegie's Edgar Thomson Steel Works. One customer who regularly came in for cigars was William R. Jones, the plant's general superintendent.
Jones, who was born in Catasauqua and apprenticed at the Lehigh Crane Iron Co. when he was 10, liked Charlie's spunk and hired him as a stake driver on a surveying crew for $1 a day. Charlie pretended to know more than he did and was so convincing and so quick to learn, that he soon rose to draftsman and then chief engineer.
For fun in his spare time, he studied Egyptology and the pyramids and read about his idol, Napoleon Bonaparte. For extra cash, he gave piano and organ lessons.
In 1883, when he was 21, he married Emma Eurania Dinkey despite his mother's disapproval. ''Rana,'' whose family had moved to Braddock from Weatherly in Carbon County, was Presbyterian, not Catholic like the Schwabs.
At the steelworks, Jones grew tired of delivering his daily report to Carnegie, who lived 10 miles away in Pittsburgh, and started sending Schwab instead.
On one trip, Carnegie was late getting to his parlor, where Schwab waited for him and started playing the piano. When Carnegie came into the room, Schwab stopped, but Carnegie told him to continue. He liked songs from his native Scotland and asked Schwab if he could play some at a party. Schwab said he could and spent the next three days learning Carnegie's favorites. With his smooth baritone voice and playing, he was a hit with the boss and his guests.
Carnegie also liked Schwab because he was fun to be around. When the boss checked on his mills, he saw dour managers with worried looks on their faces. But Schwab was different. He was easygoing, vibrant and uproarious. His jokes had Carnegie hooting and doubling over with laughter.
Always, Schwab tried to improve himself. To learn about metallurgy, he set up a chemistry lab in his house and experimented at night.
When Carnegie needed a new general superintendent at his Homestead Works, Schwab got the job. He was only 24. Three years later, after Jones was killed in a furnace explosion, Schwab succeeded him as head of the Edgar Thomson Works, the largest steel plant in the country.
Schwab proved himself a keen motivator. Instead of needling and punishing his employees when they didn't perform well, he encouraged them with incentives, bonuses and promotions. He believed that men respond to challenges, that it's their nature to be competitive.
His theory served him well. The workers, who considered him fair and honest, met his expectations, and Carnegie was delighted with the Edgar Thomson plant's productivity. Schwab, he saw, was a superb manager with an excellent grasp of the business.
After the bloody Homestead strike of 1892 had fizzled, but while relations between workers and management were still raw, Carnegie transferred Schwab to Homestead to patch the wounds. He succeeded. And when 200 diehard strikers gave up and returned to the plant, Schwab boosted his standing among the employees by personally welcoming each holdout.
''My feeling is that the average working man is a better man than the rest of us,'' he told Wall Street Journal owner Clarence Barron many years later during one of his annual steamship rides to Europe. ''He is a good, loyal citizen and family man.''
But for all of Schwab's skill at running a plant and managing people, he wasn't above cheating. One case was so serious, it came to the attention of President Grover Cleveland.
In 1893, the government accused Schwab of heading a conspiracy to defraud the Navy. While running the Homestead plant, according to the charges, he had knowingly sold substandard armor plate for ships, which some officials said could have put American sailors in peril.