As the story goes, sitting in his mansion on New York’s Upper East Side, industrialist and entrepreneur Henry Clay Frick scanned the letter which had just been hand-delivered. Sent by his former business partner and friend, and fellow titan of the industrial age, Andrew Carnegie, the correspondence sent to the 69-year-old Frick was one of hindsight and regret with the specific goal of reconciliation. It spoke of the chance to make amends with one another before they reached the end of their lives. It was genuine, sincere and a legitimate attempt to end the enmities that had existed between these two giants for years.
And Frick wasn’t interested. He was at the twilight of his life, and he could look back with enormous satisfaction on his career and empire. While Carnegie had been an important ally, Frick had proved the more courageous of the two, and, some could argue, the better man of business. Despite his relatively humble origins, and dropping out of college, he became a millionaire by the age of 30. According to Forbes, in 1918, the year before he died, his net worth was equivalent to about $4 billion (in today’s dollars). His impact on the birth and growth of the modern American industrial complex cannot be understated.
Having started his career as a salesman, he went on to become chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, and played a major role in the formation of the giant U.S. Steel manufacturing concern. He invested in railroads, utilities, mining, banking, and manufacturing, and owned property in and around Pittsburgh, as well as in Massachusetts and Indiana. His neoclassical mansion in New York City—one of a few he built over his lifetime—became The Frick Collection museum, home to one of the finest collections of European paintings, and Old Masters in particular, in the United States.
Frick was born in 1849 to a Mennonite family living in rural southwestern Pennsylvania. He set to work at a young age, including time spent as a sales clerk, and overseeing the bookkeeping for his family’s distilling business, which produced Old Overholt, said to be America’s oldest continually-maintained brand of whiskey. While his future wasn’t to be spent in alcohol production, his dazzling skills in accounting and efficient management were the cornerstones on which his fortune would one day be built.
Frick happened to be living in the center of what was becoming a major economic powerhouse, the seams of high-quality bituminous coal that existed around the nearby town of Connellsville. Unlike other forms of coal, the kind in Frick’s region was especially well-suited to coking, the creation of a carbon derivative, coke, that is integral in the creation of steel. In 1871, Frick and a cousin decided to seize their opportunity, and with some family money purchased low-priced coking fields and built fifty coke ovens. When the economic troubles of 1873 arrived, the duo used the chaos to grow their holdings even further, and at a discount. By the end of the company’s first decade, Frick’s company-operated over a thousand coke ovens and produced roughly eighty percent of the coke being used in Pittsburgh to create the steel and iron that was transforming the nation from coast to coast.
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