The great question now was, what could be found for me to do. I had just completed my thirteenth year, and I fairly panted to get to work that I might help the family to a start in the new land. The prospect of want had become to me a frightful nightmare. My thoughts at this period centered in the determination that we should make and save enough of money to produce three hundred dollars a year – twenty-five dollars monthly, which I figured was the sum required to keep us without being dependent upon others. Every necessary thing was very cheap in those days.
The brother of my Uncle Hogan would often ask what my parents meant to do with me, and one day there occurred the most tragic of all scenes I have ever witnessed. Never can I forget it. He said, with the kindest intentions in the world, to my mother, that I was a likely boy and apt to learn; and he believed that if a basket were fitted out for me with knickknacks to sell, I could peddle them around the wharves and make quite a considerable sum. I never knew what an enraged woman meant till then. My mother was sitting sewing at the moment, but she sprang to her feet with outstretched hands and shook them in his face.
„What! my son a peddler and go among rough men upon the wharves! I would rather throw him into the Allegheny River. Leave me!” she cried, pointing to the door, and Mr. Hogan went.
She stood a tragic queen. The next moment she had broken down, but only for a few moments did tears fall and sobs come. Then she took her two boys in her arms and told us not to mind her foolishness. There were many things in the world for us to do and we could be useful men, honored and respected, if we always did what was right. It was a repetition of Helen Macgregor, in her reply to Osbaldistone in which she threatened to have her prisoners „chopped into as many pieces as there are checks in the tartan.” But the reason for the outburst was different. It was not because the occupation suggested was peaceful labor, for we were taught that idleness was disgraceful; but because the suggested occupation was somewhat vagrant in character and not entirely respectable in her eyes. Better death. Yes, mother would have taken her two boys, one under each arm, and perished with them rather than they should mingle with low company in their extreme youth.
As I look back upon the early struggles this can be said: there was not a prouder family in the land. A keen sense of honor, independence, self-respect, pervaded the household. Walter Scott said of Burns that he had the most extraordinary eye he ever saw in a human being. I can say as much for my mother. As Burns has it:
„Her eye even turned on empty space, Beamed keen with honor.”
Anything low, mean, deceitful, shifty, coarse, underhand, or gossipy was foreign to that heroic soul. Tom and I could not help growing up respectable characters, having such a mother and such a father, for the father, too, was one of nature’s noblemen, beloved by all, a saint.
Soon after this incident my father found it necessary to give up hand-loom weaving and to enter the cotton factory of Mr. Blackstock, an old Scotsman in Allegheny City, where we lived. In this factory he also obtained for me a position as bobbin boy, and my first work was done there at one dollar and twenty cents per week. It was a hard life. In the winter father and I had to rise and breakfast in the darkness, reach the factory before it was daylight, and, with a short interval for lunch, work till after dark. The hours hung heavily upon me and in the work itself I took no pleasure; but the cloud had a silver lining, as it gave me the feeling that I was doing something for my world – our family. I have made millions since, but none of those millions gave me such happiness as my first week’s earnings. I was now a helper of the family, a breadwinner, and no longer a total charge upon my parents. Often had I heard my father’s beautiful singing of „The Boatie Rows” and often I longed to fulfill the last lines of the verse:
„When Aaleck, Jock, and Jeanettie, Are up and got their lair, They’ll serve to gar the boatie row, And lichten a’ our care.”
[Footnote 11: Education.]
I was going to make our tiny craft skim. It should be noted here that Aaleck, Jock, and Jeanettie were first to get their education. Scotland was the first country that required all parents, high or low, to educate their children, and established the parish public schools.
Soon after this Mr. John Hay, a fellow-Scotch manufacturer of bobbins in Allegheny City, needed a boy, and asked whether I would not go into his service. I went, and received two dollars per week; but at first the work was even more irksome than the factory. I had to run a small steam-engine and to fire the boiler in the cellar of the bobbin factory. It was too much for me. I found myself night after night, sitting up in bed trying the steam gauges, fearing at one time that the steam was too low and that the workers above would complain that they had not power enough, and at another time that the steam was too high and that the boiler might burst.
But all this it was a matter of honor to conceal from my parents. They had their own troubles and bore them. I must play the man and bear mine. My hopes were high, and I looked every day for some change to take place. What it was to be I knew not, but that it would come I felt certain if I kept on. Besides, at this date I was not beyond asking myself what Wallace would have done and what a Scotsman ought to do. Of one thing I was sure, he ought never to give up.
One day the chance came. Mr. Hay had to make out some bills. He had no clerk, and was himself a poor penman. He asked me what kind of hand I could write, and gave me some writing to do. The result pleased him, and he found it convenient thereafter to let me make out his bills. I was also good at figures; and he soon found it to be to his interest – and besides, dear old man, I believe he was moved by good feeling toward the white-haired boy, for he had a kind heart and was Scotch and wished to relieve me from the engine – to put me at other things, less objectionable except in one feature.
It now became my duty to bathe the newly made spools in vats of oil. Fortunately there was a room reserved for this purpose and I was alone, but not all the resolution I could muster, nor all the indignation I felt at my own weakness, prevented my stomach from behaving in a most perverse way. I never succeeded in overcoming the nausea produced by the smell of the oil. Even Wallace and Bruce proved impotent here. But if I had to lose breakfast, or dinner, I had all the better appetite for supper, and the allotted work was done. A real disciple of Wallace or Bruce could not give up; he would die first.
My service with Mr. Hay was a distinct advance upon the cotton factory, and I also made the acquaintance of an employer who was very kind to me. Mr. Hay kept his books in single entry, and I was able to handle them for him; but hearing that all great firms kept their books in double entry, and after talking over the matter with my companions, John Phipps, Thomas N. Miller, and William Cowley, we all determined to attend night school during the winter and learn the larger system. So the four of us went to a Mr. Williams in Pittsburgh and learned double-entry bookkeeping.
One evening, early in 1850, when I returned home from work, I was told that Mr. David Brooks, manager of the telegraph office, had asked my Uncle Hogan if he knew where a good boy could be found to act as messenger. Mr. Brooks and my uncle were enthusiastic draught-players, and it was over a game of draughts that this important inquiry was made. Upon such trifles do the most momentous consequences hang. A word, a look, an accent, may affect the destiny not only of individuals, but of nations. He is a bold man who calls anything a trifle. Who was it who, being advised to disregard trifles, said he always would if any one could tell him what a trifle was? The young should remember that upon trifles the best gifts of the gods often hang.
My uncle mentioned my name, and said he would see whether I would take the position. I remember so well the family council that was held. Of course I was wild with delight. No bird that ever was confined in a cage longed for freedom more than I. Mother favored, but father was disposed to deny my wish. It would prove too much for me, he said; I was too young and too small. For the two dollars and a half per week offered it was evident that a much larger boy was expected. Late at night I might be required to run out into the country with a telegram, and there would be dangers to encounter. Upon the whole my father said that it was best that I should remain where I was. He subsequently withdrew his objection, so far as to give me leave to try, and I believe he went to Mr. Hay and consulted with him. Mr. Hay thought it would be for my advantage, and although, as he said, it would be an inconvenience to him, still he advised that I should try, and if I failed he was kind enough to say that my old place would be open for me.
This being decided, I was asked to go over the river to Pittsburgh and call on Mr. Brooks. My father wished to go with me, and it was settled that he should accompany me as far as the telegraph office, on the corner of Fourth and Wood Streets. It was a bright, sunshiny morning and this augured well. Father and I walked over from Allegheny to Pittsburgh, a distance of nearly two miles from our house. Arrived at the door I asked father to wait outside. I insisted upon going alone upstairs to the second or operating floor to see the great man and learn my fate. I was led to this, perhaps, because I had by that time begun to consider myself something of an American. At first boys used to call me „Scotchie! Scotchie!” and I answered, „Yes, I’m Scotch and I am proud of the name.” But in speech and in address the broad Scotch had been worn off to a slight extent, and I imagined that I could make a smarter showing if alone with Mr. Brooks than if my good old Scotch father were present, perhaps to smile at my airs.
I was dressed in my one white linen shirt, which was usually kept sacred for the Sabbath day, my blue round-about, and my whole Sunday suit. I had at that time, and for a few weeks after I entered the telegraph service, but one linen suit of summer clothing; and every Saturday night, no matter if that was my night on duty and I did not return till near midnight, my mother washed those clothes and ironed them, and I put them on fresh on Sabbath morning. There was nothing that heroine did not do in the struggle we were making for elbow room in the western world. Father’s long factory hours tried his strength, but he, too, fought the good fight like a hero and never failed to encourage me.
The interview was successful. I took care to explain that I did not know Pittsburgh, that perhaps I would not do, would not be strong enough; but all I wanted was a trial. He asked me how soon I could come, and I said that I could stay now if wanted. And, looking back over the circumstance, I think that answer might well be pondered by young men. It is a great mistake not to seize the opportunity. The position was offered to me; something might occur, some other boy might be sent for. Having got myself in I proposed to stay there if I could. Mr. Brooks very kindly called the other boy – for it was an additional messenger that was wanted – and asked him to show me about, and let me go with him and learn the business. I soon found opportunity to run down to the corner of the street and tell my father that it was all right, and to go home and tell mother that I had got the situation.
And that is how in 1850 I got my first real start in life. From the dark cellar running a steam-engine at two dollars a week, begrimed with coal dirt, without a trace of the elevating influences of life, I was lifted into paradise, yes, heaven, as it seemed to me, with newspapers, pens, pencils, and sunshine about me. There was scarcely a minute in which I could not learn something or find out how much there was to learn and how little I knew. I felt that my foot was upon the ladder and that I was bound to climb.
I had only one fear, and that was that I could not learn quickly enough the addresses of the various business houses to which messages had to be delivered. I therefore began to note the signs of these houses up one side of the street and down the other. At night I exercised my memory by naming in succession the various firms. Before long I could shut my eyes and, beginning at the foot of a business street, call off the names of the firms in proper order along one side to the top of the street, then crossing on the other side go down in regular order to the foot again.
The next step was to know the men themselves, for it gave a messenger a great advantage, and often saved a long journey, if he knew members or employees of firms. He might meet one of these going direct to his office. It was reckoned a great triumph among the boys to deliver a message upon the street. And there was the additional satisfaction to the boy himself, that a great man (and most men are great to messengers), stopped upon the street in this way, seldom failed to note the boy and compliment him.
The Pittsburgh of 1850 was very different from what it has since become. It had not yet recovered from the great fire which destroyed the entire business portion of the city on April 10, 1845. The houses were mainly of wood, a few only were of brick, and not one was fire-proof. The entire population in and around Pittsburgh was not over forty thousand. The business portion of the city did not extend as far as Fifth Avenue, which was then a very quiet street, remarkable only for having the theater upon it. Federal Street, Allegheny, consisted of straggling business houses with great open spaces between them, and I remember skating upon ponds in the very heart of the present Fifth Ward. The site of our Union Iron Mills was then, and many years later, a cabbage garden.
General Robinson, to whom I delivered many a telegraph message, was the first white child born west of the Ohio River. I saw the first telegraph line stretched from the east into the city; and, at a later date, I also saw the first locomotive, for the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad, brought by canal from Philadelphia and unloaded from a scow in Allegheny City. There was no direct railway communication to the East. Passengers took the canal to the foot of the Allegheny Mountains, over which they were transported to Hollidaysburg, a distance of thirty miles by rail; thence by canal again to Columbia, and then eighty-one miles by rail to Philadelphia – a journey which occupied three days.
[Footnote 12: „Beyond Philadelphia was the Camden and Amboy Railway; beyond Pittsburgh, the Fort Wayne and Chicago, separate organizations with which we had nothing to do.” (Problems of To-day, by Andrew Carnegie, p. 187. New York, 1908.)]
The great event of the day in Pittsburgh at that time was the arrival and departure of the steam packet to and from Cincinnati, for daily communication had been established. The business of the city was largely that of forwarding merchandise East and West, for it was the great transfer station from river to canal. A rolling mill had begun to roll iron; but not a ton of pig metal was made, and not a ton of steel for many a year thereafter. The pig iron manufacture at first was a total failure because of the lack of proper fuel, although the most valuable deposit of coking coal in the world lay within a few miles, as much undreamt of for coke to smelt ironstone as the stores of natural gas which had for ages lain untouched under the city.
There were at that time not half a dozen „carriage” people in the town; and not for many years after was the attempt made to introduce livery, even for a coachman. As late as 1861, perhaps, the most notable financial event which had occurred in the annals of Pittsburgh was the retirement from business of Mr. Fahnestock with the enormous sum of $174,000, paid by his partners for his interest. How great a sum that seemed then and how trifling now!
My position as messenger boy soon made me acquainted with the few leading men of the city. The bar of Pittsburgh was distinguished. Judge Wilkins was at its head, and he and Judge MacCandless, Judge McClure, Charles Shaler and his partner, Edwin M. Stanton, afterwards the great War Secretary („Lincoln’s right-hand man”) were all well known to me – the last-named especially, for he was good enough to take notice of me as a boy. In business circles among prominent men who still survive, Thomas M. Howe, James Park, C.G. Hussey, Benjamin F. Jones, William Thaw, John Chalfant, Colonel Herron were great men to whom the messenger boys looked as models, and not bad models either, as their lives proved. [Alas! all dead as I revise this paragraph in 1906, so steadily moves the solemn procession.]
My life as a telegraph messenger was in every respect a happy one, and it was while in this position that I laid the foundation of my closest friendships. The senior messenger boy being promoted, a new boy was needed, and he came in the person of David McCargo, afterwards the well-known superintendent of the Allegheny Valley Railway. He was made my companion and we had to deliver all the messages from the Eastern line, while two other boys delivered the messages from the West. The Eastern and Western Telegraph Companies were then separate, although occupying the same building. „Davy” and I became firm friends at once, one great bond being that he was Scotch; for, although „Davy” was born in America, his father was quite as much a Scotsman, even in speech, as my own father.
A short time after „Davy’s” appointment a third boy was required, and this time I was asked if I could find a suitable one. This I had no difficulty in doing in my chum, Robert Pitcairn, later on my successor as superintendent and general agent at Pittsburgh of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Robert, like myself, was not only Scotch, but Scotch-born, so that „Davy,” „Bob,” and „Andy” became the three Scotch boys who delivered all the messages of the Eastern Telegraph Line in Pittsburgh, for the then magnificent salary of two and a half dollars per week. It was the duty of the boys to sweep the office each morning, and this we did in turn, so it will be seen that we all began at the bottom. Hon. H.W. Oliver, head of the great manufacturing firm of Oliver Brothers, and W.C. Morland, City Solicitor, subsequently joined the corps and started in the same fashion. It is not the rich man’s son that the young struggler for advancement has to fear in the race of life, nor his nephew, nor his cousin. Let him look out for the „dark horse” in the boy who begins by sweeping out the office.
[Footnote 13: Died 1904.]
[Footnote 14: Died 1889.]
A messenger boy in those days had many pleasures. There were wholesale fruit stores, where a pocketful of apples was sometimes to be had for the prompt delivery of a message; bakers’ and confectioners’ shops, where sweet cakes were sometimes given to him. He met with very kind men, to whom he looked up with respect; they spoke a pleasant word and complimented him on his promptness, perhaps asked him to deliver a message on the way back to the office. I do not know a situation in which a boy is more apt to attract attention, which is all a really clever boy requires in order to rise. Wise men are always looking out for clever boys.
One great excitement of this life was the extra charge of ten cents which we were permitted to collect for messages delivered beyond a certain limit. These „dime messages,” as might be expected, were anxiously watched, and quarrels arose among us as to the right of delivery. In some cases it was alleged boys had now and then taken a dime message out of turn. This was the only cause of serious trouble among us. By way of settlement I proposed that we should „pool” these messages and divide the cash equally at the end of each week. I was appointed treasurer. Peace and good-humor reigned ever afterwards. This pooling of extra earnings not being intended to create artificial prices was really coöperation. It was my first essay in financial organization.
The boys considered that they had a perfect right to spend these dividends, and the adjoining confectioner’s shop had running accounts with most of them. The accounts were sometimes greatly overdrawn. The treasurer had accordingly to notify the confectioner, which he did in due form, that he would not be responsible for any debts contracted by the too hungry and greedy boys. Robert Pitcairn was the worst offender of all, apparently having not only one sweet tooth, but all his teeth of that character. He explained to me confidentially one day, when I scolded him, that he had live things in his stomach that gnawed his insides until fed upon sweets.