Childhood & Early Life
Born on December 19, 1849, in West Overton, Pennsylvania, USA, Henry Clay Frick was the son of Elizabeth Overholt and John W. Frick. He had brothers named Jay Edgar and Aaron, and sisters named Maria, Anna, and Sarah. His father was also a businessman, but most of his ventures ended in failure.
Henry Clay Frick studied at Otterbein College for about a year but dropped out before graduation. In 1871, when he was 21 years old, Frick, two of his cousins, and a friend set up a business together.
With a beehive oven, they transformed coal to coke, which was then utilized in the steel industry. He expressed his desire to become a millionaire by the time he turned 30. The company was named Frick Coke Company.
Borrowing money from the family of a lifelong friend Andrew W. Mellon, he purchased all the shares of his partners by 1880 and gave the company a new name, H. C. Frick & Company. It had 1,000 employees and dealt with 80% of the total coal output in Pennsylvania.
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Career & Later Life
In 1881, while Henry Clay Frick was on his honeymoon in New York City, he became acquainted with Andrew Carnegie. Later, their companies, H. C. Frick & Company and Carnegie Steel Company, formed a partnership, which eventually led to the creation of United States Steel.
This partnership helped Carnegie’s steel mills secure an adequate amount of coke. Frick subsequently was made the chairman of the company. In the ensuing years, Carnegie tried multiple times to oust Frick from the company by leading people to believe that the company had no future and that Frick had to go.
Although Henry Clay Frick helped Carnegie acquire a significant portion of his fortune, Carnegie ignored him while undertaking various executive commitments.
Henry Clay Frick was one of the co-founders of the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, located high above Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Some of the other members of the club were Benjamin Ruff, T. H. Sweat, Charles J. Clarke, Thomas Clark, Walter F. Fundenberg, Howard Hartley, Henry C. Yeager, J. B. White, C. A. Carpenter, W. L. Dunn, W. L. McClintock, and A. V. Holmes.
Frick’s best friend Andrew Mellon, his attorneys Philander Knox and James Hay Reed, and his occasional business partner Carnegie were also part of the group.
The club members made insufficient renovations to what was the largest earthen dam in the world at the time, the South Fork Dam, situated on the south fork of the Little Conemaugh River.
On May 31, 1889, following several days of heavy rainfall, the dam had a catastrophic failure that resulted in the release of 14.55 million cubic meters of water. About 2,200 people were killed in the Johnstown Flood, and property worth $17 million (in 2018 about $474 million) was damaged.
Not long after the flood, The American Society of Civil Engineers began an investigation on the matter. However, the findings were published late, overturned, and undergone a cover-up. It was ultimately published two years after the disaster.
In 2018, an in-depth analysis of what had transpired during the ASCE investigation, the engineers who took part in it, and the science behind the 1889 flood was released.
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In 1881, Henry Clay Frick, who was already an accomplished businessman at the time, began running Old Overholt, a whiskey brand that originally belonged to his maternal grandfather, Abraham Overholt. Frick owned one-third of the company. The other two portions were owned by Andrew Mellon and Charles W. Mauck. Old Overholt set up its new headquarter in Pittsburgh's Frick Building.
In 1907, when prohibition was becoming the norm across the country, Frick and Mellon took their names off from the distilling license. After Frick’s death, Mellon inherited his shares.
Frick and Carnegie’s professional relationship suffered a serious blow over the steps taken in the face of the Homestead Steel Strike, a labour strike organised by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers at the Homestead Works of the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892. The protesting workers, several of whom had weapons, shut the company staff out of Homestead and placed pickets around it.
Henry Clay Frick had garnered notoriety for his anti-union policy, and while the talks to end the strike were still ongoing, he built a solid board fence topped with barbed wire around the mill property. The workers named the newly fortified mill ‘Fort Frick’.
Frick hired Pinkerton agents to storm the compound held by the striking workers. The attack took place on the night of July 5, 1892. The men from Pinkerton were armed with Winchester rifles. In the ensuing violence, ten people were killed and seventy suffered various degrees of injuries.
The Pinkerton agents failed to take control of Homestead, and the violence ultimately stopped due to the intervention of the state militia. Frick was severely criticised for his actions by the working-class Americans and faced several other union-led protests in the following years.
While the Homestead strike was taking place, on July 23, 1892, Frick was shot and stabbed by anarchist Alexander Berkman at his office in downtown Pittsburgh. However, he made a speedy recovery and returned to work in a week. Berkman was arrested, tried and given a 22-year prison sentence.