Coordinator, Study Pittsburgh Initiative
From its earliest days, Pittsburgh’s “Black and Gold” colors have had a line of red running between them: the red stripe of the Schwarz-Rot-Gold national flag of Germany. People like Alethea Wieland, Suzi Pegg, and the city’s German honorary consul Paul Overby (not to mention that most redoubtable of the city’s marketing tools, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra!) are trying to paint that red stripe in the Pittsburgh Black and Gold as bright and wide as possible by encouraging economic links between Pittsburgh and Germany. And they have met with remarkable success: 77 German firms employ more than 10,000 people in the Pittsburgh region and the number is steadily climbing. But that presence rests on a German connection to Pittsburgh which extends almost to the earliest origins of the city; even in the 1760s a handful of “Pennsylvania Dutch” German settlers and traders lived in the vicinity of Fort Pitt, and in the first US census of 1790, half of the twenty-seven heads of families recorded as living in "Pittsburgh Town" bore German surnames.
Moreover, one of the most important figures in the early days of the steel industry, basis of the city's prosperity for more than 150 years, was a German immigrant, Dr. Peter Shoenberger. Shoenberger was born in Hannover in 1782, the son of Johan George Schoenberger (Peter dropped the "c"), who himself came from the village of Ober Mossau in the county of Erbach, one of the many micro-principalities of the Holy Roman Empire. Having arrived in Philadelphia in 1785, by the time of the father's death in 1815 the family lived in Huntingdon County where Shoenberger’s uncle, also called Peter, had founded the town of Petersburg, a mountain-valley village whose setting must have reminded the Schoenbergers of their Odenwald Heimat.
While studying medicine in the Lancaster practice of Dr. Samuel Fahnestock, the younger Peter Shoenberger was involved in the iron industry in Huntingdon County as early as 1817, when he built an ironworks there eventually called the Juniata Iron Mill. (Shoenberger’s union of medicine and entrepreneurial technology may have seemed less unusual in his time than now: Dr. Fahnestock, his medical mentor, also happened to be the inventor of the first soda machine, patented in 1819).
In 1824 Shoenberger moved to Pittsburgh and soon afterwards built the city’s first rolling mill, the Juniata Iron and Steel Works, on the left bank of the Allegheny River between 11th and 16th Streets, complimented by 1830 with a warehouse on Wood St. Having formed a partnership in the late 1840s with another early pioneer of steel manufacture (and his namesake), Thomas Shoenberger Blair, he eventually united his Huntingdon and Pittsburgh operations under the title of the Shoenberger Steel Company. Shoenberger had business interests in several other firms as well, among them Johnstown’s Cambria Iron Company, of which he was co-founder and president
By the time of his death in 1854, Shoenberger was known as the “Iron King” of Pennsylvania and one of the wealthiest men in the commonwealth. Apart from his extensive business interests in the steel industry, he invested in stagecoaches and canals across the state and was one of Pennsylvania’s largest landowners with more than 100,000 acres of timber, ore and limestone. He built a mansion near Highland Park and helped to found both Lutheran and Episcopalian churches in Pittsburgh.
The experience of later generations of German immigrants arriving in Pittsburgh was very different. At the same time that Peter Shoenberger was establishing the foundation of a steel business which made him a leading figure in the city, Michael Friedrich Radke, eventually and briefly his employee, was facing an uncertain future in the Prussia of King Friedrich Wilhelm III. The son of a farmer whose village, near the Baltic port of Stettin (Szczecin), had been burned to the ground in the wars of Napoleon, Radke found work as a distiller, conscript soldier in a Prussian infantry regiment and finally, after moving to Berlin, gardener at the royal park of the Tiergarten in charge “of the flower beds near the goldfish pond and the Floraplatz”.
The reasons which made Radke decide to emigrate might well have been familiar to Shoenberger’s father Johan sixty years earlier:
I worked day and night and walked in many places, spent many a sleepless night, and the money I earned there was scarcely enough to feed my family. At the same time I saw thousands emigrate to different parts of the world, to America and Australia. When thinking about it more closely, I realized that all of these emigrations were nothing more than the fault of the poverty that progressed with gigantic steps. And so within me, too, rose the thought to emigrate!
Leaving from the North Sea port of Bremerhaven in the first days of March 1848, just in time to hear rumors of revolution in France before their ship sailed, the Radke family endured a two-month voyage in a vessel packed with 226 emigrants. Finally reaching Baltimore on May 1st, Radke learned “to my horror and astonishment” that the revolution had spread “all over Germany”, and that in his former home of Berlin, “such terrible things happened on the 18th and 19th of March, 1848, that many thousands of people lost their lives”. The street fighting which claimed so many lives had begun when the army attempted to disperse a mass demonstration in the Tiergarten, his former place of employment: “I said”, writes Radke, “God be thanked that I'm not there”.
After another lengthy and wearying journey by rail, canal boat, and finally “Stimmboth” (i.e. steamboat), the family arrived in Pittsburgh in mid-May, whereupon Radke “immediately rented an apartment and bought the necessary furniture, but I didn't have any work until the 3rd of July” when he was hired on at the Schoenberger steel mill, at the weekly salary of $4.50. Like many new arrivals to the city who found work in the mills, even after a life inured to hardship and manual labor, the demands of heavy industry in its first era could be shocking: “it was heavy hard work, work such as I had never done before”. Nor was it a certain route to prosperity: “every month I had to pay $4.50 rent. I worked in the Schoeneberg [sic] Steelmill until the 15th of November, 1849, but with my daily work and earnings I was unable to save anything because both rent and food cost too much”.
After seventeen months’ work in his fellow countryman Shoenberger’s employ, Radke had had enough: “since I couldn't make any progress in Pittsburgh, I decided to choose something else, and that is farming. So on the 15th of November, 1849, I traveled from Pittsburgh to the state of Indiana…There I rented land, and there I lived after all better and made better progress.”
What, after such a long and difficult journey, must have been for the Radke family a disappointing – perhaps bitterly disappointing – experience of life in Pittsburgh was certainly not unique. At the industrial revolution’s ground zero in the 19th century, life was harsh for Pittsburgh’s immigrant workforce. Fortunately, while working conditions are generally a great deal better than Michael Radke encountered in the steel mills of the 1840s, the enormous potential for prosperity which steel represented for Pittsburgh then has been renewed in the lively emerging-technology, medical and educational sectors of the local economy. And just as fortunately, the German link in Pittsburgh’s past, reflected in the two very different experiences of Peter Shoenberger and Michael Radke, remains just as strong today, with the promise of growth and benefits to share between our Black-Gold city and the country of the Black-Red-Gold flag which has contributed so much to Pittsburgh’s story.
Homer T. Rosenberger, "Migrations of the Pennsylvania Germans to Western Pennsylvania, Pt. II", Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, v. 54, no. 1 (1971), 58-76.
Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr, The World’s Richest Neighborhood: How Pittsburgh’s East Enders Forged American Industry (Algora: New York, 2010).