Why 1898 Was A Big Year for America, Andrew Carnegie and Pittsburgh
By 1898, Carnegie had enjoyed stupendous success since his arrival in Pittsburgh as a poor Scottish immigrant exactly 50 years before.
The Spanish-American War made 1898 one of the most significant years in American history. It also marked a turning point for Pittsburgh’s most famous tycoon and the city where he made his fortune.
Though the conflict was relatively brief — it was entirely contained within the calendar year, from the first saber rattling to the peace treaty in Paris — it was global in scope. With the resultant annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii and the Philippines, America emerged as a world power.
By 1898, Andrew Carnegie had enjoyed stupendous success since his arrival in Pittsburgh as a poor Scottish immigrant exactly 50 years before. In addition to his steel mills, Carnegie had commissioned the city’s first skyscraper, though he spent little time in his 13-story company headquarters on Fifth Avenue, preferring his mansion in Manhattan and castle in Dunfermline to the Smoky City.
The multimillionaire industrialist began the year dickering with the U.S. government over defense contracts. He demanded a price of $400 a ton to supply Homestead-rolled armor plate for three new battleships, but Congress appeared unwilling to budge above $300 a ton. Then in February, the battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor. War was declared, the legislators relented, and Carnegie got his asking price. But as U.S. forces swept to victory, he had second thoughts about the military his mills were empowering.
Carnegie joined the Anti-Imperialist League, becoming one of its highest-profile members alongside Mark Twain. He publicly urged the United States to turn away from empire building — which he saw as harmful to democracy and ultimately futile — and focus instead on development at home. He offered to donate $20 million of his own money, the price America had agreed to pay Spain for the Philippines, if U.S. troops were withdrawn from the islands. Though unheeded, his pacifist proclivities led Carnegie to pay for a Peace Palace in The Hague a few years later.
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That November he returned to Pittsburgh for a gala at his library complex. Basking in his role as a civic philanthropist, Carnegie inspected 224 paintings hung in the galleries for the institute’s third annual international art show. In the music hall, he attended the first performance of the young Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under its new celebrity conductor, Victor Herbert, whom Carnegie had lured from New York.
And in December, he read a newspaper story that would have colossal ramifications for the city. It detailed a major fossil find in Wyoming, a near-complete brontosaurus skeleton. Carnegie tore out the article and mailed it to the head of his institute with a note scribbled in the margin: “My Lord — can’t you buy this for Pittsburgh — try.”
His dinosaur collection would soon be unparalleled. So too would his libraries and other legacies; now in its 58th iteration, the Carnegie International is North America’s longest-running international art exhibition. But his skyscraper fell to the wrecking ball in 1952.