10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History

Andrew Carnegie rose from poverty to make millions in the telegraph, railroad, and steel industries. Then he gave it away. Project Gutenberg

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was born poor, in a one-room weaver’s cottage in the Scottish town of Dunfermline. When he was thirteen the family decided to leave then famine ridden Scotland and migrated to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, which was a thriving town with a sizable Scottish population when they arrived in 1848. Carnegie took a job as a bobbin boy, changing the spools of thread on looms. He was paid today’s equivalent of about $37 per week, working twelve hours per day every day but Sunday. His father went to work at the same mill, having failed to establish himself as a weaver of damask.

Carnegie began working as a telegraph messenger the following year, and established the style of meeting and favorably impressing men in a position to assist him in his career. By 1853 Carnegie was working on telegraph equipment for the Pennsylvania Railroad, six years later he was the superintendent of the Western Division. Carnegie was by then making enough money to begin investing, and he invested wisely for the most part, in industries which fed the growing railroads, iron works, steel, and coal. He also expanded his investments in the telegraph, which grew alongside the rails.

In the early part of the Civil War Carnegie pushed the railroads and telegraph into Northern Virginia at the behest of the government. He invested in companies to build railroad bridges and he and several other iron manufacturers opened Pittsburgh’s first steel rolling mill. It was after the war that Carnegie left the railroad industry and concentrated his focus on steel and iron. Already a successful businessman by any measure, it was the steel industry in which Carnegie made his huge fortune. By the end of 1889 US production of steel was the largest in the world and a goodly portion of the industry belonged to Andrew Carnegie.

When Carnegie sold his holdings to John Pierpont Morgan in 1901 he realized the equivalent of $6.6 billion, making him one if the wealthiest men in the world. He then proceeded to give his fortune away. He continued to run his remaining businesses outside of the steel industry and began to award communities all over the United States funds to build libraries, in many cities several branch libraries were built with his money. Carnegie also began writing himself, his essay Wealth was published in the United States and after a request from William Gladstone republished in England as The Gospel of Wealth.

Carnegie presented the argument that wealth should be given away to promote the betterment of society, a responsibility of the wealthy in the days when there was no income tax and little in the way of government funded social programs. Carnegie’s views led to a surge in philanthropy during the Gilded Age and he donated more than $350 million of his own money over the years. He built over three thousand public libraries, helped found Carnegie Mellon University, and paid for about 7,000 church organs around the world. He was the prototype of the poor immigrant who worked hard and achieved the American dream, after which he tried to provide assistance to those who desired to follow in his path.