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Pittsburgh’s Contribution to World War I

by Larry Ciptak

from Out of This Kitchen: a History of the Ethnic Groups and Their Foods in the Steel Valley


Pittsburgh's Contribution to World War I

The eruption of World War I and America's entrance into the struggle three years later put huge demands on America's industries. The call for mass munitions and the loss of 60,000 Allegheny County men who joined the service created a labor shortage in Pittsburgh.

But immigrant labor had dwindled considerably by 1914. Prior to that year, about one million Europeans settled in America annually; however, the advent of the war cut that number by two-thirds.

World War I and its increased production demands required an expanded labor force. The war precipitated the construction of an additional 124 industrial plants in 1916 in Allegheny County alone. Factory owners and managers needed to replace the dwindling supply of immigrant laborers, and started recruiting southern blacks to fill the void, according to Dennis Dickerson in Out of The Crucible: Black Migration to Western Pennsylvania, 1916-1930.

And recruit they did. Black migrants seeking work in the wartime mills flocked to Pittsburgh during the conflict, 18,000 between 1915 and 1917, according to Dickerson.

"This district became known as the Arsenal of the world," said Frank Murdock in Some Aspects of Pittsburgh's Industrial Contribution to the World War. "In it were located 250 great war plants, employing more than 500,000 men and women, constantly engaged day and night, in many instances seven days a week, turning out war supplies."

As British Army General Maurice put it, 'Pittsburgh steel was everywhere along the battle front." Eighty percent of all munition steel used by the United States Army came from Pittsburgh's mills. The district produced 3.5 million shells for the U.S. Army and Navy, with Carnegie Steel Company setting a new world record for production during October, 1918, when it manufactured 100,000 shells, noted Murdock.

A large proportion of heavy cannons and armor plate–able to withstand machine gun fire at 50 yards–were produced by Carnegie Steel. One order alone from the British government to the Westinghouse Company for bullets and cartridge cases filled 14,150 railroad freight cars, or enough to make a train 100 miles long, according to Frank Harper in Pittsburgh: Forge of the Universe.

The U.S. Government in 1918 contracted Pittsburgh industries for $215 million of war-related production, noted Harper, and Westinghouse Electric Corporation valued its war contracts during World War I at $1.5 billion.

As Murdock summed up: "When the Allied Nations found themselves fighting with their backs against the wall, in order to uphold the state of civilization they had spent years acquiring, it was but natural that they should turn with an appeal to the city that had contributed so materially in the building up of that civilization."