Yet this district has advantages for the manufacture of steel that have no parallel elsewhere. The steel companies which are located here do not have to bring their materials laboriously from a distance but possess, immediately at hand, apparently endless store of the three things needful for making steel--iron ore, coal, and limestone. All these territories have their personal romances and their heroes, many of them quite as picturesque as those of the Pittsburgh group.
It is doubtful indeed if American industry presents any figure quite as astonishing and variegated as that of John W. Gates, the man who educated farmers all over the world to the use of wire fencing. Half charlatan, half enthusiast, speculator, gambler, a man who created great enterprises and who also destroyed them, at times an upbuilding force and at other times a sinister influence, Gates completely typified a period in American history that, along with much that was heroic and splendid, had much also that was grotesque and sordid. The opera-bouffe performance that laid the foundations of Gates's great industry was in every way characteristic of this period. In 1871 Gates, then a clerk in a hardware store at twenty-five dollars a week, made his first attempt to sell barbed wire in the great cattle countries of the southwestern States. When the cattle men in Texas first saw this barbed wire, they ridiculed the idea that it could ever hold their steers. Gates selected a plaza in San Antonio, fenced it in with his new product, and invited the enemies to bring along their wildest specimens About thirty of Texas' most ferocious cattle, placed within the enclosure, spent a whole afternoon plunging at the barbs in a useless and tormenting attempt to escape. This spectacular demonstration of efficiency launched Gates fairly upon his career. He immediately began to sell his new fencing on an enormous scale; in a few years the whole world was demanding it, and it has become, as recent events have disclosed, a particularly formidable munition of war. The American Steel and Wire Company, one of the greatest of American corporations, was the ultimate outgrowth of that lively afternoon in San Antonio.
In 1900 the Carnegie Steel Company was making one-quarter of all the Bessemer steel produced in the United States. It owned in abundance all the properties which were essential to its completed output--coal, limestone, steel ships, railroads, and steel mills. In twenty-five years, from 1875 to 1900, this manufacturing enterprise had paid the Carnegie group profits aggregating $133,000,000, profits which, in the closing years of the century, had increased at a stupendous rate. In 1898 Carnegie and his associates had divided $11,500,000, in 1899 their earnings had grown to $25,000,000, and in 1900 the aggregate had suddenly jumped to $40,000,000. Of this latter sum Carnegie received $25,000,000, Phipps $5,500,000, Frick $2,600,000, and Schwab $1,300,000. And Carnegie's little group could see no limit to the growth of their business and the expansion of their personal fortunes. Yet at that very moment Carnegie was planning to play the part of a Charles V with the large empire which he had pieced together--to abdicate his throne, retire from business life, and spend his remaining days in quiet.
Many influences were impelling him to this decision. His triumph, stupendous as it had been, also had had its alloy of sorrow. Indeed this little Scotsman, now at the crowning of his glory, was one of the loneliest figures in the world. Practically all the forty men with whom he had been closely associated had vanished from the scene. He had quarreled with his playmate and lifelong partner, Henry Phipps, and was in the worst possible business and personal relations with Frick. He had no son to carry on his work. He had become greatly interested in his philanthropies, and he had declared that the man who died rich died disgraced. Moreover, new influences were rising in the steel trade with which Carnegie had little sympathy.