Despite the crisscrossing expressways overhead and the post-industrial surroundings, you can feel that something extraordinary happened here.
You can easily summon images of mid-19th-century men and women who helped to make this country great, beyond our Founders’ wildest imaginings.
Such greatness was not beyond the determination of poor immigrants who settled in what then was an Allegheny City neighborhood. Circumstances were never fair, they knew, but opportunity was abundant in their new country.
Even at age 16, Andrew Carnegie was struck by the vast possibilities.
"In Dunfermline I would have been a poor weaver all my days," he wrote to an uncle back in Scotland, "but here I can surely do something better than that (and) if I don’t it will be all my own fault, for anyone can get along in this country."
Back then, Reedsdale was called Rebecca Street. Margaret Morrison Carnegie settled here with her sons, Andrew and Thomas; the family emigrated from Scotland in 1848 after patriarch William Carnegie’s weaving trade became obsolete in the Industrial Age.
William failed to earn a living as a weaver in America, too, so he worked in a textile mill, then as a peddler.
Emotionally crushed and disheartened, he died shortly after arriving here.
Andrew took his first job, as a bobbin boy in a textile mill, at age 13. Later in life, he often fondly recalled the "great joy" of earning his first $1.20 "from the labor of my own hands."
Next, he became a messenger boy for the O’Reilly Telegraph Co. Running messages led him to discover Col. James Anderson, a local industrialist who turned his own collection of books into a library for the city’s laborers.
An omnivorous reader, Carnegie was transformed by those books, which led him to relentlessly question life’s status quo.
Bright, curious, generous and ambitious, he quickly advanced from working as a telegraph operator to working for and then investing in railroads and related industries, and eventually to building an iron-and-steel empire. By the turn of the 20th century, he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan for nearly $500 million — and proceeded to give away most of the money, much of it to create libraries across the country.
The book collection that Col. Anderson lent to poor laborers is still available at the main branch of Carnegie’s library in Pittsburgh.
Carnegie’s great flaw was an inability to understand his father’s tragedy, or to understand his workers’ demands for fewer hours and higher pay. Instead, he steadfastly believed that anyone with a little "gumption" could do what he himself had done.
Historian David Pietrusza said it is interesting to consider the type of charity Carnegie ultimately pursued: "He respected religion, and he respected beauty and culture — that is why he funded so many church organs. He respected knowledge — that is why he funded libraries."
Yet he also respected the virtues of self-help and self-rule, Pietrusza explained. "He built the library buildings, but he expected local communities to do the rest, to hire the staff and buy the books.
"He might have bought the books and told people what to think, but he did not."
In Andrew Carnegie’s world, Americans worked for their own success and thought for themselves.
A bust of Col. Anderson can be found a mile from the old Rebecca Street slum, along with a larger-than-life statue of Labor, portrayed as a shirtless, muscled blacksmith sitting on an anvil, a sledgehammer at his side and an open book on his lap — a working man reading on his break.
The statue’s commemoration reads: "This monument is erected in grateful remembrance by Andrew Carnegie, one of the ‘working boys’ to whom were thus opened this precious treasure of knowledge and imagination through which youth may ascend."
The shadows of the past are all around us. They are not always particularly distinguished, and often they are hidden in plain sight.
Carnegie’s legacy is many things to many people. Yet it is his ghost of "gumption" — a gumption that spit in the face of fairness and found opportunity as a result — that tells the most about a country on the brink of greatness.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]