Life took a wildly unexpectedly turn when I recently met up with Fortuna resident and retired Professor Tom Gage regarding a film proposal called “The Cradle of Civilization.” The project is based on Gage’s book “American Prometheus: Carnegie’s Captain, Bill Jones”, published in 2017 by Humboldt State University Press.
I read the book and was immediately captivated by this “made-for-Hollywood” story.
Professor Gage and I put together a synopsis and treatment for “The Cradle of Civilization,” a TV miniseries that will explore the true story of Captain Jones in eight chronological one-hour episodes. In our series we follow the meteoric life of Jones, a man who revolutionized the steel industry with his patented technology while gaining the highest respect of workers and management. Jones was one of the most extraordinary men of his time; a brilliant innovator and a steelworker who was practical to the core. The Captain involved himself tirelessly in the affairs of labor and the safety and well-being of his workers. He influenced all that came within his orbit, including corporate overlords like industrialist Andrew Carnegie and financier Henry Clay Frick.
Gage’s fascinating book describes Bill Jones as a folkloric captain of the American steel industry and the patriarch upon who author John Steinbeck contrasted the Hamilton family in East of Eden. Jones was a hero of the Civil War, and a preeminent inventor who helped elevate Andrew Carnegie’s company, the Edgar Thompson Iron and Steel Works (ET) to record levels of production. Jones held more than 50 patents of inestimable worth to the Carnegie steel dynasty. His hot metal mixer (The Cradle) helped mill furnaces expand America’s industrial progress, and determined who would own “the forge of the universe.”
Jones used his patents and his position as mill superintendent to leverage a fair deal for labor and an eight-hour workday. The Captain was also a quiet benefactor to women and children of deceased mill workers. His private philanthropy led to Carnegie’s public posturing. Captain Jones had a baseball diamond built so integrated teams from the mill’s diverse workforce could play and reduce workday friction. This became the historic emergence of baseball as “the people’s sport.”
Andrew Carnegie was a brilliant businessman with a shark-like mentality and driving ambition. He was disliked and distrusted by many. Nevertheless, he made his steel mills the most efficient and advanced in the world. Even though Jones and Carnegie had similar beliefs about social reform and how to improve the world, the two clashed from the beginning of their association. Jones’ genius was that a sound labor policy earned profits. Grudgingly, Carnegie went along with the Captain’s “soft-on-workers” guidelines, due to Jones’ patents. Later, when mill profits soared he touted the Jones’ achievements as his own. Wall Street labeled him “the little Scotch socialist.”
Jones’ mentor was Alexander Holley, a principal negotiator of all steel patents in the U.S. The Captain was more than a problem-solving, hands-on steelworker. During the aftermath of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, he closed the steel mill and led a large crew of men to the flood site, where they aided survivors and removed the dead from debris. The catastrophe was so horrific, the telegraph agent wired for more undertakers and fewer physicians.
As the steel market grew increasingly competitive, Carnegie abandoned his promises to Jones and returned ET to 12-hour shifts. He also hired Henry Frick (the Captain’s spiritual opposite). Frick was an unemotional man who saw employees as just another means for increasing profits. His harsh labor practices led to the 1892 Homestead Strike in which nine strikers and seven Pinkerton employees were killed. Jones decided to break with Carnegie to form a new business partnership with steel man Joseph Butler in Youngstown. A furnace explosion landed the Captain in the hospital, but he was expected to live. Three days later, however, Jones died. Questions were raised as to whether Carnegie was involved in his death.
Jones died a “martyr to duty.” Two days after his passing, Carnegie’s attorney went to see the grieving widow. The purpose of the visit was to acquire Jones’ patents for $35,000, a pittance of their actual value. Despite Carnegie’s enduring respect and admiration for Captain Jones, profit and manipulation were his ultimate addiction.
“The Cradle of Civilization” is an important slice of American history that’s destined to become one of the finest miniseries ever created for television.