By Elizabeth Perry
A new project in Stowe Township is being built on Nichol Avenue on the former site of the 1909 Pressed Steel Car Company workers’ strike.
More than a million dollars in grants have been promised for the development of the site which was sold by McKees Rocks Industrial Enterprise to SunCap Industries.
Stowe Commissioner Cheryl McDermott said the sale went through between August and September, and the project is currently in the teardown phase.
“I think it’s going to take property value up,” McDermott said.
Ultimately the plan is to build three new buildings; an office building, warehouse and “flex” space. A “flex” space offers short-term leases and a communal area to be used by other businesses within the same building. They are appealing to some start-ups because the initial investment in setting up a permanent workspace is not needed.
“They’re going to do all new sewer lines and property restoration,” McDermott said.
The site also requires environmental remediation, including the removal of underground tanks.
In McDermott’s opinion, the only place to develop in Stowe is the riverfront.
“This side of the tunnel is where your big tax base is,” McDermott said. “This is our business district, our real business district.”
Matt Virgin of the SunCap Property Group said in May 2023 the site was being built for “light industrial use.” SunCap has often worked with FedEx in the past to develop warehouse space, but Virgin said at that time they did not “have a user earmarked for the site.”
“I’ve got to believe it’s moving along,” said Sen. Wayne Fontana, who helped secure a $1 million grant to develop the property. Grant funding came from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. Fontana said he was meeting with SunCap to monitor the advancement of the project. If things don’t progress, matching funds don’t go through and Fontana said if that were to happen, the grant could evaporate.
Virgin said SunCap had applied for additional grants to supplement the one secured with the help of Fontana.
“There’s a ton of work to do,” Virgin said.
Since the sale has gone through, Virgin has not returned multiple phone calls to request further information about the progress of the process. It’s unclear at this point if the changes will cost jobs or increase them in the Stowe Township area. Lind and business partner Carrie Klee did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story, and Director of Marketing, Colyer Klee declined to discuss the matter.
The Pressed Steel Car Company was built in 1899, along with the surrounding company town of Presston. Immigrants were brought in and rented company housing and everything available for purchase was through the company store. With the power in the hands of the corporation, workers were in constant debt.
In 1909, workers went on strike.
“Among 6,000 men employed at the Pressed Steel Car Company’s plants in McKees Rocks and [across the river in] Woods Run, unskilled immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who made rail cars in 1909 spoke 16 languages. But these men spoke with one voice when they protested dangerous working conditions, low pay and industrial bondage that left them uncertain about their weekly wages, behind in rent for company-owned housing and forever in debt to the company store,” wrote Marylynne Pitz in a 2009 article for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
The eight-week conflict lasted between July and August. Strikers were evicted unceremoniously from their homes, leading to increased violence.
This standoff culminated in the Bloody Sunday Uprising where at least a dozen people were killed. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette estimated as many as 26 could have died. In September, the company made concessions, which brought workers back into the plant. This was a hollow victory, as the company did not follow through on many of its promises.
In 1949, the Pressed Steel Car Company shuttered after allowing workers to buy the homes they lived in for roughly $2,000.
In 1950 Leonard Morey, owner of Morey Machinery bought the buildings for an estimated $2 million according to the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph.
He formed MRIE with Paul McBeth and Charles Samuel.
The U.S. government leased many of the buildings between 1950-1955. More than $750,000 was spent on renovations by the government and the owners of the buildings.
In 2009, Carrie Klee, who inherited the business from her father Jack Klee, a real estate lawyer, and partner James Lind renovated the buildings. They were integral in helping the McKees Rocks Historical Society install two historical plaques commemorating the violent strikes.
A few years ago, Lind led members of the McKees Rocks Historical Society on a tour of the historic buildings.
“It was quite an eclectic and impressive group of people,” Historical Society President Sandy Saban said.
The group included author Charles McCollister, who wrote the definitive book on the labor movement in the Pittsburgh area and Academy Award Winning actor Mark Rylance, who was researching a cycle of plays he was writing with Peter Reder called “Steel,” about striking workers in the Pittsburgh area.
The idea is now being developed into a screenplay, according to Rylance’s representative, Claire Walden.