Andrew Carnegie

Paul Conradt
Paul Conradt / Paul Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use. See all the Grave Sightings posts here.

For a guy worth about $310 billion, Andrew Carnegie’s grave is pretty modest—but that’s fitting for the man who gave away the vast majority of his fortune while he was still alive.

A (very) quick overview of Carnegie’s storied life: Born in Scotland in 1835, Andrew and his very poor family moved to the U.S. in 1848 and settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. His family’s poverty stuck with him, and he vowed to help others when he was in the position to do so. “It was burnt into my heart then that my father had to beg for work,” Carnegie later wrote, “and then and there came the resolve that I would cure that when I got to be a man."

Library of Congress

He made good on that promise, or at least tried. After a bunch of small odd jobs—changing spools of thread in a cotton mill, serving as a telegraph messenger boy—young Andrew began rising through the ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and made a series of good investment decisions, including establishing a steel mill. He opened his own steel plant in 1875 and continued to grow his businesses and holdings over the next 26 years. In 1901, he sold Carnegie Steel for an absolutely unprecedented $480 million, making him (at the time) the richest man in the world. But he didn’t believe in keeping that money, and in fact wrote “The Gospel of Wealth” that explained his beliefs on how wealthy people could and should use their fortunes for the betterment of society.

Among other things, Carnegie’s money built 2509 libraries worldwide, founded or established large trusts at several universities, constructed Carnegie Hall in New York, funded 7000 church organs, and started a $10 million pension fund for teachers. Which is not to say that Carnegie didn’t have his faults. According to various accounts, he was needlessly cruel to people, valued efficiency over the safety of his steelworkers, and authorized Henry Frick to do whatever was necessary to squelch a labor strike at one of his mills in 1892. Nine workers ended up being killed by Pinkerton agents.

Paul Conradt

Joseph Wall, one of Carnegie’s biographers, theorized that "Maybe with the giving away of his money, he would justify what he had done to get that money." And he certainly did give it away. By the time Andrew Carnegie passed away from complications from pneumonia at the age of 83 in 1919, he had given away about 90 percent of the wealth he had amassed over the years. His headstone at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York, is made of stone from Skibo Castle, Carnegie’s home in Scotland.

See all the Grave Sightings posts here.