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How the 1917 streetcar riots reshaped Minnesota politics with angry workers, frustrated farmers

Strking Twin City Rapid Transit workers picket the company's street cars in downtown St. Paul in 1917. (courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

ST. PAUL—Long-simmering tensions between local labor and business interests boiled over into a pair of violent riots that shook St. Paul in late 1917.

Dozens of people were injured and property damage ran into the thousands of dollars during the unrest, which paralyzed the city for several days in October and again in December. The Minnesota Home Guard was ultimately deployed to restore order.

"2,500 RIOTERS ATTACK TROLLEY CARS; 40 MEN HURT; HOME GUARD CALLED OUT," screamed a Pioneer Press headline on Dec. 3, 1917.

What began as a dispute over the wages of Twin Cities streetcar operators would ultimately help shape Minnesota's political landscape to this day.

"I think it's one of the most important events in the history of Minnesota, and one of the least recognized," said Mary Lethert Wingerd, a local historian who wrote about the riots in her 2001 book, "Claiming the City." "It's the reason the Non-Partisan League and labor (movement) got together and created the Farmer-Labor party."

When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, battle lines were also drawn here on the homefront. Hoping to land lucrative wartime contracts to feed and outfit the troops, the St. Paul business community sought to exhibit their city's martial enthusiasm by organizing patriotic marches and rallies.

Their efforts were undermined by St. Paul's largely immigrant working class. The city's German residents had little desire to fight against their fatherland, and its Irish population was reluctant to serve alongside America's British allies. Their anti-war sentiment was given voice by the influential labor unions that represented them.

"St. Paul was basically a closed-shop town," Wingerd said. "Almost every employer was unionized."

But Twin Cities business interests had a powerful ally in the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety. The commission, which largely took its marching orders from the Minneapolis milling industry, persecuted immigrants and smeared Minnesotans who opposed the war as disloyal, according to Carl Chrislock's 1991 book, "Watchdog of Loyalty."

Against this backdrop, the conflict between the Twin City Rapid Transit Co. and its employees became about more than wages.

Based in Minneapolis, TCRT's monopoly on streetcar transportation in the Twin Cities bred resentment among St. Paulites, Wingerd said. Their resentment was compounded by the fact that the company was non-union, she added.

Chronically short of cash, TCRT founder Thomas Lowry had repeatedly cut his workers' wages to boost profits, Wingerd writes in "Claiming the City." By the time his son, Horace Lowry, assumed control of the company in 1916, his employees were fed up.

In September 1917, they demanded a three-cent-an-hour raise. Lowry refused.

The Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees soon began an organizing drive that culminated in a strike on Oct. 6.

Minneapolis officials called out their civilian auxiliary to prevent demonstrations on city streets, but across the river in St. Paul, where organized labor wielded more influence, no such precautions were taken.

Striking workers walked off their jobs at 1 a.m. Joined by other St. Paulites sympathetic to their cause, they picketed peacefully downtown all day.

But about 8 p.m., a crowd at Seventh and Wabasha streets began heckling the operators of passing streetcars with cries of "Scabs!" and similar epithets, according to coverage in the next morning's Pioneer Press.

When a stone was thrown through a streetcar window, chaos erupted.

"Within hours, the situation had escalated into a full-scale riot, like nothing St. Paul had ever seen," Wingerd writes.

The mob — estimated at 3,000 people — had shut down streetcar service by 11 p.m. Hundreds of riders found themselves walking home.

"Streets were lined with pedestrians," the Pioneer Press reported. "Even persons living in Minneapolis were forced to walk the entire distance."

Rioters used rocks, bricks and broom handles to smash trolley windows, and they manhandled drivers who had crossed the picket line, the article said. Eleven men were arrested and 20 people were injured.

But this first riot was marked by a carnival-like atmosphere. Popcorn wagons and peanut vendors did "a state fair business," according to a report in the St. Paul Daily News.

"The only thing missing in the downtown crowds was the balloon man," the report said.

And it wasn't just Lowry's employees destroying his streetcars that night. Wingerd describes it as a "community protest" that likely drew St. Paulites with "a variety of festering grievances." Even uniformed soldiers from Fort Snelling participated.

The unrest, which continued for the next three nights, brought both sides to the bargaining table, with the Commission for Public Safety acting as mediator. After initially trying to work out a compromise between the company and the workers, the commission sided with Lowry, ordering a halt to organizing activity on TCRT property.

"The Public Safety Commission is really in cahoots with the streetcar company to break the union," Wingerd said.

The striking employees and their union backers now found themselves abandoned by their political allies, except an organization of activist farmers called the Non Partisan League, said Patrick Coleman, a historian and curator for the Minnesota Historical Society.

Founded just a couple of years earlier in North Dakota, this agrarian populist political party advocated for — among other things — better grain prices for farmers. This drew the ire of the Minneapolis milling trust that pulled the strings of the Commission for Public Safety, giving the farmers and the workers a common enemy.

"At this time, labor starts looking at the Non Partisan League as their only ally," Coleman said. "I think the biggest failure here is that neither the Democrat or Republican party stepped in to do anything for labor."

As the strike dragged on, the weather grew bitter and so did the workers. On Dec. 2, they gathered in Rice Park for an afternoon rally.

James Manahan, general counsel for the Non Partisan League, happened by the crowd on his way home from dinner at the nearby St. Paul Hotel.

Asked to speak by the rally's organizers, Manahan pledged his organization's full support to the discouraged strikers. He finished his fiery five-minute speech with an admonition against violence.

"Let your blows be struck at the ballot box," Manahan told them, according to his memoir.

But the crowd of 2,500 couldn't wait that long and decided to land some blows on Lowry's streetcars, too.

"Trolley cars were surrounded and attacked, their motormen and conductors were dragged off and roughly handled," the Pioneer Press reported the next day.

The rioters smashed windows, disabled brakes, destroyed tracks, and cut trolley cables throughout downtown — including in the Selby Avenue tunnel, where stranded passengers were forced to stumble out in the dark.

Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist called in the Home Guard — a wartime replacement for the Minnesota National Guard, which was serving overseas — to put down the riot with clubs, but not before the violence injured 40 people and crippled 50 streetcars. By the following morning, the city was "virtually under martial law," Wingerd writes.

Manahan and two others who spoke at the rally were arrested for inciting the riot, but the charges were dismissed by a Ramsey County judge.

After the hearing, the Non Partisan League and labor leaders held a celebratory dinner for the men at the Ryan Hotel in downtown St. Paul, where they celebrated a victory over their shared enemies.

"From that point on, they start working together," Wingerd said. "They really connect, and that's the first time they start talking about their common interests."

The Farmer-Labor coalition would field candidates in the 1918 state elections, but it would take a decade for it to gain the political clout to assume control of Minnesota's government. It would become one of the most successful third parties in American history, before merging with the state's Democratic party in 1944.

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