This is part one of a two part series on the Great Trolley Strike of 1895. Part two will be posted next Wednesday, September 3rd.
This is also the latest in a series of posts on the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel, which are currently being processed with funding provided by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) “Hidden Collections” grant.
On a brisk January day in 1895 a young man named Thomas Carney was high atop the roof of 444 Hicks Street. It was the second week of the trolley strike, so he had walked from his home at Union and Bond Streets down toward the river. He had been hired to patch the building’s roof, and while he was working he could hear the commotion on the streets the below. The strike had turned violent in the past week, and the militia had been called in to keep the peace. A regiment was stationed in South Brooklyn that day and it was escorting the few trolleys that were running through the neighborhood. At one point, Thomas decided to peer over the building’s cornice to see what going on below him. He saw the militiamen, and they saw him. Seconds later he felt a searing pain in his leg. He had been shot, and later that night he would die from his wound. To understand why Thomas Carney died that day we must first go back and examine the events which led up to the great trolley strike of 1895.
It’s been over 50 years since the last trolley ran through Brooklyn, but it was once the most extensively used mass transit system in the borough. They were originally drawn by horses, and serviced areas of Brooklyn where the elevated railroads had yet to expand. By 1890 the trolleys began to run on electricity. This allowed for speedier transit and, in the eyes of speculators, greater profits.
There were numerous independent trolley companies at the time, and the largest was the Brooklyn City Railroad Company (BCRC). They owned or leased 200 miles of track, from East New York to Court Street, and from Greenpoint to Fort Hamilton. In the early 1890s the stockholders of the BCRC began enacting a series of financial deals in an effort to drive up stock prices and increase their own dividends. First, they leased their entire track system to the much smaller Brooklyn Heights Railroad Company (BHRC), which operated a single line along Montague Street.
The BCRC stockholders then organized a new company in the state of Virginia, named the Long Island Traction Company, and proceeded to buy the BHRC. The company was not incorporated in New York, and therefore was not subject to the various regulations and taxes associated with running a railroad in the state. This arrangement was described by the special committee appointed to investigate the trolley strike as follows, “[the stockholders] had found a means of reaping and taking to themselves large and very exceptional profits, and at the same time avoiding and evading certain responsibilities to the laws of this State.”
The railroad companies clearly envisioned a bright future for themselves, and it should not come as a surprise that their workers believed that they should share in the profits. It was around this time that America’s working class began to form rudimentary labor unions, and many trolleymen were represented by one of these groups, the Knights of Labor (KOL).
The KOL was at one time the premier trade union organization in the United States. In 1886, their membership numbered 600,000, but by 1890 that number had dipped below 100,000. Although they conducted a number of successful railroad strikes in the early 1880s, the organization was plagued by weak leadership and general mismanagement. Much of their decline has also been attributed to the famous Haymarket affair, when anarchists (who were not affiliated with the Knights), set off bombs during a labor strike organized by the KOL in Chicago. By 1895, the Knights had not successfully waged a major strike in years, and were generally disdained by business leaders due to the Haymarket incident. As we will see, this would make good-faith negotiations between the trolley workers and the railroad companies virtually impossible.
There were several issues that the workers had with the trolley companies. The workers believed that they deserved better wages now that the trolley system had been electrified. They argued that the new cars required greater concentration, and that their work was subsequently more taxing, both mentally and physically.
Workers also complained that companies instructed their conductors to ignore the city’s 10 mile per hour speed limit, endangering the lives of the motormen and the public. But the main sticking point between labor and management was the 10-hour work day. New York law stipulated that laborers could not work more than 10 hours in a 12 hour period. The workers believed that the ten hours included meals and time spent waiting for their trolleys at the train depot. The companies, on the other hand, did not intend to pay workers for any time not spent actually running the trolleys.
When the workers’ representatives presented their demands to the trolley companies in January 1895, the companies balked. As Brian Cudahy noted in How We Got to Coney Island: The Development of Mass Transportation in Brooklyn and Kings County, “management still believed that … it enjoyed a unilateral authority akin to the divine right of kings.” Labor soon dropped its demands for better wages, but would not budge on the 10-hour work day. On Sunday, January 13th, the Knights of Labor’s executive board voted to endorse a city-wide strike.
On Monday morning 5,000 workers went on strike, paralyzing Brooklyn’s trolley system. Although the first day of the strike was generally peaceful, the situation quickly escalated, and violence began to ensue. The trolley companies immediately began hiring workers from New Jersey, Philadelphia, and as far as Boston and Pittsburg. The companies believed if they could replace the striking workers quickly enough, they would be able to get the trolley system up and running on a normal schedule.
Their strategy backfired, as explained by the special committee appointed to investigate the trolley strike, “the order was passed around the headquarters of the [Knights of Labor] that there was to be no violence. That did very well for the first [day] of the strike, but as it has progressed and the [companies] have not only not given in to their demands, but have proceeded to secure men to take the places of the strikers; the situation becomes more desperate for them.”
The striking workers made it their mission to stop every trolley still running in the city. They would cut the trolley wires, surround the cars, and often assaulted the new drivers. Strikers would utilize anything they could to block the path of the trolleys. A local builder claimed that a mob had descended upon his stores of brownstone and slate to barricade Fulton Street. Children joined in, tossing stones at conductors.
The police were unable to control the strike. Trolleys were occasionally manned by an officer or two, which were no match for the mobs in the streets. During the height of the strike up to 4,000 workers would amass at the train depots. The city police force numbered only 1,700 in 1895, and many were sympathetic to the striking workers. According to the special committee appointed to investigate the trolley strike, the department also suffered was exceptionally poor leadership.
The Police Superintendent “was incompetent to command the force because of his age, lack of memory and want of physical condition.” The Police Commissioner, who had been appointed by the mayor, was also incapable of running the force (“Prior to [the Police Commissioner’s] assumption of office [he had] never been in a similar business or had any qualification or training for the performance of the duties of the chief of police.”)
Finally, Mayor Schieren himself had failed to grasp the severity of the strike until it was too late. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle report from the 5th day of the strike illustrates this point well. At a public forum held on 5th Ave., local business owners complained that they were losing a tremendous amount of money due to the strike. One of the men asked the mayor, “Why are we doing nothing?” To which the mayor replied, “Well, what can you suggest? We are making every effort to bring about a settlement, and if you have any suggestions we shall be glad to hear it.”
By January 19th, the sixth day of the strike, the Mayor finally took action. He decided to call in the National Guard to restore order and prevent further violence. Although the militia eventually achieved its goal, which was to restore regular trolley service to the city, some would argue that they actually stoked the violence that was gripping the city.
Thus concludes part one of the Great Trolley Strike of 1895. Check back next Wednesday, September 3rd, for the conclusion of our story.