This is part two of a two part series on the Great Trolley Strike of 1895.
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.
Finally, if you would like to hear more about the trolley strike and other forgotten events from Brooklyn’s past, please join me next Tuesday, September 9th, for the latest installment of Tales from the Vault!
By January 19th, 1895, a few thousand militiamen were deployed to the city of Brooklyn to defend the train depots and protect the few trolleys which were operating at the time. The militia was generally able to maintain control of the strikers and their sympathizers without the use of force, though tensions remained high. For instance, on the first day the militiamen were stationed in the city, a large crowd had assembled in East New York. They spent the day cutting trolley wires, obstructing tracks, and even bribed a few of the new motormen to leave their posts and relinquishing their cars to the mob. The police were once again unable to manage any semblance of order, and the militia had been sent to the nearby train depot. The crowds routinely mocked the troops, referring to them as “scabs” and “toy soldiers.” At some point, a man tried to snatch a rifle from one of the militiamen, and the colonel in charge, fearing for the safety of his men, gave the order to charge the crowd with their bayonets drawn.
Surprisingly, the charge resulted in only one injury. Charles Wilton, a painter who claimed he was simply returning home from work at the time, was bayonetted in the scuffle. Word of the stabbing soon spread, and the crowd at the East New York depot swelled to 2,000 people. The same scene played out again, with the crowd arguing with the militia, and reports of someone attempting to disarm one of the militiamen. The troops charged again, this time bayonetting two more men, before the crowd finally dispersed. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the following day, “[that] the scenes in East New York after nightfall were more turbulent than ever known in the history of the city.”
The city was effectively under martial law for the rest of the month. The situation on the streets of Brooklyn was unprecedented, with citizens fearing the violence of both the militia and the mob. By now it should be perfectly clear why someone like Thomas Carney was shot dead that January day in 1895. The militia had been marching through South Brooklyn from Atlantic Ave. to Hamilton Ave., making sure the trolleys were not being interfered with. Along the way, locals had been throwing bottles and pans at the troops. To protect themselves from projectiles the troops ordered residents to shudder their windows, and warning shots were fired at those who refused.
As usual, tensions remained high. A man with a pistol was seen lurking in a window. The troops fired at him, entered his home, and soon turned him over to the police. Another man was arrested for hurling coal at the militia. The troops were clearly on edge as they made their way through the neighborhood. A captain reported that a man on a nearby rooftop had peered over at the militiamen three times, and that it appeared that he had somethiong in his hand ready to throw at the troops. The man was Thomas Carney, one of the few casualties of the 1895 strike.
By February the strike essentially ran its course. The trolley companies continued to hire new motormen, including some former strikers, and were able to get their cars running on a normal schedule. The violence that marred the early days of the strike slowly abated and the militiamen stood down. And while the workers effectively lost the strike (the company did not give into any of the union’s demands), they at least demonstrated the power of organized labor to disrupt commerce on a massive scale. Finally, I am sure that many of laborers took great pleasure when, months after the trolley strike had ended, the Long Island Traction company filed for bankruptcy and the corporation was dissolved.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Various issues, January-February 1895.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, 1895.
Harper’s Weekly. “The Great Strike in Brooklyn”, February 2, 1895.
How We Got to Coney Island: The Development of Mass Transportation in Brooklyn and Kings Count by Brian Cudahy, 2009.
Report of the Special Committee of the Assembly appointed to investigate the causes of the strike of the surface railroads in the city of Brooklyn, transmitted to the Legislature April, 1895.