The summer of 1910 was not one of Columbus’ finest.
What began as a peaceful protest quickly escalated to “the most violent uprising the city had ever seen up to that time,” says local historian Ed Lentz. Thousands of people rioted throughout the city, and hundreds were injured. The ordeal cost the city $75,000 and set the state back nearly $200,000.
“The cost to the city was far greater than the strain on its budget, however,” wrote Andrea Durham Lentz—Ed Lentz’s wife of nearly 50 years—in a 1970 thesis for her Ohio State University master’s degree in history. “It had been subjected to three months of tension and violence which destroyed confidence in its civic leaders and pride in the city itself, and brought latent rifts within the seemingly homogenous community into public view.”
And it all started with streetcars.
Setting the Stage
Columbus implemented horse-drawn streetcars in 1863 to accommodate travelers during the Civl War. By the late 1800s, the city transitioned to electric streetcars, which quickly became a part of daily life for residents. Five cents could get them a ride to anywhere in the city, making public transit accessible for people who were previously limited to destinations within walking distance.
This new industry created jobs at a time when the city was expanding rapidly, both in terms of land and population. Toward the end of the 19th century, Columbus’ population of 18,000 grew fivefold to 90,000.
“While foreign migrants flocked to Cleveland and Toledo, and while Cincinnati experienced a heavy rise in both its ethnic and black population, Columbus drew instead from its surrounding farming communities and from the coal fields of the Appalachians,” Andrea wrote in her thesis. “Its labor supply was thus primarily white, native stock. These men were largely unskilled and posed little challenge to the city’s established artisans, but they did provide a steady source of inexpensive labor for growing manufacturing interests.”
In 1910, streetcar operators earned 19 to 20 cents an hour, working an average of 60 to 65 hours a week. They’d go literally years without a day off. The long hours, difficult working conditions and low pay began to take their toll on the streetcar workforce.
Adding to mounting tensions was the high turnover rate of the industry, both voluntary and involuntary. Columbus Railway and Light Co. paid streetcar riders to report “irregular activities by the workers,” Andrea wrote. “No hearings were required to dismiss an employee for alleged dishonesty.”
Early in 1910, a group of 35 Columbus Railway and Light Co. employees met with manager E.K. Stewart to request a wage increase. The company fired all 35 men.
By March, about half of the company’s employees banded together to form a local chapter of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees. The union members set out to have those 35 men reinstated and secure pay raises, improved working conditions and job stability.
“Because the streetcar company decided to adopt a very hard line—‘We’re not going to compromise’—what that does is escalate the situation,” Ed says.
The Boiling Point
The city saw the strike coming. It wasn’t hard to see that streetcar working conditions were rough, Ed says, so the public largely sided with the union.
In June, the Columbus Chamber of Commerce petitioned for Ohio’s State Board of Arbitration to call a mandatory hearing between the union and streetcar company. The hearings came to a close July 23, with the board concluding that both parties were partially at fault and should be able to find a peaceful resolution. But the meetings only added to existing tensions, and the union—which had grown to about 600 workers—decided it was time to strike.
The strike began the next day at 4 a.m.
The union planned a peaceful demonstration. They’d picket car barns, sell union buttons and cards around town and gather support for their cause.
Meanwhile, the streetcar company brought in strikebreakers, who earned $30 a week—more than double the standard weekly wage of $12.50. The company also hired “special police,” supplied by the local John J. Mahoney Detective Agency, to defend its property and assets.
The riots began early in the morning on July 24. “Crowds barricaded tracks, hurled rocks and bricks through car windows, and were met with gunfire from the company police riding the cars,” Andrea wrote. Seventy-six people were arrested that night, and the riots continued throughout the city the following night, resulting in a dozen injuries.
Mayor George Sidney Marshall decided it was time to seek help outside the city’s police force, so he called in the Ohio National Guard. While the rioting quieted in the presence of the nearly 5,000 soldiers, the violence continued soon after the troops left Columbus on Aug. 7. A strike sympathizer threw acid on a streetcar conductor, and another operator was shot in the leg in a separate incident. The city saw more shootings, stonings and barricades, and rioters began blowing up streetcars using dynamite.
As the violence raged on, the Ohio National Guard returned to Columbus, and the public revoked its union support in favor of peaceful arbitration. The union had tried to distance itself from the riots, instead promoting peaceful protesting.
“Whether the rioters themselves, numbering as many as 3,000 to 4,000 in a single night, were strikers, sympathizers, mere onlookers or disrupters bent on their own purposes, cannot be definitely determined by the existing evidence,” Andrea wrote.
Regardless of who was responsible for the repeated incidents throughout the city, the damage had been done. The city was burnt out and concerned about its image with the upcoming state fair in September. Residents of nearby cities avoided Columbus, and local businesses suffered.
On Oct. 18, 1910, the union admitted defeat and called an end to the summer-long strike. The financial burden of boycotting had taken a toll, and winter was coming. The approximately 570 men actively striking either returned to work for the streetcar company, moved to Cleveland streetcar companies or found other employment in Columbus.
Though Columbus residents of 1910 were ready to move on, Ed regards the streetcar strike as an important moment in the city’s history that is part of a bigger picture.
“[The strike is] an illustration of the social and political conflicts that were at the heart of the progressive period, of the period of American social reform,” he says. “It’s a period in which you find a stark contrast between rich and poor. This is the birth of the middle class.”
While the chances of history repeating itself in this way are slim, Ed says we can still learn from this unfortunate event.
Says Ed, “When groups come into conflict with one another, it behooves them to compromise with one another.”
Columbus by Rail
On this episode of Columbus Neighborhoods, explore the evolution of rail and public transit in Central Ohio, from Columbus’ railroad and streetcar history to the future of public transportation in the city.