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‘The Magic Bullet’ and the 1917 streetcar strike

Larry Millett’s newest murder mystery draws on the historical record to describe the violence that convulsed St. Paul at the height of the strike.

Twin City Rapid Transit streetcars sit at 3110 Nicollet Avenue, in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Twin City Rapid Transit streetcars sit at 3110 Nicollet Avenue, in Minneapolis.

It is a momentous year.

The United States is at war, following the April declaration by Congress.

In Minnesota, Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist has established a Commission on Public Safety to quell labor unrest that some say could impede the war effort. Just below Burnquist’s Capitol office, that unrest has escalated into violence as striking streetcar workers rampage through the streets of St. Paul, blocking traffic and trashing their trolley cars.

These events from 1917 provide the historical backdrop for Larry Millett’s newest murder mystery, “The Magic Bullet.”

As he has done in his earlier “who-done-its,” Millett, an architectural historian, provides an authentic Minnesota locale for his latest work of fiction and weaves actual historical events into his story of treacherous deeds by the usual suspects.

In “The Magic Bullet,” a mysterious revolutionary named Samuel Berthelson inflames strikers at their union meeting and instigates their rampage with his dramatic speech attacking their despised boss, Horace Lowry, the man who runs the local streetcar company. Berthelson is a fictional character, but Lowry was a real-life figure who headed the Twin City Rapid Transit Co. (TCRT) from 1916 to 1931.

Violence convulsed St. Paul
While Millett has taken literary license with the events of 1917, he draws on the historical record to describe the violence that convulsed St. Paul at the height of the strike, and the role played by the Public Safety Commission in dealing with the bitter dispute that dragged on for months while the United States was embroiled in World War I.

Millett was able to tie up all the loose ends in “The Magic Bullet” in less than 350 pages, but the events of that era were not so neatly resolved in real life.

Those events involved a conflict between the streetcar workers and the TCRT management that came to be known as the “button war.” The name came from the buttons worn on the workers’ caps, signifying their pro- or anti-union sympathies, which inflamed passions on both sides of the controversy.

The origins of the button war extend back to August 1917. That month, a group of TCRT employees, unhappy about their low pay and dismal working conditions, sought organizing help from an international union after Horace Lowry denied their request for a 3-cent-an-hour wage increase.

‘The time had come’
With a heavy dose of rhetoric, the Minneapolis Labor Review described the plight of streetcar workers as they faced a wartime rise in the cost of living: “When the president of the Transit Company … told the employees that there would be no wage raise, that they and their wives and children must continue to grapple with the ever higher growing cost of existence with their extremely low wages so that dividends would continue to flow uninterruptedly into the ermine, velvet and silk covered laps of the stock holders, the employees decided that the time had come to find a new way out from under the burden of an existence no longer endurable,” the Review declared defiantly in its Sept. 25 edition.

The cutline on this photo describes the beating of union member James Newcombe by employees of the transit company.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
The cutline on this newspaper photo describes the beating of union member James Newcombe by employees of the transit company.

“They are finding a new way,” the labor paper continued. “They have ceased to depend on the benevolent despotism of others and they are asserting the power and ability of their own democratic energy and initiative.”

For streetcar workers in 1917, the new way was an international labor group, the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, which sent its organizers to the Twin Cities. Almost immediately, they began making headway by signing up members for two new union locals in the Minneapolis and St. Paul. But Lowry counterattacked by promptly firing the union’s leaders. At the same time he maneuvered to buy off the remaining TCRT employees by offering them a 10 percent pay wage increase. Flexing their muscles, the two new Amalgamated locals rebuffed Lowry and called on his workers to strike the transit company.

‘A strike of large proportions’
Using less inflammatory language than its sister publication in Minneapolis, the St. Paul-based Minnesota Union Advocate reported on Oct. 5 that “for the first time in many years St. Paul is facing a strike of large proportions and one that is full of probabilities of great inconvenience and embarrassment to the residents and business interests of the city.”

The strike began at 1 a.m. on Oct. 6. St. Paulites soon found that the bitter labor dispute was causing much more than inconvenience and embarrassment for them.

In Minneapolis, the strike was relatively peaceful, with only a few episodes of violence reported, but the situation was quite different in Minnesota’s capital. There, thousands of strikers took control of the streets and shut down streetcar service all across town. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, aghast at the events unfolding around it, reported that “wild rioting in which the police were unable to control mobs numbering in the thousands marked the end of the first day of the strike.”

With the labor action spinning out of control, Gov. Burnquist called on U.S. Army officials at Fort Snelling to send in federal troops to quell the disturbance. Soon, 500 infantrymen were patrolling the streets of St. Paul, armed with bayonets and rifles, This show of force caused the strikers to back off, permitting TCRT to resume normal service in both cities.

Dispute remain unresolved
Army patrols may have quelled the labor riot in St. Paul, but the bitter dispute, which provoked the street violence, remained unresolved.

In an effort to rally public opinion in support of the company position, Lowry took out a full-page ad in the St. Paul Dispatch on Oct. 8, addressed to “My Friends and Co-Workers of the Twin City Lines.” In the ad, Lowry declared that “a small group of men, outside of our organization, have, for political and personal advantage, attempted to create discord between you and your management. … Can we for a moment either as employees charged with a public duty, or as joint workers in a great industry entrust our interests to these men?” he asked rhetorically.

Minnesota Union Advocate reported on Oct. 5, 1917, that "for the first time in many years St. Paul is facing a strike of large proportions and one that is full of probabilities of great inconvenience and embarrassment to the residents and business interes
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota Union Advocate reported on Oct. 5, 1917, that “for the first time in many years St. Paul is facing a strike of large proportions ….” This headline appeared on Dec. 7, 2017.

The next day, in an effort to settle the dispute, the state’s Commission on Public Safety intervened and ordered the transit company to reinstate the workers who had been fired by Lowry because of their union organizing. Initially, labor leaders hailed the commission’s action. “Street Railway Strike Ends in Victory for Men,” the Minneapolis Labor Review declared on Oct. 12. But the victory was short lived, as Lowry began reneging on the agreement he had signed at the insistence of the commission. Soon, union sympathizers at TCRT found that they were being harassed and, in some cases, physically attacked by company workers and foremen, operating as Lowry’s agents.

Lowry creates company union
In an effort to block further organizing by the Amalgamated locals, Lowry created his own company union, the Trainmen’s Co-operative and Protective Association. As a sign of their support, Protective Association members were issued blue buttons to wear on their caps. Almost immediately, the Amalgamated locals responded by issuing their own yellow buttons for their supporters, and the “war of the buttons” ensued. Lowry’s blue buttons proved to be a tactical blunder. Now, pro and anti-union trainmen were clearly identified by the buttons on their caps. Some passengers, who were union sympathizers, began spitting on their nickel fares or throwing their nickel on the floor when they encountered a blue-buttoned conductor as they boarded their streetcar. All the while, as the button war escalated, Amalgamated began gaining members at the expense of the Protective Association.

Once again, the Public Safety Commission intervened, this time issuing an order on Nov. 20 banning the display of pro- or anti-union buttons or other insignia by the streetcar motormen and conductors. The commission’s order, as it applied to union organizing, was somewhat ambiguous. It merely declared that “this is not a convenient time for agitation about abstract principles like Unionism or non-Unionism.” Immediately, Lowry acted to implement the commission ruling by directing all his employees to remove their buttons.

Lowry’s provocative order
Events moved quickly as union officials began preparing for a mass meeting of their membership to determine their next steps in the face of the commission ruling. On Nov. 26, Lowry further inflamed union passions by issuing a provocative order declaring that any employee displaying a button on company property would be immediately fired.

A week later, on Sunday, Dec. 2, angry workers withstood plunging temperatures at an outdoor meeting in St. Paul’s Rice Park. Some speakers at the mass event called for restraint as the labor controversy neared another crisis point, but the rank and file were in no mood to heed that advice. Once again, as they had done in October, some union members went on a rampage as the meeting was breaking up, attacking nearby company supporters and halting streetcar service, at least temporarily. “Trolley cars were surrounded and attacked,” the Pioneer Press reported. “Their motormen and conductors were dragged off and roughly handled, and finally the company withdrew all its cars save those that had been put out of commission and left where they had been attacked and left the city entirely without service.”

“The police, who were the only representatives of law and order on the scene at the time of the rioting, proved utterly unable to control the hoodlums and there were some reports that policemen did not particularly exert themselves to put an end to the disorder,” the paper noted.

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Troops poured in from across the state
As violence continued for a second frigid day in December, Gov. Burnquist mobilized the Minnesota Home Guard from units all across the state, in an effort to keep order. First to arrive on Tuesday morning was a contingent of 60 men from Morris. Later that day more troops kept pouring into St. Paul from such far-flung posts as Crookston, Duluth, Red Wing and Austin.

Burnquist’s Home Guard was able to clamp down on the violence, restore order and permit Lowry to start running his streetcars again. But the dispute between the streetcar workers and the TCRT management continued to simmer. By now, the Public Safety Commission was signaling its support, at least tacitly, for Lowry and his effort to beat back union organizing at his company.

As the dispute dragged on into the early months of 1918, federal mediators, operating as agents of the Wilson administration, attempted to negotiate an end to dispute, but Lowry, backed by state officials, merely ignored their orders.

In the end, Lowry won the battle but lost the war, according to transit historian John Diers. “Employees were left demoralized and the community came to see TCRT as just another greedy corporate trust,” Diers said. He explained that the 1917 strike set the stage for other labor disputes, which finally led to unionization of the company’s work force in 1934. That labor struggle was won by the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, which was known as the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees when it battled Horace Lowry during World War I. Lowry’s Twin City Transit Rapid Company, founded by his father, Thomas, in 1890, has long since disappeared, with its depleted assets converted to public ownership in 1970. But the Transit Workers Union has survived. Today, it continues to represent the men and women who operate the Twin Cities public transportation system for Metro Transit as public employees.