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Remembering Nov. 11, 1918: ‘A big siren tore the midnight silence’

Spontaneous celebrations sprang up all over the state once the news reached here. In Minneapolis, people were jolted awake at 2 a.m. by the news.

In reaction to the armistice, Minneapolis residents came pouring out of their homes and jumped onto the nearby trolley cars making their early morning runs.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The initial report from the front was premature. An American war correspondent mistook a temporary pause in the fighting for a permanent halt and wired a dispatch back to the United States that the war — the Great War — was over. Soon papers all over the country were trumpeting the news to their readers. But the real armistice would not occur for another five days, not until Nov. 11, 1918.

The previous month had been a difficult time for Americans on the home front. With the worldwide influenza pandemic cresting in the U.S., local governments all over the country were issuing bans on public gatherings in a desperate effort to halt the spread of the disease. Minneapolis’ ban took effect on Oct. 13, but St. Paul did not act until early November. By the end of the year, while celebrations marking the end of World War I were still under way, the flu pandemic had stricken 125,000 Minnesotans and killed more than 7,000 of them.

In France, Minnesotans show weary relief

Not far from the front lines in France, the armistice was greeted with weary relief by Minnesotans serving in the U. S. Army’s 151st Field Artillery. “There was no cheering, no excitement, though finally the conviction spread that the fighting had actually ceased,” Louis Collins, a member of the Minnesota unit, later remembered. “The fighting was ended, but the strain of the last few months had done its work. To those who had been toiling for weeks, the end of the war meant little for the time being, but warmth and sleep meant much.”

Back home in Minnesota, the reaction to the armistice was quite different. There, spontaneous celebrations sprang up all over the state once the news reached here. In Minneapolis, people were jolted awake at 2 a.m. by the news. “A big siren tore the midnight silence, with a roar and a series of crescendo shrieks echoing from the hills of Columbia Heights to the lowlands of the Minnesota Valley,” the Minneapolis Journal reported on Nov. 11.

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Soon Minneapolis sprang to life as lights flashed on all over town. Within minutes, people came pouring out of their homes and jumped onto the nearby trolley cars making their early morning runs. “Milk trucks and milk wagons were pressed into service,” the Journal observed. “Automobiles came out of their garages and every driver felt it his duty to come downtown, carrying as many wayfarers he could find ….”

“The constantly growing crowds outrivaled in noise making any other celebration in the history of the northwest. Horns, bells, loads of tinware dragged over the pavement at the tails of automobiles and trucks, Drums, rattles, guns — everything blended into a mighty kinder symphony,” the paper noted approvingly.

Streets clogged with merrymakers

By 4 a.m., the downtown streets were clogged with merrymakers. “Everyone was brimming over with good humor and a feeling of fellowship for every other man, be he a struggling newsboy working his way through the crowd or the sedate banker off the hill blowing his horn till the veins on his neck were wreathed in purple expansion,” the Journal told its happy readers.

At the Leamington Hotel, two permanent residents, former Minnesota Gov. Samuel Van Sant and Judge Eli Torrance, woke up at 2 a.m. and joined the revelers. Both were Civil War veterans and past commanders of that war’s veteran group, the Grand Army of the Republic. By 4, dressed in their GAR uniforms, the two men were marching around the block in a parade led by an Elks band. “We kept going until day light,” Torrence later noted. “Pretty good for two old soldiers.”

The Minneapolis Journal headline on Nov. 11.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The Minneapolis Journal headline on Nov. 11.
Across the river, “riotous hilarity converted the streets of St. Paul into bedlam of peace enthusiasts,” the Pioneer Press reported. “A veritable blizzard of fine cut paper confetti swept through the red arc glow and shrouded the heads and shoulders of clanging crowd of noisemakers.”

The paper went on to report that “similar demonstrations but on a lower scale were staged in residential districts in every section of the city. St. Paul simply uncorked all the carnival spirit it had held bottled up since the last winter festival almost two years ago; uncorked it with an effervescence that sent the lid of wartime restraint flying high like a rocket.”

Mayor declares a holiday

Back in Minneapolis, a more somber outlook started taking hold as the day went on. Minneapolis Mayor Thomas Van Lear issued a proclamation declaring Nov. 11 a holiday and requesting all stores and businesses at close at 2 p.m. in observance of the armistice. “Our gallant boys in Europe have brought peace to a war torn world,” Van Lear declared. “From the hearts of the mothers of this country, a load of anguish and anxiety has been lifted. Today, in spirt she stands with her boy on the battlefield and thank the Creator for the blessing of peace,”

For Van Lear, the armistice must have been a bittersweet event. Only a week earlier, he had been defeated for re-election in a close fought battle with his Republican-backed opponent, J.E. Meyers. As an avowed Socialist, Van Lear had backed the war effort with reservations even while criticizing those who fought to profit by it. Meyers had sharply attacked the incumbent mayor, charging that his ties to the anti-war Socialists were unpatriotic and sign of disloyalty.

A charismatic political figure little remembered today, Van Lear saw his career cut short by the war. If the election had occurred just after the armistice, rather than before it, Van Lear might well have extended his brief stay in City Hall.