History 301: City haunted by violent strike of streetcar workers


Strike sympathizers in front of a stopped streetcar on Nov. 2, 1913, from a personal scrapbook of the strike. *Digital.library.in.gov/Record/IUPUI_IndyHist-8348

On Halloween 1913 Indianapolis was spooked by a strike of the city’s streetcar workers. Before the strike was over, armed strikebreakers and union organizers were fighting in the streets, damaged streetcars littered the city and the governor had to call in the National Guard to quell the violence and restore order.

In late August of that year, the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees began trying to organize a union of the Indianapolis Traction and Terminal Company’s drivers. Aggrieved street railway workers who worked incredibly long hours for low pay were receptive to the union push.

The company wasn’t. Its principals decided to hire men to follow the organizers, and although refuting claims that they had armed their agents or intended for them to start violence, the company’s thugs attacked organizers and injured several of them. In response, according to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, the drivers struck on Oct. 31, 1913.

Now it was the union sympathizers who became violent, attacking drivers who hadn’t walked out, vandalizing streetcars. Lacking enough drivers, fearing continuing damage to their cars and stymied by the now almost 10,000 strikers who, according to the Indiana Historical Society, were massing on the railway lines and not allowing cars to pass, the Traction and Terminal Co. shut down while awaiting the arrival of drivers from Chicago.

Indianapolis citizens found themselves without the streetcars they depended on. Nearly everyone in the city was affected by the shut down and wanted a solution.

On Nov. 3, a group of strikers dropped rocks from the Lyceum Theater’s balcony onto the heads of some company officials who had gathered to supervise the movement of some railcars into the company’s Louisiana Street car barn. The crowd also began throwing rocks at the car barn. Men inside the barn shot guns into the crowd and hit union driver, Thomas Carleton. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition, according to The Indianapolis Star, on Nov. 4.  More potential injuries were probably averted when labor union leaders persuaded the crowd to disperse.

The Star also reported on the condition of John Brogan, who had been shot two weeks earlier during the melee between the company thugs and the unionizers. He “was reported sinking at City Hospital.” Detective Adolph Asche was also in the hospital after being attacked by a mob the night before. Luckily, his injuries were not grave.

Some policemen mutinied in sympathy with the strikers, refusing to protect strikebreakers and creating an additional headache for the city’s leaders. Twenty-nine policemen ultimately faced charges of insubordination for failure to board streetcars to protect people hired by the company to operate the cars in an attempt to break the strike. All but one of the policemen on duty surrendered their badges, saying that they would protect the cars but not board them.

Local religious leaders – the Rev. Francis Gavisk, chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis; Rabbi Morris Feuerlicht of Indianaolis Hebrew Congregation; and Rev. George Henninger of the Methodist Episcopal Church – met with union leaders and appealed with the streetcar company to work with the union to reach an agreement. But the company refused to meet.

Enough was enough for Mayor Lew Shank. At midnight on Nov. 4, in a bid to get receivership of the Traction and Terminal Co. and restart the car service, the lawyers for the city stated that the franchise granted to the railway stipulated certain conditions that the company had failed to meet. Among them, that on Nov. 1, the company had ceased to run its cars without notifying the Board of Public Works.

The suit also claimed that the company had “unreasonably” refused to consider the workers’ requests. The company lawyer replied the next day that the suit was nothing but “buncomb,” according to the newspaper.

On Nov. 5, The Star reported that both Thomas Carleton and John Brogan had died from their wounds.

The following day, after the union efforts to get company officials to meet with employees (without union leaders in attendance) failed, Gov. Ralston ordered National Guardsmen into the city.  Calls for order came from the union, businessmen and elected officials, The Star reported.

Finally, on November 8, Gov. Ralston helped negotiate peace. The Indianapolis Star ran strike coverage on most of its front page, explaining how the negotiations proceeded, noting that the 200 strikebreakers brought in from Chicago by the company were sent home, that local drivers were resuming their duties and workers were beginning to repair cars. However, the grievances of the workers were not yet addressed.

The company agreed to take back all the striking workers who had not engaged in violence, and agreed to take up the grievances within five days of return to work. Strikers had to report back to work within 12 hours of the signing of the agreement and both sides agreed to let the Public Service Commission settle the dispute if they could not reach an agreement together.

On Feb. 9, 1914, the Public Service Commission settled the case. The commission’s Court of Arbitration ruled against the streetcar company, ordering pay raises, reduced workdays to nine hours, that employees be given one Sunday a month off work and granted the right to unionize. Employees were barred from striking again within the next three years.

Both company and workers agreed to abide by the terms. And so it was that the strike that started on Halloween and haunted the city for months was settled in time for Valentine’s Day.

Connie is an historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm. She’s currently jet-setting between the Indianapolis metropolitan area and a little cabin on the Flatrock River in Shelby County.

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