The Great Trolley Car Strike of 1895 in Greenpoint

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It’s been well over 50 years since the last trolley ran through North Brooklyn, but the streetcar was once the major form of local  transportation and streetcars connected Greenpoint with places as far away as Gravesend.  The major depot for the streetcars was in Greenpoint where  trolleys were stored at a  large trolley shed at the end of Manhattan Avenue at Box Street.  The cars  were originally drawn by horses, and serviced areas of Brooklyn where the elevated railroads had yet to expand. By 1890, though,  the trolleys had been elctrified, which  allowed for speedier transit and, in the eyes of speculators, greater profits.

There were a few independently owned trolley companies. The largest was the Brooklyn City Railroad Company (BCRC) which  owned or leased 200 miles of track, from East New York to Court Street, and from Greenpoint to Fort Hamilton. In the early 1890s the stockholders of the BCRC began enacted a series of financial deals  to drive up stock prices and increase their own dividends (Sounds very current doesn’t it ? ) As part of the plan,  they leased their entire track system to the much smaller Brooklyn Heights Railroad Company (BHRC), which operated a single line along Montague Street. The BCRC stockholders then organized a new company in the state of Virginia, named the Long Island Traction Company, and proceeded to buy the BHRC. The company was not incorporated in New York, and therefore was not subject to the regulations and taxes enacted by the state of New York. This arrangement was described by the special committee appointed to investigate the trolley strike: “[the stockholders] had found a means of reaping  large and very exceptional profits, and at the same time avoiding and evading certain responsibilities to the laws of this State.” New York State at the time had fairly progressive labor laws that protected its workers.

Many of the trolley car workers lived near the end of the line here in Greenpoint. These workers had grievances with the trolley companies, believing  that they deserved better wages now that the trolley system had been electrified. They argued that the new cars required greater concentration, and that their work was subsequently more taxing, both mentally and physically. Workers also complained that companies instructed their conductors to ignore the city’s 10 mile per hour speed limit, endangering the lives of the motormen and the public. However the major conflict between labor and management was the 10-hour work day. New York State law stipulated that laborers could work no more than 10 hours in a 12 hour period. The trolleymen believed that the ten hours included meals and time spent waiting for their trolleys at the train depot. The companies, on the other hand, did not intend to pay workers for any time not spent actually running the trolleys.

The railroad companies clearly envisioned a profitable future, but the workers also believed that they should share in the profits. By 1895 America’s working class began to form  labor unions, and many trolleymen were represented by the Knights of Labor (KOL).The KOL was at one time the premier trade union organization in the United States. In 1886, their membership numbered 600,000, but by 1890 that number had dipped below 100,000.  Much of their decline has also been attributed to the famous Haymarket bombing, when anarchists (who were not affiliated with the Knights), set off bombs during a labor strike organized by the KOL in Chicago and killed a dozen people .Although they conducted a number of successful railroad strikes in the early 1880s, the organization was plagued by weak leadership and general mismanagement.  By 1895, the Knights had not successfully waged a major strike in years, and were generally disdained by business leaders due to the Haymarket incident, which  would prevent good-faith negotiations between the trolley workers and management.

The newly formed trolley company rejected the workers’ demands out-of-hand. The union relented on the pay raise, but would not budge on the issue of the ten hour day. On Sunday, January 13th, the Knights of Labor’s executive board voted to endorse a city-wide strike.On Monday morning 5,000 workers went on strike, paralyzing Brooklyn’s trolley system. Although the first day of the strike was  peaceful, the situation quickly deteriorated and violence began to occur when the trolley companies  began hiring scab workers from New Jersey, Philadelphia, and as far as Boston and Pittsburg, believing if they could replace the striking workers quickly enough, they would be able to get the trolley system up and running and break the strike.

Bringing in the scabs made the workers angry and determined to fight back. The workers vowed to stop every trolley still running in Brooklyn. They  cut the trolley wires, surrounded the cars, and often assaulted the new drivers. Strikers would utilize anything they could to block the path of the trolleys. A  builder claimed that a mob had descended upon his stores of brownstone and slate to barricade Fulton Street. Children joined in, tossing stones at conductors and cutting wires.

The police were unable and often unwilling to control the strike. Trolleys were occasionally manned by an officer or two, but they were no match for the mobs in the streets. During the height of the strike up to 4,000 workers would gather at the train depots. The police force numbered only 1,700  and many were openly  sympathetic to the strikers.

According to the special committee appointed to investigate the strike, the department also suffered was exceptionally poor leadership. The Police Superintendent “was incompetent to command the force because of his age, lack of memory and want of physical condition.” The Police Commissioner, who had been appointed by the mayor, was equally as incompetent.  Finally,  the pro-trolley company Mayor Schieren himself  failed to grasp the severity of the strike until it was too late. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle report from the 5th day of the strike illustrates this point well. At a public forum held on 5th Ave.  local business owners complained that they were losing a tremendous amount of money due to the strike. One  businessman asked the mayor, “Why are we doing nothing?” but the mayor replied, “Well, what can you suggest? We are making every effort to bring about a settlement, and if you have any suggestions we shall be glad to hear it.”

By January 19th, the sixth day of the strike, the Mayor finally took action and  decided to call in the National Guard to restore order. Although the militia eventually achieved its goal, which was to restore regular trolley service to the city, they actually stoked the violence that was gripping the city.

On the first day of the strike, a few thousand edgy  militiamen were deployed on the Brooklyn streets  to defend the train depots and protect the few trolleys still operating. The militia was  able to control  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 relinquish their cars to the mob. The police were once again unable to manage any semblance of order, and the militia had to be sent to the nearby train depot. The crowds  mocked the troops, calling 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.

It was amazing that there was not more bloodshed. A painter on his way home from work was bayoneted, but there was no further bloodshed. Word of the bayonetting soon spread, and a  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, “ The scenes in East New York after nightfall were more turbulent than ever known in the history of the city.”

For days violence ruled Greenpoint, one of the strongest areas of  worker rebellion. The small local police force was outnumbered and some policemen sided with the strikers.  On January 24th there was another  riot in Greenpoint as the company tried to take the cars along Manhattan Avenue. A huge crowd formed at the Box street depot and the police rushed the menacing crowd with clubs drawn a few times.  The windows  to the car were smashed with stones. A policeman on one of the cars was hit in the eye with a piece of coal. A burning barricade blocked the trolley tracks at Kent Street. Large crowds on Manhattan Avenue surrounded a subsequent car that tried to move southward and members of the crowd berated the scab motormen, while pulling their sleeves.

Fr. O’Hare of St. Anthony of Padua church in Greenpoint made himself a beloved local figure on that day by openly siding with the strikers, many of whom were his congregants.  He came out of his rectory on Manhattan Avenue and assisted the strikers. A number of motormen began to listen to the calls of the Greenpoint strikers and left their cars. When one man did not join the strikers he was offered a ten-dollar bill by O’Hare. The motorman took the money and joined the strikers. A yell arose from the crowd,”Three cheers for Fr. O’Hare”  and the priest continued on to the next trolley and got the motorman also to join the strike.

An Eagle reporter confronted O”Hare about his actions and the priest realized that he was on dangerous ground. he could have problems with his Bishop if he was seen to be supporting violence. O’Hare told the reporter  that he had given the motorman the money so that he could travel back to his family in Buffalo and did not support violence. Later O”Hare was named as one of the leaders of the violent mob in Greenpoint by the Eagle on the front page. It was not the kind of publicity the priest wanted, but it endeared him to the strikers and their hungry families.

One of the few voices from the establishment in support of the strikers was that of Fr. O’Hare.  The Mayor knew of his power in the largely Catholic community and wrote him a letter to ask him to use his influence to restore peace so that the Mayor did not need to call in troops to restore order in Greenpoint. Many of his parishioners were strikers and he pleaded with the mayor in a meeting to “Try to get the poor men back to work.” O”Hare continued,” These poor men have tried to do their best. Very often fellows are paid to commit breaches of the peace in the name of the strikers.” Fr. O’Hare also hoped that the Mayor would do all he could for the men and he reminded the Mayor that the men could neither pay their rent, nor pay for their groceries.

Brooklyn was effectively under martial law for the rest of the month  with citizens fearing the violence of both the militia and the mob. 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. A hapless worker fixing a roof named Thomas Carney was accidentally  shot and killed by the frightened militia.

The strikers eventually lost and had to return to work without winning any of their demands. 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. The workers did get one small piece of satisfaction. The new Trolley company that was responsible for the strike and the violence went bankrupt.

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