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A bloody street strike in St. Louis in 1900 ripped open a class divide

A bloody street strike in St. Louis in 1900 ripped open a class divide

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Streetcar strike supporters

Pro-union commuters jam a horse-drawn wagon during the streetcar strike. The union organized alternative forms of transportation. The company and its posse tried to block the wagons when they could. Image courtesy Missouri History Museum

ST. LOUIS • In 1899, a few powerful men consolidated the city's streetcar lines. They made the workdays longer, fired union organizers and threatened wage cuts. They made a public feint of settling with the union, then reneged.

Employees of St. Louis Transit Co., controlling all but a few routes, voted at 2 a.m. May 8, 1900, to strike. The bosses vowed to operate the cars. Strikers and sympathizers quickly gathered along the routes leading downtown.

At 15th Street and Washington Avenue, women from the Garment Workers Union stood across the tracks. A large crowd at Sixth and Locust streets pelted streetcars with rocks and cut overhead power lines. When a police sergeant arrested one rock thrower, his friends tossed the sergeant into a mud puddle. All over town, motormen and passengers abandoned streetcars with shattered windows.

At 10:30 a.m., on Washington at 13th Street, a besieged motorman fired a pistol, wounding a teenage bystander. The boy survived and the motorman was arrested.

But the next day, Spanish-American War veteran Frank Liebrecht, 21, was shot to death during a demonstration along the Hodiamont line at Taylor Avenue. A transit employee fired the shot, but Police Chief John Campbell blamed Liebrecht for being there.

The strike blew open class resentments simmering since the brief general strike of 1877. Many blue-collar workers wore buttons saying, "I will walk until the streetcar companies settle." At the Merchants' Exchange, businessmen grumbled about sore feet. When the smaller St. Louis & Suburban line settled, everyone flocked to its cars.

St. Louis city Sheriff John Pohlman created an armed posse of more than 2,000 volunteers from the professional and upper classes. Posse members armed with shotguns rode St. Louis Transit cars and harassed the horse-drawn buses operated by strikers. Many restaurants refused to serve strikebreakers.

More than 8,000 members of 28 unions joined 3,300 strikers in parade on a rainy May 19, but Edwards Whitaker, St. Louis Transit president, refused to meet with the Railway Employees Union.

On June 10, a column of strikers was marching past posse headquarters at 510 Washington when someone threw something at a streetcar. A posse member dropped his pistol, which discharged. The posse fired a volley into the parade, killing A.E. Burkhardt, Edward Thomas and George Ryne, and wounding 14 others. Posse leaders insisted that strikers had fired first, but no one in the posse was wounded.

Reform-minded lawyer Joseph W. Folk, a future governor, brokered a deal in July, but Whitaker didn't honor it. The strike disintegrated in September, with a toll of 14 killed. It would take 18 years and another strike for streetcar workers to win union recognition.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series. 

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