Reminisce: 1917 streetcar strike ends in gunfire

Streetcar strikes, the Lima News observed from a safe distance during a 1913 strike in Cincinnati, “mean disorder, disaffection, inconvenience, financial loss and sometimes loss of life.”

Lima got a bitter dose of that reality on a summer afternoon in 1917 when a monthlong strike by the city streetcar company’s 50 employees ended in gunfire on the Public Square. Ultimately one man would die and two would suffer wounds but survive.

Writing nearly two decades later for a Lima guidebook sponsored by the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, News reporter and commentator Tex DeWeese dubbed it the “One-Cent War” for the hourly wage increase the workers were reportedly seeking.

Electric streetcars had been part of Lima’s landscape for 30 years by the summer of 1917. The trolleys reached all parts of the city, which in 1917 was home to about 40,000 people. They were the main means of transportation for shoppers looking to get downtown and workers trying to reach the outlying factories. Lines from all directions met at a transfer station in the center of the Public Square.

In 1917 the city streetcar system was under the umbrella of the Ohio Electric railway company, which also operated electric interurban lines providing transportation between cities. Lima in the early 20th century was an interurban hub and its streets were latticed with the rails of the interurban lines and the city street railway.

On a July day in 1917, the trolleys stopped. “Lima’s first streetcar strike progressed without signs of violence in any section of the city at a late hour today,” the News reported July 11.

The country’s streetcar systems, difficult to guard and susceptible to sabotage, were a tempting target for organized labor in the first three decades of the 20th century. In addition, because they went through working class neighborhoods, riders tended to be sympathetic to unions.

Lima initially took a make-the-best-of-it attitude toward its strike. Officials of Ringling Brothers circus, which was in town on July 11, told the News, the strike meant “no streetcar interference for their parade” from the Pennsylvania station to the showgrounds at Main and Murphy streets. Likewise, the News noted, “Many farmers who came to town in their Fords expecting to see the circus, abandoned the idea when they found they could make many more times the price of a circus by carrying passengers at ‘two bits’ a ride.”

Two days later, despite a report in the Republican-Gazette that “peace was in sight,” the Lima Times-Democrat succinctly summed up the state of the strike in a headline: “Street Railway Strikers Are Sitting Tight and Lima People Are Still Walking.” The calm didn’t last.

“The first trouble since the streetcar strike was inaugurated last Wednesday morning was reported shortly after 1 o’clock today” when a brick was thrown through a (street) car window in the Public Square, the Times-Democrat reported July 16. “A large crowd was quickly attracted and before the police arrived it numbered several hundred people. The crew on the car was jeered and the trolley pulled from the wire, but no further violence was attempted.” All the cars were ordered to return to the Grand Avenue car barn while police were stationed at “principal downtown points where the cars pass to prevent a repetition” of the violence, the Republican-Gazette wrote.

On July 18, the Republican-Gazette reported service “gradually is being restored” on the city lines with eight cars of a normal 15 making runs the day before. “This number, the company announced, will be increased as rapidly as men can be trained to operate the cars.”

Meanwhile, the newspaper noted, “The union men are continuing their efforts to discourage use of the cars. Sandwich (board) men at each railroad station advertise to visitors that a strike is on and ask them to walk.” The strikers soon took more direct action.

“Events in the streetcar strike took another turn last night when a gang of carmen sympathizers ran six strikebreakers from the Princess Restaurant on East High Street to the police station, and as a result no city cars are running today,” the Times-Democrat wrote July 24.

July ended with no street cars in service and no end in sight to the strike. “From surface indications the trouble between the Ohio Electric and its striking carmen is no nearer solution than it was at its beginning,” the Republican-Gazette wrote July 31, adding that a confrontation between two strikebreakers and a crowd of strike sympathizers the day before had ended with the strikebreakers arrested for pointing guns at their tormenters.

On August 9, the Times-Democrat reported that, “outside of a few little street flurries, nothing special has developed in the car strike situation within the past 24 hours, a regular schedule being maintained again today with armed guards on each car …” That would change before the end of the day.

“Blood was spilled in streetcar strike rioting in the downtown streets yesterday,” the Republican-Gazette wrote August 10. “Three men were shot … in encounters with special police in the employ of the Ohio Electric Railway.” One of those men would later die of his wounds.

According to the newspaper, Edward Stroup boarded a streetcar at the Public Square transfer station and “attempted to strike the motorman who drew his revolver and shot him down. Stroup stepped from the car, walked toward the Lima House corner, and dropped to the pavement when he had walked about halfway.”

The 37-year-old Stroup, witnesses would testify at a later inquest, had earlier that day thrown bricks at street cars, threatened strikebreakers and had himself been threatened several times by gun-toting strikebreakers. “The shooting of Stroup followed a series of exciting incidents, which started about noon, according to the testimony,” the Republican-Gazette wrote in an August 28 story on the inquest. “About that time a considerable crowd had assembled, and cars were being regularly stoned as they moved up and down Main and Market streets. About 2 o’clock a motorman attempted to make an arrest, a little later the crowd surrounded a car at the station on the Public Square, and within a few minutes attacked an eastbound Market Street car, from which the shooting took place.”

After the shooting, “In the hope of preventing further trouble and to escape the crowd, the motorman ran the car east until at a point opposite the Ohio Electric station. With the conductor he left the car and ran inside the station,” the Times-Democrat wrote August 10.

“The crowd had surged about the empty car, and all was excitement and clamor” when a westbound car pulled up and “instantly a number of men in the crowd started to board it,” the Times-Democrat wrote. “Here a second clash occurred” and the motorman shot two of the attackers. Those men survived.

A detachment of police, the newspaper added, finally “succeeded in scattering the crowd, wildly angry from the moments the first shots were fired.”

On August 13, the day Stroup died, Lima’s streetcar strike was settled. “Agreements were signed by both the striking employees and the Ohio Electric at 1:50 this afternoon, and all cars will be running on schedule time beginning tomorrow,” the Times-Democrat wrote.




This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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