The Chester Traction Company Strike of 1908

By the time Labor Day was established in 1894, Nether Providence’s industry was largely in the past and it was well on its way to becoming a suburb. But, in 1908 the strike against the Chester Traction Company was fought across Delaware County, including gunfights and explosions in Nether Providence.

The strike began on April 13th of 1908 when the Chester Traction company reduced its pay rates.

Maddened by the stationing of a detail of twenty men of the State Constabulary around the car barn and headquarters of the Chester Traction Company, to protect the property, because of the strike this morning of the employees 3000 men and women of Chester, attacked the troopers shortly after 6 o’clock tonight. Drawn by frenzied cries and pistol shots of the rioters, practically the entire population of Chester rushed to the scene of the battle and witnessed it from every vantage spot.

The street car employees had struck for recognition of the union and for higher wages.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 April 1908

The company’s owner, Mr. Rigg, took a hard line from the beginning,

Following differences over police power since the beginning of the strike Monday, Chester authorities and the heads of the Chester Traction Company clashed tonight over the determination of President John J. Rigg to operate cars tomorrow in the face of demonstrations and threats today by the strikers and sympathizers.

The breach resulted from refusal of the police officials to promise protection to cars during the late afternoon, after one, manned by a professional strikebreaker and bluecoats, had been sent from the car barn and chased a dozen squares by a large crowd of strikers and sympathizers. The police officials also expressed a doubt whether they would grant protection to cars tomorrow, if they were run.

The reason, they said, was fear that the presence of cars and strike-breakers on the street would cause a pitched battle and end in bloodshed.…President John J. Rigg flatly threw down the gauntlet to them and declared that early tomorrow morning he would operate cars with his strike-breakers whether or not he was granted police protection.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 April 1908

The strike seemed to have broad support within Chester, including the local authorities.

Meanwhile the local police of Chester were frowning upon all this. Secretly, many of the local officers of the law were giving advice to the strikers, telling them how to frustrate the constabulary.

Indignation was expressed against Chief of Police Pennington by strike sympathizers because he seemed to be helping the constabulary.

Pennington, who has been chief of police for two weeks, is now being asked to resign. A petition to this effect has been put into circulation.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 April 1908

Despite the danger, the strike was a source of great entertainment for the community,

It was the wildest day Chester has known in years. Good Friday caused all the mills, with one exception, to shut down, and ten thousand men walked the streets, looking for excitement.

From Wilmington, Philadelphia and other nearby cities, hundreds of men and women poured into Chester all day. The hotels were jammed. Men and women crowded into restaurants at meal times like figs in a box.

Everywhere there was an air of suppressed excitement. The streets were black with people. On one corner stood more than a hundred men waiting for the moment when the first car would be run out.

Upon the roof of one of the hotels stood six able-bodied women, members of a burlesque company playing in town, who amused themselves by throwing crackers at the passing throng. The streets had the gay appearance of a county fair, yet there was sullen air present, resembling a brooding crowd.

Now and then one of the members of the State Constabulary, the four troops which had galloped into the city early in the morning, would swing along Edgemont street to the tune of jeers and howls.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 April 1908

The demands are laid out clearly in this early statement. The strikers wanted a restoration of their wages and were attempting to unionize.

President Rigg, of the Chester Traction Company, came from his office, guarded by his body guard, who was formerly attached to the staff that guards President Roosevelt. Pinkertons followed in Mr. Rigg’s trail.
“Nothing will be conceded,” said President Rigg. “The State Constabulary is here and we will have ample protection. The cars will run today, and they will begin to run upon schedule time tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock. We have tried to be fair with the men. Our profits have been cut down 21 per cent, during the present stringency, and the only reduction we imposed upon the men was from 18 1/2 cents an hour to 16 2-3 cents an hour. The old rate will be resumed as soon as we can afford it…”

Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 April 1908

The day ended with a firefight in Nether Providence between a former Ridley constable and his brother and the state constabulary,

It was a while Troop A and Troop B were going to a hotel in Leiperville to go to bed for the night that the ambush was sprung upon them. They were marching past a house in the centre of the street when they heard laughs and jeers. They paid no attention.

Then came a shot from a 44 caliber revolver. It struck a tree back of the lieutenant of Troop B. A volley of shots from a hotgun followed. The bullets were from a second-story window…Thirty of the troopers surrounded the house, while two went inside and made the arrest of the Barger brothers.”

Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 April 1908

The strikers had sympathizers throughout the city,

As a result, the situation has become more complex. Sympathizers with the strikers, who are alleged to have been responsible for the refusal of the motormen and conductors to the compromise, are jubilant. They paraded the streets tonight in groups of at least twenty, and reiterated their declaration of war against the four troops of the State Constabulary hurried here by Governor Stuart to preserve order and check attacks on cars operated by strike-breakers.

Philadelphia Inquirer 19 April 1908

The situation became increasingly dangerous as explosives began to become involved,

Unknown persons placed a number of torpedoes on the track along East Fourth street tonight and the explosion greatly frightened the crew of a car passing over the torpedoes. It was several minues before the motormen could muster sufficient courage to proceed.

A drug salesman who arrived in this city this afternoon from the South, not knowing there was a trolley strike, boarded a car and rode to Third and Highland avenue, where he called at W. C. Kelly & Company’s drug store. When he emerged from the place he found a large crowd of angry men awaiting him. Ascertaining that the trolleymen were on a strike, the salesman informed the men that he was ignorant of the existing conditions, apologized to them for riding on the cars and walked to the other drug stores he had to visit.

A number of youth placed a (?) down tree in front of the tracks at Third and Bunting streets this afternoon. One of the strike-breaking motormen stopped his car within a few feet of the obstruction and after berating the youths is reported to have pulled the handle from the controller and broke several of the windows. Arriving at the car barn, it is alleged, he informed the authorities that the damage was done by strikers.

Philadelphia Inquirer 25 April 1908

This is a recurring claim – even in the business-friendly Inquirer, that the strike-breakers were responsible for the destruction of property and violence to frame the striking workers. Violence became a regular event,

A pitched battle between the crew of a trolley car of the Chester Traction Company and a mob of several score of men and boys occurred last night at the Darby terminus of the line, Chester pike and Darby Crrek, during which every window in the car was shattered by a fusillade of bricks and stones.
The car, which was unprotected by State troopers, contained no passengers.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 April 1908

Late this afternoon a crowd of men and boys stoned a car at Ninth and Highland avenue. The motormen and conductor left the car and ran up Highland avenue, with the crowd in pursuit, hitting and throwing stones at the retreating strike-breakers who made their escape through Johnson’s Woods. Another crew, under the protection of troopers, took the car to the barn. Several windows were broken. It is rumored that the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company is negotiating for the control of the Chester Traction Company’s lines, President Riggs, it is said, having asserted that he would rather sell the road than give in to the strikers.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 April 1908

A boycott of the trolley was underway, and this threatened any businesses that were seen as willing to cross the picket line,

The boycotts has extended to secret societies, and it is said that several lodges have before them requests from strike sympathizers to warn certain members that if they do not cease patronizing the cars they will be suspended from the organizations.

Physicians have been approached with a request that they refuse to attend any strike-breakers who become ill or wounded. Several grocers, who have furnished edibles to the strike breakers and a certain hotel, the proprietor of which, it is alleged, rode on the cars, are being boycotted.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 April 1908

For most of the strike, federal and state officials refused to intervene beyond sending troops to try to keep peace. This was largely unsuccessful,

Sympathizers of the striking motormen and conductors of the Chester Traction Company made another attempt today to blow up a car by dynamite. Two charges were placed on the tracks of the Media division at Twenty-fourth street near the outskirts of the city.

The two explosions occurred as the car passed. A section of the track, six feet in length was torn up, and the motorman, William Schwab, was thrown from the platform of the car. He was badly injured, and removed to his home. Every window in the car was broken. There were no passengers on the car.

Schwab is one of the men who returned to the employ of the company following the advent of the State Constabulary in this city. Several attempts have been made to “fix” him.

Philadelphia Inquirer 2 May, 1908

But the boycotts clearly had wide support,

Because of a boycott against the hotel, the Imperial, Dr. John MacFayden has disposed of his business to Frank W. Harrison, City Clerk and Clerk of Common Council. Mr. Harrison will assume charge immediately.
The boycott was the outcome of the recent strike of the motormen and conductors of the Chester Traction Company. Dr. MacFayden was the first passenger on the lines of the Chester Traction Company after Governor Stuart had sent the State constabulary here A boycott was initiated against him, and business has since been at a standstill at the Imperial.

A grocer also who sold goods to strikebreakers is not doing any business; a coal merchant who was seen riding on a car has not sold much coal since, while a lumber company, which filled orders given by the Chester Traction Company is also being boycotted.

Philadelphia Inquirer 2 May 1908

Including among the city of Chester’s leadership,

“The act of the Legislature provides”, Mayor Johnson said tonight, “that complaint can be made by any person against a public service corporation.”

“It is not longer a matter of (?) but of the effect of the boycott against the Chester Traction Company on business. The Traction company is operating its cars on all lines on schedule time, but the people are not riding and the matter is a farce.”

“We have done everything possible to bring about a compromise, but without effect.”

“It has been felt for a long time that the Chester Traction Company has not lived (?) in agreements with the city. In some instances this has been the fault of the Councils and other officials.”

“On the other hand, the traction company has run roughshod over the city. This is the form our complaint will take and we will ask for an investigation into the workings of the Chester Traction Company.”

Philadelphia Inquirer 5 May 1908

In response, the judiciary began to attempt to intervene,

“He don’t mean me,” was the only statement Mayor David M. Johnson, Sr., would make tonight concerning the charge of Judges William B. Broomall to the grand jury in session in Media, in which he informed the body that it has the right to conduct a personal investigation if it has come to its notice that officials have not done everything in their power to preserve law and order during the present strike of motormen and conductors of the Chester Traction Company.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 June 1908

Despite generally siding with the workers, the mayor was not popular,

Mayor John M. Johnson was hung in effigy at Second street and Highland avenue. A dummy was found by Officer Meredith hanging from a bill board at that point. On it was a big sign which read: “Mayor Johnson, scab protector.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 June 1908

There were more detailed claims of the strikebreakers staging the property destruction to frame the strikers.

Mrs. Thomas Palmer, who lives at Palmer’s Corner, has lodged with the authorities information which may verify the suspicion of many people and the contention of the striking trolley men that a number of the bombs and cartridges placed on the trolley tracks at night are put there by the Farley strike-breakers…
Mrs. Palmer says she heard the deputy who talked with the man at the car barn say that he saw the motorman stop the car, go ahead of it a few feet, place something on the track and then start the car moving slowly toward Media. The explosion, which occurred in a secluded portion of the country, followed immediately and the men were then arrested, protesting that they were victims of a plot to blow them up.

Philadelphia Inquirer 5 June 1908

As the strike wore on, however, state and county officials started to increase pressure on the workers,

The arrest of men said to be responsible for the dynamiting of cars of the Chester Tracion Company is looked for at any time.

Since the County Commissioners offered a reward for the arrest of the dynamiters, detectives have obtained direct evidence which will materialize in important arrests. Whether members of the strikers’ union are suspected is not known.

That the explosive was set off by men experienced in this sort of work has been conceded by many. It is said several men who came to Chester from the mining regions and took up their residence here have been watched.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 July 1908

Negotiations continued throughout, but Mr. Riggs position barely changed throughout,

Another attempt was made today to settle the strike of the motormen and conductors of the Chester Traction Company, which is now in the sixteenth week…The wage question was discussed, but President Rigg said he was willing to pay them 17 cents an hour, the same as is now being paid the men on the cars. He promises to increase the wage rate as business permits it.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 July 1908

Then the authorities took the decisive step and arrested the strike leadership,

Patrick J. Shea, vice president of the Amalgamated Association of Electric Railway Employees of America; William B Lockhardt, president of the Chester Trolley Union…the latter ten strikers of the Chester Traction Company, were arrested in Chester and Philadelphia tonight, in a general round-up byt he Chester police in charge of Sergeant Noden and Deputy Sheriff Shinkle and brought to Media on a special car where they were arranged before Justice F. F. Williamson on the charges of conspiracy and the blowing up of several cars of the Chester Traction Company with dynamite, nitro-glycerine and other explosives, etc. Each was held in $2000 bail for a further hearing on Friday, and in default, all but Phillips were lodged in jail here…

Dougherty, Phillips and Cox are charged with dynamiting a car on Allen’s Hill in Nether Providece…

Since the beginning of the strike about four months ago, no less than twenty-five cars have been damaged. Several persons have been injured. The strike sympathizers in general laughed at the idea the strikers were doing the wrecking, claiming it was brought about by the trolley company that they might claim damages from the city and county on the grounds of inadequate police protection…During the past ten days cars have been wrecked by explosives at Eddystone and Upland.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Sept. 1908

These arrests finally broke the attempt at unionizing the trolley lines,

There was a marked increase of passengers on the Chester Traction Company lines today. The news which spread over this city when the strikers were arrested, accused of dynamiting cars, conspiracy and other charges, has about died away, and few now refer to the subject, which was the sole topic of discussion for a couple of days.

Business men begin to feel encouraged at the outlook, but it is generally conceded that it will be some time before the traction company regains its former patronage, as several thousand workmen affiliated with the unions are still bitter against the corporation, and some of them declare that they will never ride on the cars again while he Chester Traction Company owns the lines.

Philadelphia Inquirer 8 Sept, 1908

Now with the strikers leadership in jail, state and federal officials move to negotiate an end,

In another effort to settle the strike of the motormen and conductors of the Chester Traction Company, now in the sixth month, conferences are being held daily in Philadelphia…(US Senator) Penrose, McNichol and (Senator) Sproul agreed to try to arrange a conference with President John A. Rigg of the Interstate Railways Company, owner of the Chester Traction Company, and, if possible, to get from him such concessions as would enable the strikers to return to work.

Philadelphia Inquirer 17 Sept., 1908

Those arrested were put on trial twice. The first trial ended in a mistrial, I didn’t find the ultimate outcome of the second trial.

The trial of fourteen striking employees of the Chester Traction Company, accused of being implicated in the “reign of terror” throughout Delaware county, covering a period from April 13 until August 29 of this year, and ending when the general arrest of those on trial was made on August 31, was begun here today.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 Oct 1908

There will also be a retrial of the cases of Patrick J. Shae, vice president of the Trolley Union of America; President William V. Lockhardt and the dozen former employees of the Chester Traction Company who are charged with blowing up the cars of the company and conspiracy. The jury had disagreed.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 Dec. 1908

In November, the strike was finally settled. The details don’t seem to appear in the papers, but the workers returned to the trolley lines without a union. While their pay went up slightly, they ultimately lost in their efforts to form a union.

It is expected that by the first of next week all the former employees of the Chester Traction Company, who went on strike April 13, will be reinstated by the company. This will not include the men who are under indictment for conspiracy to destroy the Traction Compnay’s property.

This afternoon four of the old men were taken back and they immediately started on good runs. This is in accordance with the promise made by the corporation when the strike was settled a couple of weeks ago. The men who are returning to the employ of the company apply as individuals, as there will be no recognition of the trolleymen’s union

Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 Dec. 1908

The divisions in the community were deep and the hatred of the strikebreakers was clear,

Local undertakers having refused to bury the body of Renal McManus, a strikebreaking motorman on the Chester Traction company’s lines, who died in the Chester hospital as the result of injuries received along the Media division, the remains will be buried by a Philadelphia undertaker.

Greenville Evening Record, 25 Nov., 1908

One final note, the brothers that fired on the state constabulary were ultimately released. Throughout these trials its clear there were such strong sympathies for the strikers among the jury that a conviction was almost impossible.

Nicholas and Thomas Berger, brothers, of Leiperville accused of firing upon the State police during their stay in Chester at the time of the strike of the employees of the Chester Traction Comapny, were virtually released today from further arraignment after being twice tried. In each case the jury disagreed.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 March, 1909

The Chester Traction Company would survive and through a series of mergers, it ultimately ended up as part of SEPTA, whose workers are represented today by a union. So while the strikers in 1908 lost the battle, ultimately their successors would triumph. Happy Labor Day.

Categories: History