September 9, 1912: Fourteen arrested as streetcar strike results in riots

On this day in Duluth in 1912 rioting caused by striking street railway workers led to the arrest of fourteen individuals. Newspaper headlines the following day screamed “RIOTERS STONE STREET CARS AND CLASH WITH THE POLICE; SUDDEN STRIKE CRIPPLES THE DULUTH TROLLEY SYSTEM.” The company’s history of substandard working conditions had not improved for the workforce, most of it made up of Scandinavian immigrants, and company manager Herbert Warren did all he could to prevent union organization. According to historians Richard Hudelson and Carl Ross, Warren kept workers under surveillance trying to identify union organizers and fined them for “petty infractions.” After the company fired nine men who had met secretly to discuss a new union, employees stopped work. They demanded that they be allowed to form a union, that their work day be cut to nine hours, and that their recently unemployed compatriots be given their jobs back. The company refused and hired scabs. By noon on September 9, 75 scab employees recruited by the streetcar company arrived from Minneapolis and restored normal service by late afternoon. Later that evening a mob of between 2,000 and 3,000 had gathered at 20th Avenue West and began throwing rocks at the strikebreakers; one conductor from Minneapolis claimed he had been shot at, and newspapers reported hearing calls to “Kill the scabs!” A sixteen-year-old boy was arrested for hitting a police officer in the mouth with a wooden club, and of the fourteen arrested, not one of them was a striking employee of the Street Railway Company. By the fourth day local papers were reporting 15,000 people at the site, and the violence increased. Strikers threw stones at scab crews, set up blockades on the tracks, and even overturned cars. On Friday, September 13, newspapers reported that shots had been fired at a scab motorman. Even with hired detectives along for the ride, attacks on scab conductors continued into October. Headlines declared the police helpless. But Warren dug in, refusing to negotiate. With the law of the day on the company’s side, the strike failed. Read a complete history of the Duluth Street Railway Company here.

The Duluth Street Railway Company’s streetcar barns at Twenty-Seventh Avenue West and Superior Street. (Image: Duluth Public Library)