The Saint John Street Railwaymen’s Strike and Riot. 1914

By: Robert H. Babcock

In July of 1914 a boisterous crowd of perhaps 10,000 people gathered in the wake of a trolley strike. Under cover of darkness they overturned two streetcars, thwarted a cavalry charge, smashed every window in traction company offices, and poured cement on a dynamo, plunging the city into total darkness. “Most Disgraceful Disorder in City’s History” screamed the Saint John Standard headline the next day.

Class conflict had become a recurrent feature of urban life all over North America. In nearly every city at this time street railwaymen, nursing a variety of work-related grievances, were organizing into trade unions and calling strikes. Fighting back, traction companies attempted to maintain service by hiring private detectives to spy on workers and scabs to replace them. Infuriated citizens often gathered in the streets to vent their anger, provoking fearful city authorities into calling out the militia. Sometimes the street railwaymen emerged victorious; at other times they compromised or simply lost the battle for better wages and working conditions. Despite the inconvenience provoked by strikes, the public often sided with trolley men because they shared workers hostility toward their employers.

Well before the strike and riot in Saint John, the city’s street railway company, controlled by Canadian Pacific interests, had become a major political issue for several reasons, including failed promises to build new lines, deteriorating equipment, and overcrowded cars. For years the company had put profits ahead of system-wide improvements. Such was the context when an already unpopular company faced a new challenge to its authority from employees recently organized into a local unit of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees.

Three weeks after the motormen and conductors had organized into a local, the company fired the union’s leader, Fred Ramsay, accusing him of having left his streetcar to enter a saloon. Although Ramsey denied the charge, the company flatly rejected demands for an independent investigation. It even ignored the formal recommendation of a government board to negotiate with its employees, leaving the trolley men with little choice but to knuckle under or to strike.

Over 130 men walked out on strike and immediately set out to win the battle for public opinion. Parading under banners with strike slogans, the uniformed trolley men marched up and down Saint John’s major thoroughfares, followed by a crowd of men and boys chanting ‘LET EVERYBODY WALK!” Bystanders cheered the strikers at every street corner. ‘WE WILL BE WITH YOU TONIGHT, BOYS” some called out. Cries of “SCAB!” “SCAB!” rang in the ears of those still working. During another parade that evening 2,000 people gathered at the corner of Douglas Avenue and Main Street to cheer the strikers. By the time trolley men and their band had reached the hall on Union Street this crowd had grown to 7,000 or 8,000 shouting and cheering people. Meanwhile, trolley company directors made their strategy clear on the next day when fifteen scabs arrived from Montreal.

Trouble started when bystanders blocked a trolley at the corner of King and Charlotte streets. The scab motorman slowly edged his car through the dense crowd and down Charlotte, halting at the foot of King Street hill in Market Square. Cheering and hooting escalated when a trolley swung around the curve of Dock Street and came into view. The crowd rushed forward and then fell in behind the vehicle, throwing stones conveniently obtained from a nearby sewer project. Frightened passengers were showered with window glass. A scab conductor at the rear of the trolley tried to ward off the crowd with an iron switch bar but only infuriated his pursuers when he struck a man squarely on the head.

At this point Mayor James Frink read the Riot Act and authorized the deployment of a small detachment of Royal Canadian Dragoons against the crowd. On horseback, Lieutenant Hubert Stethen and six soldiers charged down King Street into several thousand people massed in Market Square. Their horses rearing and plunging, the Dragoons slashed left and right with ceremonial, flat-edged swords, knocking down, cutting or bruising scores of men, women, and children. Forming a circle around the stalled trolleys, they beat back the crowd with their swords, pressing it into a solid mass on the sidewalks. At this point Stethen was struck in the face by a rock and nearly unhorsed. Another trooper suffered a broken hand from warding off a rock; still another’s shoulder was badly bruised by a missile. Battered and bloodied, the soldiers retreated up King Street at a trot with the shrieks, cries and yells of the crowd trailing after them.

Enraged by the Dragoons behavior, the crowd overturned two stalled streetcars in Market Square and then headed for the company’s powerhouse. As lights went out in Saint John, the crowd roared its approval and then moved on to wreck the company’s car barns. A hail of stones provoked a return volley of buckshot from the darkened buildings, forcing the crowd to retreat. Bunked inside were some 35 detectives hired by the company to break the strike. At this time about 500 militia called to duty under the Riot Act began taking up their stations in the city, and streetlights came on again. As a result, the crowd quickly melted away.

Market Square on the morning of July 24, 1914. (New Brunswick Museum Photo)

The riot forced both parties to settle. Ramsey stepped down from the union’s leadership and accepted a “life-time” position with the city public works department, while the company reinstated the strikers and promised not to discriminate against the union. As word of the agreement spread throughout Saint John, tensions eased and trolley service returned to normal.

The Saint John trolley men won because they had commanded support from the community. Men, women, and children from all classes had become dependent upon the new urban technology and wanted the traction company to be an instrument of public advancement rather than private profit. When the company recognized only the interests of its investors, both the trolley men and the public became angry. At this point a deep-seated local tradition of crowd action reinforced the developing class-consciousness of Saint John workers. The strikers received strong backing from organized labour in the city, but it was the crowd that provided the margin of victory. Led by young men and boys not adverse to rough tactics, they took control of the streets in order to put a temporary halt to trolley service. In 1914 the crowd’s selective violence and intimidating fury had forced the company to accept the union.

Robert H. Babcock was a professor from the University of Maine, in Orono, Maine. His researches on labour history have always focused on Canada and in particular, Saint John. For many years he was President of the Canadian Committee on Labour History, which publishes the Journal Labour/Le Travail.

Babcock passed away on Feburary 12th of 2014, and will always be remembered for his passion for Canadian Labour history.