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Local History

The Strike that Broke the Company's Back: Springfield's Transit History

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In our local history series, Sense of Place, we examine the happenings of the past to discover how they have shaped the modern culture and landscape of the Ozarks region. In the second of two installments about Springfield’s transit history, Emma Wilson takes a closer look at a dramatic streetcar strike that had a statewide impact on organized labor.

In Monday’s Sense of Place, we talked about the development of public transit in Springfield. If you missed it you can find it on our website but here is a quick re-cap: streetcars moved passengers along Springfield’s streets from the 1880s until the late 1930s. In the 1890s the cars were one of the first systems in the country to be electrified. This led to the transit company, now called Springfield Traction, under the ownership of Guaranty Trust Company of New York, which also had a monopoly on Springfield’s supply of gas and electricity. These distant owners were not exactly sensitive to the needs of their workers or their customers.

“The outside interests cared more about profit, and in a lot of places they didn’t pay workers if the wheels weren’t moving.”

I met with Erin Smither at the Library Center where she works in the archives. She wrote an article for a new book, Springfield’s Urban Histories, which was published quite recently. Her article is titled Unrestricted Warfare: Labor and the Community in the 1916-1917 Springfield Streetcar Strike. Smither says that the streetcar workers responded to the poor conditions—like long hours, dangerous speeds, overcrowding, and low wages—by forming a union as part of the Amalgamated Association of Electric and Street Railway Workers.

“They became division 691. And shortly after that the company fired their secretary so workers went on strike. And they had a lot of support from the people in Springfield.”

The company fought the strike by an injunction and by bringing in strikebreakers to both work on the streetcars and to act as the muscle defending them against the strikers.

“That really did not make the people of Springfield very happy. They considered these people thugs, gunmen, scabs, finks. They thought of them as a threat… a threat to their society, they thought they were dangerous. They ran around in cars getting drunk, they had guns, there were instances of little kids getting shot at, fist fights, they just considered [the strikebreakers] a menace.”

Dr. Stephen McIntyre, a labor historian and the editor of Springfield’s Urban Histories, says that this was not uncommon and companies would essentially hire private armies to protect their interests and break up strikes.

“The firms that provided these services were not too picky about the character of the individuals that they hired and would bring them to cities armed to the hilt to intimidate strikers and provide security, in this case for the street cars. But in the end one of these individuals was involved in a famous case of the kidnapping of the Keet Baby.”

Again, Erin Smither.

“He was kidnapped from his home, it was pretty much just like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. They took him out of his nursery and they sent cryptic messages to his parents, demanding money.”

Many in Springfield have heard the story of Baby Loyd Keet, it was in the national news until its sad resolution, but few know that the perpetrators of that crime were hired by Springfield Traction to protect the streetcars during the strike. The child’s father, a wealthy banker who lived in the Meadowmere Place subdivision, was led all over the region by notes from the kidnappers. The Keet baby was eventually found in a cistern June 9th of 1917, dead as result of a laudanum overdose. The kidnappers were caught as they attempted to kidnap a jeweler and they were discovered to be two strikebreakers named Adams and Reilly.

“And that is what did it, it cost them their support among the wealthier middleclass people of Springfield and they decided to settle, because at this point they had no support from anyone in town.”

The strike had lasted 252 days, a tremendous length at the time.

And even with the kidnapping, two cases of dynamiting streetcars, and a riot, the strike was considered relatively peaceful, McIntyre says, and other streetcar workers around the state redoubled their organizing. He says the actions of the unions and the company divided the city along socio-economic lines but Springfield was still a very pro-labor town at that time. Springfield even had a mayor supportive of the strikers, J. J. Gideon, who survived a recall election during the strike.

“And there was in this era–not just in Springfield but in many communities—very strong anti-corporate, anti-big business sentiments. And that’s one of the dynamics that fed into the support for the strikers. It was seen as this outside power, this outside force that had come into the community that not only mistreated streetcar workers, but the streetcars posed a real hazard to members of the community.”

(Several local residents were injured or killed as a result of the high speeds at which the cars were operating under pressure from the company.)

The settlement with the company was a success for the workers as well as the larger Amalgamated Association of Electric and Street Railway Workers. The car-men were reinstated and first year wages went from 17 ½ cents per hour to 19 cents, with a one-cent annual wage increase. They also would receive bonuses if daily profits exceeded $28.50. The streetcars would run on the streets of Springfield until 1938, when they were phased out in favor of buses.

To see a map of the streetcar routes and photos of the streetcars, view this story at our website, KSMU.org and click on the Sense of Place link.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.