Duluth's historic labor disputes caused riot and bloodshed

“Riot and Bloodshed” read the headline from the July 7, 1889, issue of the Duluth Daily News. “Bullets go whizzing in all direction, hitting the innocent as well as the guilty,” the article said. It was the culmination of heated tension between the Duluth Police Department and labor strikers that left four men fatally wounded and dozens more nursing bloody bullet wounds. As detailed in the book "By the Ore Docks" by Richard Hudelson and Carl Ross, workers were assigned the task of building Duluth’s sewer system in 1888. These types of projects typically went through the hands of several contractors who employed thousands of laborers to do the job.

On Aug. 2, 1888, a group of workers decided they had enough with the low wages they received, and they quit their jobs with the contracting company Wolf and Traux. They marched from the west end of town to the east, all the while gathering momentum, as more and more laborers quit their jobs to join the strike. By the time the strike reached Fitger’s Brewery, nearly 500 workers had joined in the protest.

On this day, a crowd had gathered on the west end of Superior Street, where they made their demand: a pay raise from the average $1.50 per day to $2 per day. The large group of strikers was successful in shutting down production across the entire city.

By Aug. 10, the laborers and contractors came to an agreement: a daily wage of $1.75. Outcries came from people who were upset about taking anything under $2.

Noted in Hudelson and Carl’s book, the mayor responded to these complaints, stating that he will “deal sternly with anyone trying to interfere with men working for $1.75, even if he has to use police force,” which was an ominous foreshadowing of the year to follow.

One year later, in July 1889, Duluth saw its bloodiest strike to date.

Just like the year before, workers were given the task of building roads and sewers for various contractors. Wages had slipped back to $1.50 a day, and workers were still demanding they be paid $2.

On the morning of July 2, 1889, gas and water company workers quit their jobs and declared a strike. They roamed the city, calling workers to join them. By days end, over 2,000 men joined the fight.

“A monster strike” read a headline from the July 3, 1889, issue of the Duluth Daily News. “Yesterday was remarkable for witnessing the greatest strike that ever occurred in the Zenith City,” the article said.

What made this year different from the previous year’s success was that there were now more laborers than jobs in Duluth. There were plenty of men out of work who would gladly take $1.50 a day.

Contractors from the Chamber of Commerce demanded that the mayor give police protection to any man willing to work for $1.50. Over the next few days, the near 2,000 striking workers were met with escalating police resistance. The police were in full force and were not allowing mobs to intimidate workers. The mayor was making good on his promise “deal sternly.”

On July 5, tensions were heating up between the police and the strikers, as they attempted to convince gas and water crews near Garfield Avenue and West Michigan Street to quit. They were met with police resistance.

“The rioters had worked themselves up into such frenzy that they commenced arming themselves with knives and pistols, plainly showing they meant to defy police,” read a Duluth Weekly Tribune article. The situation began to get violent, as the strikers started throwing rocks and other objects at the police.

The police responded to the attacks with a whirl of nightsticks and warning shots. According to accounts, some 50 shots were fired in an attempted to scare the crowd and disperse them. For the police, it worked, but it angered the laborers.

On July 6, the strikers and the police were at it again. According to the Duluth Daily News, officers noticed a few of the strikers as the ones involved in the previous days attack and gave chase to the fleeing men. This was the start of a battle that would escalate quickly.

There are varying accounts as to who may have fired the first shot. The Duluth Daily News reported that an officer was shot in the calf by the mob, and the police retaliated.

A gunfight erupted on the corner of West Michigan Street and 12th Avenue between the strikers and the police. The strikers were armed mostly with small pistols and rocks, and the police had the advantage of high-powered weapons. According to Duluth Daily News accounts, a band of nearly 100 men took cover behind a big pile of dirt where they remained fortified until they ran out of bullets.

The shooting lasted for over an hour. Many of the police officers were hit with bullets, though they suffered no casualties. In all, four were dead after the battle.

Edward Johnson, one of the rioters, was shot in the head and died instantly. The other three died later as a result of wounds. An innocent bystander named Thomas Fitzimmons, who was 18 years old, was fatally wounded.

This was the culmination of heated labor disputes of the late 1880s in Duluth. The battle left a bad taste in the mouths of the people who witnessed it.  Friction between the laborers and police has never been as violent as the events that happened on that Saturday.

The laborers and police ended in a “bloody war,” as the Duluth Weekly Tribune called it. In the end, the mayor sided with the police and ordered streets to be cleared.

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