Back
1906 streetcar strike — “special constables” from United States were used as strikebreakers
Apr 16, 2010

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

Provincial Police Magistrate Alexander McMicken admitted to the Free Press that he had sworn-in the “special constables” at the request of the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company and not civic authorities. McMicken said he was unaware they were agents from the United States-based Thiel Detective Agency, and the company’s directors said they were only needed to protect WERC facilities, such as the car barns and powerhouse at the corner of Assiniboine Avenue and Main Street.

In a statement, McMicken, a former city councillor, mayor and banker, said he received a call from J.H.D. Munson, who said he and company directors William Whyte and Hugh Sutherland wanted the magistrate to come to the WERC powerhouse to swear-in some “special constables.”

“I was informed at the same time this request was approved by the mayor, whom I was told, considered that the (city) police would find their hands full elsewhere, and that under the circumstances the regular force was too limited for such a duty and if they (the company) wanted special police to have them sworn in at their own initiative.”

McMicken said he was acting in the interests of the law by swearing in the special constables.

In his statement, McMicken provided a list of the men he swore in, which did include known American strikebreakers  such as Lawrence A. Christiansen.

An undisclosed McMicken defender wrote the Free Press that the magistrate had sworn in 35 “special constables” on March 30, 1906, at 4 p.m. to protect the  company’s powerhouse “from an expected disreputable foreign element not composed of strikers or labor men of Winnipeg, and which if successful would have put the citizens to much inconvenience.”

This was a common refrain of the era — blame foreigners, especially “Galician” immigrants from Eastern Europe. Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and Jews were typically singled out as the “foreign element” intent upon stirring up trouble in the city.

In his sermon, Some Lessons of the Strike, delivered on April 8, Rev. J.W. McMillan of St. Andrews Church, correctly pointed out that the rioters were not foreigners, “but an English-speaking race ...”

The letter writer to the Free Press said the special constables sworn-in were all “respectable-looking, some of them well known citizens, and not one of them, since they were dismissed (by Mayor Sharpe, who hired his own “specials”) on Saturday morning (April 1) did anything offensive to the citizens, or were engaged in any unlawful act.”

The writer claimed Mayor Sharpe had rushed to Manitoba Attorney-General  Colin H. Campbell, claiming McMicken had sworn-in 100 “thugs.”

According to the letter writer, it was the police, not the strikebreakers, who were responsible for assaulting “respectable citizens.” 

He further alleged the mayor had allowed the destruction of company property by not having “a force of men placed about Higgins avenue on the morning of the strike (March 29) as was requested so to do ... The attorney-general without much consideration says he will stand by Mayor Sharpe ...  and he will use that mighty authority with which he is clothed, and do a deed that will make him famous, so suspends that wicked McMicken ...”

Of course, the mayor had good reason to complain to Attorney-General Campbell, as the strikebreakers were “thugs,” and “special constable” A.G. Cardwell, an American, had assaulted the mayor as well as “respectable citizens.”

One of the “respectable citizens”

assaulted by the imported constables was Charles Plaxton of Fort Rouge, who was noted in the March 31 Free Press as “one of Winnipeg’s most reputable citizens and one of its largest ratepayers.”

While walking home, Plaxton saw six men armed with pick-axe handles deliberately assault two union men “standing with their hands in their pockets” and peacefully picketing. Plaxton ran up and “implored the assailants not to kill the men.”

“This good advice on his part was rewarded by the assailants turning on him and threatening to knock his brains out.”

Plaxton ended up being swung at four times “in a most vicious manner,” although he managed to dodge the blows aimed in his direction.

Plaxton pleaded with two nearby policemen to intervene and help the men under attack, but was rebuffed and told to “attend to his own business intimating that unless he did he would be run in.”

The Fort Rouge man later said he would alert city council to the “dastardly outrage.” 

N.R. Preston, who was among the throng witnessing the attack on the union men, said it was extremely brutal. A strikebreaker motorman approached one man standing next to Preston and struck him in the face, cutting his nose and drawing blood.

The Free Press on March 31 reported the assaulted man showed great restraint and refused to fight back.

“The assault was unprovoked,” recalled Preston, “without a shadow of doubt, and two policemen standing ten feet away refused to make the slightest remonstration.”

Preston said he had a very poor opinion of the men brought in by the WERC as strikebreakers, as well as the police who allowed the incident to pass unnoticed.

For its part, the company denied the special constables were Americans, alleging they were from Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

When it became evident this was far from the truth, the WERC attempted to shift the blame for the strikebreakers onto civic authorities, producing a letter from Mayor Sharpe which said: “The City will ... expect your company to furnish the usual service  required throughout the City ... and the City will do everything in its power to preserve order upon the public streets of the city and protect the property of your company.”

The problem with the company’s so-called evidence of civic collusion was that the strike had already begun and the Thiel agents had been hired before the letter was written by the mayor to WERC manager William Phillips on March 30. There is also no mention in the letter about hiring special constables to “preserve order.”

After enlisting the foreign strikebreakers as alleged “peacekeepers,” McMicken was suspended by Manitoba Attorney-General Campbell, who said the provincial magistrate had acted improperly by officially sanctioning outside private agents.

The attorney-general said McMicken could only swear-in “those who are householders and residents of the city.”

Campbell said McMicken’s suspension would continue pending an official investigation into his actions.

“Their (strikebreakers) character as evidenced by their conduct so far in the struggle between the street car men and their employers does not commend itself to the citizens, who on all hands are incensed against them,” remarked the Free Press.

According to a March 31 editorial: “These special constables who have the power in their direction, to club — and even to shoot — Winnipeg citizens are importations from Chicago and large United States cities. They are aliens; and they are here illegally unless our Alien Labor Act is a dead letter.”

The editorial called the loosing of the “mercenaries” upon Winnipeggers without the consent of the civic authorities “incredible.”

The editorial added that McMicken had not exceeded his authority by swearing in the constables when asked by the company, “but nevertheless his was an outrageous usurpation of powers that should only be exercised by the Mayor, the Chief-of-Police, or the (City) Police Magistrate.”

Furthermore, the Free Press said the gravest responsibility for the “mad action” antagonizing public opinion resided with the company.

On March 29, the mob’s rage began in earnest at 4:30 p.m. when young men drove the strikebreakers out of streetcar No. 24 on its Selkirk Avenue route near the corner of Sinclair Street. The abandoned car was set on fire and reduced to “a crumbling mass of char,” according to the Telegram.

Any abandoned car drew the mob’s attention and when policemen, helped by the “special constables,” tried to get them safely into the car barns, demonstrators shouted out “scabs.”

Another shout of “scab” was directed at an unnamed “well-known” journalist who had gotten off a streetcar near the “Ashdown corner” on Bannatyne Avenue and Main Street.

In reply, the man said, “You may shout ‘scab,’ but the cars will run just the same.”

The mob became enraged at the journalist, forcing the man to seek shelter in the Dominion Bank building at 440 Main St. Pressing against the windows of the bank, the throng continued to shout out “scab!” and ordered the journalist to come out and face their wrath for his ill-advised utterance.

The man did come out, although through a back door in order to elude being roughly handled by his harsh critics. His manoeuvre failed to outwit the mob, which sighted him and pursued him down McDermot Avenue as he fled in haste to safer shelter in the Mariaggi Hotel, “bespattered by mud.”

Near Logan Avenue,  two cars were abandoned and the police attempted to clear them from the tracks. A dozen police and special constables were jeered at and the occasional brick was thrown.

“An attempt was made to take both cars, but the coupling of one had been removed. When the car with its load of policemen moved south toward the car barns (at the corner of Main and Assiniboine) there was prolonged cheering while a shower of missiles followed the parting guardians of the peace,” according to the Telegram.

Those trying to turn over abandoned cars were “surrounded by private detectives and plainclothesmen, who were ready to resist any attempt at violence.”

The mob then shifted its attention further down Main Street. When Detective Smith apprehended one boy who had been throwing rocks and was in the process of hauling him off to the police station, the mob began to pursue Smith and confronted the policeman at the corner of Main and Henry. The crowd only eased their attack when another detective pulled out a revolver and threatened to shoot. Still, the mob kept their sight on their quarry and when the detective with the revolver was distracted, the boy was grabbed by the legs and snatched away from Smith.

The confrontations between police, constables and the mob over streetcars raged all along Main Street. The battles had merged to the point that they were described as “one continual fight.”

The Voice reported on what it called “one of the most brutal exhibitions, and one which would grace some of the worst periods of the teamsters’ strike in Chicago ...” A year earlier in the U.S. Midwest city, 20 striking teamsters were killed and another 400 wounded by police and strikebreakers.

The Voice said a rumour was circulating that J.F. Farley, “the famous Chicago strikebreaker,” was in Winnipeg, though it was felt there was no real evidence of his presence. In fact, he was never in the city. 

A known Chicago strikebreaker who was in town was Louis A. Christiansen, “a big Swede” or “Dane,” depending upon the newspaper account (his name was also spelled Christianson in some reports). Christiansen was 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, and was “apparently in full operation of the lines;” that is, he was co-ordinating the strikebreakers operating the streetcars and the special constables protecting the streetcars.

Christiansen, a Thiel detective, was eventually arrested for allegedly assaulting Magnus Smith, who was referred to in newspapers as “the well know chess player,” near the car barns. 

The strikebreaker was taken to the provincial jail where WERC officials were said to have offered “substantial sums” to have Christiansen released  from custody. After appearing in police court on April 2, he was released on bail for $1,000.

Although his brutal tactics were well documented, the charges against strikebreaker Christiansen were eventually dropped. 

On April 2, the Telegram reported that, “Nearly every citizen had some tale to tell of desperate and cowardly attacks of the Americans upon innocent spectators and pedestrians.”

One indignant citizen said the tactics used by the Americans should not be tolerated in Canada, especially in Winnipeg. This citizen said he witnessed a man being attacked by  Americans near the car barns and had himself been assaulted when he attempted to intervene on the man’s behalf.

Reeve urged the federal government to have the American strikebreakers deported as undesirable enemy aliens. He sent a letter to A.B. Aylesworth, the Canadian minister of labour, asking him to enforce the Alien Labour Act of 1901.

The minister replied that evidence would have to be compiled to show the Americans had violated the act, and advised Reeve that it was up to the Manitoba government to act on the evidence and enforce the law. 

It wasn’t until nightfall that the temper of the crowd had cooled and people began to find their way home. But this was only the first day of the strike — the next day was to be every bit as tumultuous.

Next morning, the cars carrying armed men were left in relative peace, but by 2 o’clock the crowd was no longer content to watch passively and began to shout and jeer as the cars passed by.

“Then some boys placed stones on the tracks near Bannatyne” and a car was forced to stop. A “scab” motorman was able to remove the obstruction and the car again proceeded down the track. 

Next, a load of bricks had been spilled, either by accident or design, and the mob was able to arm themselves. 

Mayor Sharpe judged the situation so desperate that he called out troops from the Royal Canadian Mounted Rifle stationed at Fort Osborne Barracks. “The appearance of the troops with a Maxim (machine-gun), instead of quieting the throng seemed only to incite them and the next car ... was daringly attacked under the very nose of the regulars,” reported the Telegram. The conductor and private detectives from the Thiel agency aboard the streetcar were dragged out and mauled by the mob.

Mayor Sharpe twice read out the Riot Act at the corner of Higgins and Main to little effect as the mob showered the soldiers with rotten eggs. Any attempt to arrest the demonstrators was vigorously resisted. 

As the mayor read out the Riot Act, demonstrators were trying to turn over a streetcar. They got the streetcar swaying, but it resisted their efforts to topple it over.

Meanwhile, hundreds of spectators surged up and down the street trying to gain a vantage point in order to witness the ongoing outbreaks of violence between demonstrators, strikebreakers, police and militia.

“A conspicuous feature of the whole proceedings was the fact that the spectators did not realize the meaning of the reading of the Riot Act and the position in which they placed themselves by remaining in the streets as an unlawful assembly,” reported the Telegram. “Often the police attempted to explain that all were liable to arrest, but explanations were partially useless because of the loud hoots and jeers. The crowd seemed to have no fear of the military, and when given the opportunity stood close up to the fixed bayonets ...

“The military played but little part in keeping the streets clear, and served only to keep the block between Logan Avenue and Henry Avenue free from disturbances.”

The troops formed a square in this area and positioned a machine gun in its centre.

Two “well-dressed ladies,” reported the Free Press on March 31, who lived within the proscribed area, attempted to push their way through.

“They were loudly cheered and encouraged by the crowd. The ladies repulsed the hands of the policemen who endeavoured to turn them down Logan ... Mayor Sharpe also added his dulcet pleading to that of the policemen but without effect. The Mayor and the police by this time were fully acquainted with what the ladies thought of them.”

The newspaper said the younger  lady’s face — “by no means unattractive” — showed indignation at the police interference. When an officer took her by the arm, she wriggled free and “with all her force slapped him in the face.

“The crowd then roared itself hoarse, and the ladies unwillingly followed the crowd down Logan. The two ladies were apparently very respectable matrons, and resented not being allowed to pursue their homeward way.”

Mayor Sharpe and the city solicitor, Theodore Alexander Hunt, stood behind a group of soldiers, according to the Free Press, “when a Thiel detective named (A.G.) Cardwell acting as a strikebreaker swung off the front platform (of a street car). Mayor Sharpe was within a few feet of him  and Cardwell pushed his worship to one side.” 

The report in the Telegram said Sharpe was either attempting to board or peer into the streetcar for an unknown reason when he was confronted by Cardwell.

Hunt remonstrated, saying the mayor was the chief officer of the city.

“‘I don’t give a d——n who he is,’ replied Cardwell. ‘Get to h—l out of here.’”

Cardwell was reported to have grabbed the mayor, striking him with a club.

A couple of soldiers moved forward when a streetcar started down the track and Cardwell jumped on board.

“... Mr. Hunt followed to get the number of his badge.” according to the Free Press. “The man turned on him and struck him across the wrist, forcing him from the car.”

When the streetcar was observed returning and switching to the cross-over to Logan Avenue, a Free Press reporter asked the mayor if he wanted the “thug” placed under arrest. Sharpe’s reply was in the affirmative and the reporter headed down the street to find a constable. 

Meanwhile, Cardwell was out on the road engaged in a confrontation with a number of people. He was alleged to have clubbed an old man over the head and thrown a little girl into a pile of mud. 

When the constable arrived, he placed his hand upon Cardwell’s shoulder and said, “Here I want you.”

Cardwell’s first inclination was to resist, but he thought the better of it and was peacefully led into a police paddy wagon “amid the cheers of the crowd.”

The Free Press said Cardwell’s was just “one of the many actions on the part of those imported strike-breakers, which have gone a long way towards exasperating the populace and provoking acts of violence.”

(Next week: part 3)