The Denver Tramway Strike of 1920 typified the active militancy of many labor unions during the early 1900s. The strike brought the conversation surrounding labor relations to the forefront of Denver politics and would influence the larger labor landscape for decades to come. Today the strike is generally remembered as one of the bloodiest labor clashes of the era.
Denver Tramway Company
Public transportation grew with Denver, beginning in 1871 with the Denver Railway Company’s horse-car line. That system expanded slowly until in 1884 it had nearly sixteen miles of track on which it ran forty-five cars. In the meantime, the city’s population surged from 4,759 in 1870 to 54,308 in 1885. Seeing money to be made in transit and associated real estate development, William Gray Evans, Rodney Curtis, and other local entrepreneurs organized the Denver Electric and Cable Railway Company in 1885, before renaming the enterprise as the Denver Tramway Company one year later. In March 1900 the Tramway Company finished converting its network to electric trolley cars powered from overhead wires. By absorbing smaller companies and outlasting rivals, the Tramway dominated Denver’s public transportation by the turn of the century. In 1900 the company carried more than 35 million passengers; on average, each Denverite made more than 250 trips that year.
In 1914 trainmen received twenty-four cents an hour as a starting wage. After five years’ experience they could look forward to thirty cents an hour. Such wages, although not high, were tolerable when a four-room terrace could be rented for ten dollars a month and twenty-two pounds of sugar could be had for a dollar. Low prices faded away after August 1914, when the outbreak of war in Europe produced inflation in the United States. Denver food prices shot up 41 percent, rent increased by 19 percent, and clothing costs rose 60 percent.
Squeezed by inflation, in 1917 trainmen considered forming a union, an idea they abandoned after winning pay increases that brought top wages to thirty-four cents per hour. Spiraling prices quickly washed away those gains. To get higher wages, employees in July 1918 established Local 746 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Railway Employees of America. Two months later the War Labor Board suggested pay increases to forty-eight cents an hour for all trainmen with more than one year of service. To fund such wages, the company asked for higher fares, and the City Council sanctioned a penny increase to six cents per ride in September 1918.
The death of Mayor Robert W. Speer in May 1918 had left Denver without a powerful political leader. In a bid for votes, Dewey C. Bailey promised that he would reduce fares to five cents. Bailey was elected and the city council followed his lead. On July 5, 1919 the city forced the company to roll back fares. In response, the company reduced trainmen’s top wages to thirty-four cents an hour, laid off hundreds, and reduced service.
On Sunday, August 1, 1920 at 5:30 a.m., Local 746’s members voted 887–11 in favor of striking in defiance of an injunction that prohibited the Tramway Company from lowering wages or the workers from striking. Five days before the scheduled walkout, John Jerome, a professional strikebreaker from San Francisco, telegraphed Tramway officials: “Am leaving this P.M. for Denver. In case of strike will break it for you.” Within minutes of the strike announcement, Jerome telegraphed and telephoned other strikebreakers, some of whom he held ready in San Francisco and Los Angeles. One of them, William A. Ingraham, reported that he was contacted by one of Jerome’s agents on Sunday and offered to serve as a guard.
Monday, August 2 belonged to the strikers as an estimated 100,000 people were forced to find alternative transportation to work that morning. Only two streetcars ran that day, bound for Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Aurora with the union’s permission. That afternoon, thirty-seven strikebreakers arrived by train in Littleton with another seventy-five expected the following day. As a convoy of twelve large automobiles carried the 150 strikebreakers to the Tramway’s South Denver barns in the 400 block of South Broadway, Ingraham recalled that, “missiles began to fly … stones, rocks, and everything but shots.” Jerome stood in one of the cars brandishing a gun in each hand, marshaling the convoy to safety. Once inside the barns, Jerome ordered that all unarmed strikebreakers be given guns. As the days wore on, thousands of footsore Denver commuters grew impatient with the seemingly ineffective strike.
Wednesday, August 4 the Rocky Mountain News urged the strikers to go back to work. Union sympathizers disagreed—at midday they surrounded a railcar at Sixteenth and Lawrence Streets and derailed it. Strikebreakers responded by spraying the strikers with fire extinguishers. Jerome’s men successfully put the car back on its rails. A bystander named Charles Harris was injured in the melee.
On Thursday morning, August 5, 1920, the central business district in Denver wore an air of deceptive calm. Two thousand labor sympathizers paraded downtown as labor leaders met with Mayor Bailey, who agreed to consider an arbitration plan put forth by Charles A. Ahlstrom, president of the Denver Trades and Labor Assembly, an umbrella organization representing dozens of unions. Around 5 pm Ahlstrom warned the crowd: “Don’t fall into the trap set by the tramway company. They want you to start violence, but don’t do what they want you to.” Ahlstrom’s advice came too late. The crowd attacked the newest shipment of Jerome’s strikebreakers with bricks and rocks, breaking one’s jaw and gashing another’s head. Almost simultaneously, marchers made up of streetcar men and other railroad employees converged with other pro-union protesters, principally cigar makers. The group surged through downtown, forming several mobs as more joined throughout the evening. At Fifteenth and California Streets, the mob spied two streetcars blocked by a large truck stalled on the tracks. The mob tore off the cars’ recently-installed protective screening and began wrecking them. The Rocky Mountain News reported that “within a few minutes, seventeen men had been seriously injured and the cars virtually demolished.” The mob clashed with police and strikebreakers all evening as injuries continued to mount. As strikebreakers took shelter in the cathedral, a crowd 5,000 strong pelted the church with sticks, bricks, and stones.
At 9:30 pm on August 5, 1920, a mob of some 500 people sacked the home of The Denver Post on Champa Street. Infuriated by the newspaper’s support for the Denver Tramway Company, the crowed stormed into the building, smashing windows and rampaging through the offices. Using crowbars and hammers, the marauders attempted to disable the presses. With gasoline-soaked rags they attempted to ignite piles of newsprint. Most of the damage proved superficial and easily repaired; within eighteen hours the paper had recovered and was ready to do battle again.
The Post was only a secondary victim of the early August Denver upheaval in 1920. Within thirty hours of the mob’s attack on the Post, seven people were fatally shot, putting the Tramway strike among the most deadly in Colorado’s history. At around 10 pm on August 5, another mob attacked the Tramway’s South Denver barns on South Broadway. Ingraham, one of the 126 strikebreakers quartered at the South Denver barns, reported that as early as 9 pm the barns were pelted by stones. An hour later one of Jerome’s henchmen, named Mullen, called for an attack on the crowd. About fifteen minutes later, the rioters doused a fence with gasoline and lit it on fire. Jerome had just arrived and, according to Ingraham, began shooting at the crowd along with the barn’s guards. Two nineteen-year-old boys were mortally wounded as they fled the strikebreakers, and several more were severely wounded in the turmoil. By the time police arrived forty-five minutes later, the mob was wavering and many rioters had left, saying they would return with their own guns.
The night of August 6 was even bloodier than the previous night. At 9 pm a touring car full of Jerome’s strikebreakers arrived to reinforce the men in the barns. The crowd attacked the new arrivals, throwing bottles and bricks at the car’s inhabitants. As one of his men suffered a cut across the chest, Jerome’s men opened fire on the crowd, killing five and wounding eleven, including women and children.
End of the Strike
At 1:30 pm on August 7, 1920, Mayor Bailey and Colorado Governor Oliver Shoup placed Denver under US Army control, with 250 soldiers from Fort Logan occupying downtown. Jerome’s strikebreakers lost their guns but were protected by soldiers riding the streetcars. Even as the violence in East Denver progressed, labor leaders met to consider ending the strike. Many newspapers blamed Local 746 for the turmoil, and the strikers paid a heavy price for the violence. More than two-thirds of them lost their jobs, though a grand jury would not indict any of the strikers for their actions during the violence. Weakened by the strike, organized labor had an even worse chance of making Denver a union town than it had before.
Not in the three-quarters of a century since those bloody August days has another labor dispute matched the Tramway Strike’s death toll, although an altercation at Columbine Mine near Lafayette in 1927 came close with six deaths. Between Wednesday, August 4, when the first serious injury occurred, and Saturday, August 7, when the US Army intervened, more than fifty people were hurt, many of them shot. At the conclusion of the strike, the union fell apart and the company was forced into receivership, with more than 700 strikers losing their jobs.
In hindsight, labor’s defeat in the episode was predictable. A weak union confronted a powerful corporation. For the most part, the press and politicians favored the Tramway. Without a strong local labor movement, the motormen and conductors quickly spent their resources and used up whatever sympathy some Denverites may have had for them. In assaulting the Tramway, the trainmen challenged a Goliath that was as necessary to Denver as it was intertwined with the city’s development.
Adapted from Stephen J. Leonard, “Bloody August: the Denver Tramway Strike of 1920,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 15, no. 3 (1995).