July 20, 2008
Just as 2006 marked the centennial of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of another kind of cataclysm in the city—one of its bitterest strikes that shaped the future of streetcar service in San Francisco.
Off-duty strikebreakers lounge in their quarters in the upstairs car storage area at the 29th & Mission car barn. Note the cots on the obsolete Haight Street cable cars (unused since the great earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906). Courtesy John Freeman collection.
This strike began with what the press called the ‘San Francisco Streetcar War’. Just one year after the earthquake and fire, the police chief issued a ‘shoot to kill order’ if police were fired upon. The Governor threatened to send troops into San Francisco. Once again San Francisco ground to a halt.
Back then transit service in San Francisco had been largely consolidated under a private company named United Railroads (URR), owned by Baltimore utility interests, and led by its president, Patrick Calhoun. In the wake of the earthquake and fire, Calhoun saw an opportunity to break a political stalemate that had prevented him from converting his cable car lines on Market Street to faster, higher-capacity streetcars. To do so, he allegedly bribed the entire Board of Supervisors to gain a permit to install overhead wires on Market for streetcar operation. (A 22-month trial on this charge ended with a hung jury, and Calhoun went free.)
As he was working to permanently convert Market Street to streetcars after the earthquake and fire, Calhoun was faced with a strike in August 1906, his workers seeking to renegotiate their contract due to the changed working conditions and wages in the booming reconstruction period. They also sought an eight-hour day instead of the then-current ten. The strike went to an arbitration committee after ten days with a wage increase, but no change in hours. The arbitration lasted until the contract ran out in May 1907.
But worker resentment grew, and on May 5, the carmen (as they were then called) of URR went on strike, again seeking an eight-hour day, plus a 20% boost in daily pay (from $2.50 to $3.00). This time there would be no quick settlement. The stage had been set by the strike the previous autumn when URR brought in crews hired by an experienced strikebreaker named James Farley. By late Spring 1907, neither the rank-and-file nor management were in a mood to compromise. Once again URR brought in armed ‘Farleyites’ who barricaded themselves into well-provisioned car barns. Tensions mounted as strikers and sympathizers massed outside waiting for the first car to pull out.
United Railroads car No. 1369 was the first car to emerge from the Turk & Fillmore car barn at 3:35pm on ‘Bloody Tuesday’ May 7, 1907. San Francisco Examiner photograph courtesy California State Library Collection.
At 3:25 in the afternoon, around the corner on Fillmore Street, six cars pulled out of the Turk & Fillmore car barn. Two URR inspectors and four of Farley’s strikebreakers wearing pistols manned each car. When pelted again with rocks and bricks, Farley’s men opened fire on the crowd. A running fight continued down Turk Street all the way to Market & Mason with missile-throwing strike sympathizers following in an automobile and strikebreakers shooting at their pursuers.
The first two cars were stopped at Mason, Turk & Market Streets and the strikebreakers opened fire on the crowds and police alike. The battle ended when they fled after running out of ammunition.
The next two cars only reached Hyde Street where police protected the crews after they were overrun by the angry mob. The two last cars out of the barn were commandeered shortly by strikers and driven back up Turk Street filled with triumphant striking motormen and conductors. The switch was thrown toward the yard behind the powerhouse where the ‘car of mystery’ had emerged and strikers plowed the car into the closed gate. As car No. 1359 broke through, the gunmen inside the facility opened fire, seriously wounding strikers, passersby and bystanders.
By the end of ‘Bloody Tuesday’, a chauffeur lay dead and two striking carmen were fatally wounded. Two other strikers were shot along with two policemen and a dozen bystanders. Central Emergency Hospital was crowded with injured and wounded from both sides. Police arrested twelve strikebreakers and charged them with murder or attempt to commit murder. Several rock throwers were also in custody.
The next day, cars were escorted out of the barn by mounted police. The strike dragged on as public support varied on different streetcar lines depending on whether the neighborhood was predominantly pro-labor. On September 9th, the Strike Committee called off the boycott in an effort to raise ridership so that strikers would have to be called back to work. The strike officially ended on September 12th, 1907.
Here’s how San Francisco rail historian Charles Smallwood chronicled it in his wonderful book, “The White Front Cars of San Francisco”:
Just how serious the situation became was clear in these notations from the 29th and Mission Car House daybook:
‘July 20, 8:45 p.m. — Conductor Kawag and Motorman S. Feller were shot at 29th and Noe and then the rioters let car go down the hill to 29th and Mission where it jumped the track and ran into a candy store and toggery store completely smashing the fronts of both stores. The car was a total wreck.’
‘October 19 — Riot on car #1575, run 9, Polk-Larkin Line, Conductor Brown and Motorman Purcell both beaten. In protecting themselves they fired several shots hitting three rioters, two of whom were killed.’
The fact that the strikebreaking motorman and conductor were armed as late as October on the Polk-Larkin line speaks volumes about the continuing ugliness and danger of the post-strike environment. Smallwood notes that 3,539 streetcar windows were shattered by missiles thrown by strikers and their supporters. (One wonders who kept such a meticulous count.) It is estimated that the railroad lost $1.5 million in revenues. Much more seriously, as many as 32 men may have been killed, and over a thousand were wounded in the violence.
To the extent that there was a ‘winner’ in this confrontation, it was the company, for the union finally called off the strike after more than four months and the desertion of 250 strikers back to their jobs. But rancor and bitterness persisted for years. Many observers of the time believed that the labor practices of the company, coupled with its alleged bribery and generally arrogant attitude, contributed to the movement for a new city-owned streetcar operation to provide some competition and to serve new neighborhoods underserved by URR. This movement, of course, was successful, resulting in the opening of the Municipal Railway in 1912.
The upper-floor door cut into Geneva Car House during the 1917 United Railroads strike, still in place today. Rick Laubscher photo.
There was another strike at URR in 1917, even more bitter if possible. It included the cutting of a door into the upper floor brickwork of the Geneva Car House to allow ‘scab’ workers domiciled there to reach their streetcars, whose windows were covered this time around by wire mesh, without having to walk past strikers on Geneva Avenue. That door, by the way, is still visible today from the ladder-track storage area next to the car barn building.
Perhaps the ultimate payback for all this came in 1944, when San Francisco voters finally approved a measure to buy the successor to URR—Market Street Railway Company, for which our organization is named—and consolidate it with Muni. Both organizations were Union Shops by this time.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about San Francisco’s streetcar labor history, Paul Trimble’s excellent article “Richard Cornelius, Division 205 and the Great URR Strike of 1907” is available in the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association Journal Number 2, for sale at the San Francisco Railway Museum. The journal also contains two other articles by Market Street Railway members on transportation to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and on why the Southern Pacific Railroad sold its interests in the first Market Street Railway Company.