TACOMA, Wash – July 13, 1935 — “Scores nursed hurts from rocks, rifle butts, staves, and bayonets today after riotous street fighting precipitated by the prolonged pacific [sic] northwest lumber strike.
Six persons were seriously injured before national guardsmen quelled with tear and nausea gas a melee in which nearly 1,000 strike sympathizers participated for four hours. At least 40 of the demonstrators were arrested and hustled off in national guard trucks while scores more, including sympathizers and spectators, were affected by the gas which the flooded federal building and adjacent office structures.
This six most seriously injured were John Miller, about 35, head injury; Will Jones, 39, possible skull fracture; Clifford Stevens, 27, a striker, cut on the head with bayonet; R.W. Wayson, spectator, bad gash on head; and Ernest Wehlacher, spectator, cut on head…
The rioting began late in the day when a big crowd attempted to push by national guardsmen across the 11th Street bridge, leading from the business district to the mill area.”
(Associated Press Report)
Depression and Disappointment
The summer of 1935 gripped Tacoma in a frenzy of unrest. Thousands regularly took to the streets in protest of labor disparities, leading to the deployment of National Guard troops. Tear gas was used liberally. Citizens and policemen traded blows on 11th Street and on the deck of the lift bridge we now know as the Murray Morgan Bridge. Meanwhile, the lumber mills lining the city waterway ran on shoestring capacity, or not at all.
The United States was in the most pitiful depths of the Great Depression that year, and misery was widespread. Workers all over the country organized for better pay and more reasonable working conditions, meeting with stiff opposition from industrialists and the government. There were even rumors that President Roosevelt was whispering to his inner circle of martial law.
By the spring of 1935, over 17,000 lumber workers in the Puget Sound region had walked away from the mills in protest. Millions of dollars per month in lost profits added desperate urgency to resolve the strike, but political machinations delayed the settlement. According to newspapers of the time, somewhere between 35,000 to 40,000 Northwest lumber workers would join the strike within a few short months.
In Tacoma, approximately 2,000 workers joined the strike in late spring. At issue were the all too familiar issues of minimum wage, holiday pay, and safe working hours.
Two years earlier, President Roosevelt signed the National Recovery Act (NRA) Lumber Code, which stipulated $0.42 minimum hourly wage, and a 40-hour work week. The Northwest lumber unions, chock-full of openly Communist elements, felt these terms were inadequate. In the spring of 1935, they attempted to bargain with lumber and mill companies for a $0.75 minimum hourly wage, a seniority system, paid holidays, and a 6-hour work day.
The labor struggles over such issues in the Northwest at that time echoed the efforts of workers all around the country, exacerbated by deep antipathy from governments and police forces troubled both by the communist affiliations of the movements and the strain strikes put on an already depressed economy.
Roots of a Riot
Negotiations dragged on, and union infighting was rampant. Compromises were attempted, but the only lumber coming out of most Puget Sound mills in May and June of 1935 was cut by imported “scab” workers. Striking workers harassed these laborers with harsh reprisal from local law enforcement, which is what ultimately sparked the days of rioting in Tacoma.
There was a certain historic precedent to the July riots. This was not the first time labor-related violence shook Tacoma, nor was it the first time it had erupted on 11th Street.
In July of 1916, a striking longshoreman was killed by a bullet in the back during a chaotic riot at 11th Street and Pacific Avenue. The Spokane Daily Chronicle reported, “After being struck on the head by a club and grabbed by longshoremen, J. Dowling, a special officer, fired upon his assailants, hitting Alexander Laidlaw, a striker, in the back.” The riot quickly got further out of hand, with policemen arresting both strikers and deputies amid gunfire and fistfights in the shadows of the city’s business district.
Despite the violence and lack of adequate policing, the longshoreman strike riots of 1916 did not grab the attention of the state or federal government the way the lumber workers’ strike did.
When the National Guard was sent to Tacoma in June of 1935, they were tasked with the protection of workers who wished to break strike and return to work. The bridge at 11th Street was key to that effort, since it was the main arterial from downtown to the mill district.
The Guard even went to the trouble of installing a machine gun – yes, a machine gun – on the bridge. National Guard troops were only in town for one day before they were attacked by a crowd of 2,000 strikers and sympathizers on Pacific Avenue. The demonstrators were driven away by clouds of “nausea gas” (also referred to as “vomiting gas”) and tear gas.
From that day forward, clashes were not uncommon, escalating to riots. An article that week in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer stated that Tacoma was “under virtual martial law.”
The July 12 Riot
On the evening of July 12, a crowd journalists estimated to number as many as 5,000 men and women gathered on the 11th Street bridge to prevent those who had broken strike from returning home after work. They stopped the 11th Street streetcar line and blocked lumber trucks. The mayhem that followed strains credulity.
The Waycross Journal-Herald painted a vivid picture of the scene.
The crowd scattered momentarily after the tear gas attack, but returned as soon as the wind blew the gas away. The gas attacks were repeated without success. Finally, the soldiers abandoned the bombs in favor of their bayonets and long clubs.
The demonstrators gave way slowly. Waving American flags in the face of the militiamen, many of the crowd demanded that the soldiers doff their helmets. The crowd was pushed back to the business district where the demonstrators stood their ground and started hand-to-hand fighting with the militia.
An inflationary bomb was tossed into a National guard truck. The flames damaged the truck. Another demonstrator threw a bottle of amonia among the guardsmen and another played an impromptu game of catch with a guardsman, a tear gas bomb their ball. The soldier lost the game when the bomb exploded near him in a blinding cloud of gas.
Every newspaper of the day seemed to have a different perspective on the events of July 12th, with wildly varying counts of total participants. The events were too dangerous and wild for any one reporter to accurately witness and relate.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the riot began innocuously with an unpermitted parade between 10th and 11th streets along Pacific Avenue. The police attempted to direct traffic around the group, which included women and children, but could not persuade them to disperse. The crowd was so noisy, court proceedings in the Federal Building were nearly inaudible to the lawyers in the chamber.
As mill workers attempted to cross the bridge to return home, the size of the crowd at least doubled – swelling from 1,000 to somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 participants and onlookers. Some demonstrators tried to pull drivers out of their vehicles to accost them.
When the National Guard troopers began to hurl tear gas bombs, the wind picked up and largely drove the fumes off the street. Men in the crowd quickly learned that they could scoop the cannisters off the ground with their hats and lob them back at the guardsmen, or simply kick them like soccer balls. Several troopers began to feel ill from the effects.
A showboating young gent with blonde hair sauntered to the front of the rioting crowd and stood with his nose to the Guards’ bayonets. He was joined by a young woman, and the two taunted the troops while waving flags. But the troopers were losing patience – the tear gas had not fractured the crowd as planned. The boy and girl with their flags were driven back into the crowd as the troopers began to advance, with rifles swinging.
Reinforcements arrived just in time to help the guardsmen prevent another bridge blockade attempt later that night.
After this particularly troubling incident, the National Guard declared that Tacoma would be put under official martial law within days. The City Council acted swiftly to avoid this, enacting an ordinance prohibiting street assemblies – as if that would do anything to stop people who had dared to battle federal troops.
The Post-Intelligencer solemnly declared Tacoma to be “on the brink of civil war” – striking workers taking up arms against mill management and those who could no longer afford to go without work. Animosity ran so deep, at least one residence was attacked with a tear gas bomb through the front window. Someone tried to use dynamite to blow up a tram line electric tower on the tideflats near the port. There were reports of at least one drive-by shooting.
One last attempt at mass demonstration was attempted on July 15, but the group quickly fell to pieces when one of the rioters was killed by the National Guard.
Unbelievably, the council’s emergency ordinance was eventually effective, after nearly 8 weeks of riots, demonstrations and violence. Rioting ended and workers began to return to the mills with disgruntled resignation. Tacoma had avoided falling under martial law, but only by the skin of its teeth.
When the strike officially ended on August 5, contemporary estimates suggested it had cost the lumber industry $10 million. In today’s dollars, that would be about $170 million, with just over half that much in lost wages.
In the end, the unions agreed to a $0.50 minimum wage and a 40 hour work week, but no seniority system or paid holidays.
Many things have changed since 1935, but the history is still fresh. Tacoma is still a city of labor and industry. The buildings and curbsides from which curious sailors watched as the riots unfolded on the street look much the same; and, of course, the bridge where it all took place still spans the Foss Waterway.
Soon, the 11th Street Bridge, which has been closed to traffic since 2007, will reopen. When our tires hit that riddled concrete deck, they will send vibrations through the steel – the same steel that supported a machine gun emplacement and the same rivets that held up 5,000 demonstrators on a summer day in 1935.
Once, that bridge was obscured by a haze of tear gas plumes. Now, its black sheen reflects the moonlight and warns us against believing for a moment that our history is far behind us.
If the bridge is still here, what else has lingered through the seven short decades since? How has the past lead inexorably to the shape of the present? Just as that bridge served as the pathway between the city’s business district and its booming mills, it now links us to our past in a way few other structures ever could, as if asking Tacoma, “What is our business, and what does our history mean?”
These vital questions seem to go disconcertingly unanswered lately. When we are on the other side of these days of uncertainty, perhaps we will have regrets and perhaps we will hear the echoes of unexplored potential. But we will not regret protecting our history – because, who knows, maybe we will learn something from it this time.
[Note: The sources used for this article were primarily the newspapers of the day. Some inconsistencies in sequences of events, counts or figures may exist.]