The Fourth of July, 1894, in Bloomington, Illinois was more than fire works. The community was at a transportation bottleneck as the Pullman boycott reached throughout the Midwest, leaving fifteen passenger trains stranded at the Bloomington, Illinois Chicago & Alton Railroad Depot.
In the photo's left is the wood framed Chicago & Alton Depot on West Chestnut Street; in the background to the upper left are the main repair Shops of the C&A, where hundreds of skilled railroad shop workers labored. To the right is the West Chestnut Street commercial district that catered to travelers and railroaders, which included a hotel, library and various restaurants and bars.
Filling almost every available track space are open vestibule wooden passenger cars, moving no where because of the work stoppage. On a warm July day men are walking the platforms, some in shirt sleeves, some with dark coats on, along with a few female travelers in period dress. The air might have taken on quite an interesting aroma, as to the north a trainload of refrigerated cars full of meat were stranded. As the ice melted, the rotting meat added a strong smell to the surroundings. Some trains did run out of Bloomington, as railroad management carried Illinois militia units from Bloomington and other communities northward to protect railroad property in Joliet and Chicago. Bloomington's militia was assigned to guard the Chicago stockyards.
The stranded travelers from the 15 trains were not totally ignored. The recently organized Bloomington Trades & Labor Assembly, a consortium of local unions, transported the travelers to the fairgrounds that evening, so they could share in the local Fourth of July festivities.
The Pullman show down began in Chicago when Eugene V. Debs and his newly organized multi-craft labor organization, the American Railway Union, agreed to support striking Pullman Palace Car Company strikers by boycotting any train that carried a Pullman car on it. Pullman workers, who built passenger cars, were upset when their pay was cut in the 1893 economic downturn, but not the rents they had to pay for company owned homes. Chicago's General Managers' Association banded together and brought federal intervention against the boycott by coupling Pullman cars to mail trains, thus claiming "interference with the federal mails." State militias and federal troops were mobilized nationally to suppress the boycott and allow trains to move again; federal troops violently confronted angry strikers and supporters in Chicago.
The Bloomington railroaders' support for the Pullman strike had a distinctly local motivation. On June 26, 1894, C&A Superintendent W.E. Gray had fired two brakeman and a conductors. W.C. Lynch, a former C&A brakeman and now an ARU organizer, came to town and organized a new chapter of the ARU, urging workers to tie up the C&A and demand reinstatement of the three fired workers. The rail workers telegraphed their distinctive crafts -- Order of Railway Conductors (ORC), Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (BRT) -- to see whether or not they should support the boycott. The response from the BLE was characterized as "lukewarm." Railroad shop workers, whose labor organizations were much weaker than the operating crafts, supported the effort.
The Trades & Labor held a mass rally to support the Pullman strike on July 6 at Schroeder's Opera House in downtown Bloomington, also asking for the removal of C&A superintendent Gray and reinstatement of the fired three workers. Despite this brave front, the Locomotive Engineers and the Fireman's lodges made their peace with Gray on July 8. The BLE had counseled its local lodges not to support the Pullman strike. These two crafts returned to work. 65 U.S. marshals were in town, accompanying each train out. Switchmen, brakemen and shop workers then scrambled to reclaim their jobs. A C&A official proclaimed, "We're going to be rigorous in taking these men back.... Those who have been the greatest agitators can hardly hope for sympathy."
Local unions took one last shot at what they considered a betrayal by the BLE. The Trades & Labor passed a resolution, saying the BLE had "shown that lack of brotherly feeling and good judgement... We condemn the action of these brotherhoods in this struggle.... They have proven themselves treacherous to the aims of organized labor."
PHOTO: McLean County Historical Society