The Muskegon Streetcar Riot of 1919

Americans like to riot, for better or worse. Better when there’s a just cause, worse when it’s over sports, or pumpkins. With mass media though, a single burning gas station can be looped for hours, giving the impression of mass chaos, as was the case in Baltimore, when in fact that uprising was timid in comparison to, say, the LA Riots of 1992.

Historically, America used to riot a lot more often than today. Usually it was over race, and most of the those were started by white supremacists like in 1943 Detroit. Others were labor riots stemming from strikes, usually after police would violently break picket lines, like they did in Chicago’s 1937 Memorial Day massacre when cops murdered 10 unarmed workers.

In recent years we’ve seen protesters, especially via Black Lives Matter, target the commercial chokepoints of urban freeways. Block six lanes in both directions on your typical 405 and you can bring a city to its knees.

The same went for streetcars back in the day. From 1890 to 1930, streetcars were the dominant travel mode for the urban working class. Striking factory workers could block vital track lines in a city, effectively creating a general strike for an entire town by preventing all from getting to work. This was also an effective way of blocking scabs and other strike breakers from crossing picket lines.

Date Created/Published: [no date recorded on caption card] - Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Bain Collection - Reproduction number: LC-DIG-ggbain-50017 (digital file from original negative) - Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
Cleveland streetcar strike, tracks blocked, year unknown.
In fact, sabotaging streetcars was a fundamental practice in virtually all labor strikes of the era. From Wikipedia: “Unlike factory buildings, streetcar routes and cars were spread out and difficult to protect. Routes went through working class neighborhoods, and riders tended to be sympathetic to union causes. Their function as transportation for workers in other industries opened the possibility of leveraging a transit strike into a general strike, as in the Philadelphia trolley strike and riots of 1910.”

Usually such sabotage was temporary. Once a strike was over, streetcars would be repaired and returned to service.

This was not the case in the lumber town of Muskegon, Michigan in 1919.

Angered that the Muskegon Transit & Lighting Co. was once again raising their fares, on the night of August 5th a mob of about 1,000 workers and residents decided they’d had enough. Ignoring warning shots fired by an ultimately impotent police response, the mob proceeded to smash out the windows of over a dozen streetcars.

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Realizing this level of damage could easily be repaired, the crowd decided it would start rolling the cars down a hill into one another. The result was a fantastic pile of smashed and overturned streetcars unlike any seen before or since. A total of 13 streetcars were wrecked, roughly half the fleet, totaling over $100,000 in damages at the time, or about $1.5 million in today’s money.

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From “It was a violent reaction that had been brewing since 1912, when the company began raising its fares. At a time when the average annual wage was $750, a couple of 6-cent street car rides to work each day ate up $31.20 over the course of a year – more than 4% of a factory worker’s income. Increasing the fare by a penny meant a pay cut of a further half a percent.

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Compare this today where automobile ownership swallows as much as 40% of a low wage worker’s earnings. Yet we’ve never before seen a mass disruption on a freeway over the cost of cars themselves.

Today, public transportation is respected by both urbanists and the working class. I couldn’t imagine anyone deliberately destroying an entire bus or streetcar as was done a century ago. Still, similar issues of injustice have seen protesters block transit lines, and even use buses to effectively block travel lanes for automobiles.

Hopefully we’ll keep moving cities towards a place where we drive less, and take transit more. If there’s a riot, for better or worse, let the masses block modes of transit that are at least efficient for urban use.

See you in the streets.