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June 11, 2011 - by Victor J. Mobley.

BAY CITY'S LONG SUMMER: The Labor Strike of 1885.

Sage Mill along the west bank of Saginaw River in West Bay City.

In the second half of the 19th Century, Bay City was the lumber capital of the world. The booming lumber mills were providing Bay City with wealth and jobs and many people flocked to Bay City and West Bay City to make a living. Henry Sage and John McGraw came in the 1860s and built two enormous mills. Sage’s was nicknamed the “Monster in the Woods” until McGraw built the largest mill in the world in the 1870s.

Immigrants flooded Bay City from all over America, French Canada, and even Poland looking for work. Jobs in the mills were dangerous, and before long small strikes started breaking out as laborers tried to improve their working conditions. Most of the strikes were short-lived and were failures. Then, in 1870, a more serious strike shut down production in a few mills, signifying that the workers were becoming restless and unified. Deputy Sherriff Patrick Perrott led six other men against a rambunctious horde of fifteen hundred marching strikers.

Perrott, a brave man who was cool under pressure, walked his small band straight toward the marchers. He waited until the last possible minute to issue a single order to his companions: “For your lives stand closely together.” His men, including a lawyer named Lawrence McHugh, must have wondered how Perrott planned to hold off 1200 angry laborers, and they were soon to find out. Once the two sides grew closer to each other, one of the mill-workers tried to hit McHugh with a piece of siding, prompting Perrott to pull a pistol and declare loudly enough for the crowd to hear: “If you make any further resistance I will blow your head off.” Almost unbelievably, the crowd dispersed then and there, giving up thirty-five men to arrest.(1)

The 1870 strike drifted into memory and still the mill workers were unsatisfied. Over the years their mood grew worse, fifteen years later a devastating strike would hit Bay City because labor issues had been ignored for so long.

The mill workers worked long, hard, dangerous shifts. In 1885, mill hands lost around 25% of their pay from 1884, making only $1.77 a day.(2) There was a very good chance their wages would continue to drop in the future, so many adopted the motto “10 Hours or No Sawdust.” They were hoping for a shorter 10 hour workday without losing their rate of pay, something Michigan’s legislature had just made law. The new law wouldn’t go into effect until September, when the lumber mill jobs were done for the season, which was unacceptable to many of the workers.

Dolsenville - South of Woodside Ave.
Summer was in full swing when some of the mills temporarily shut down for maintenance on July 6th. Six or seven men from W.B. Rouse’s mill were walking past John McEwan’s mill in the French-Canadian part of town known as Dolsenville. One of the Rouse workers waved a handkerchief above his head and shouted “Hurrah for ten hours!” In a spontaneous reaction, the unhappy McEwan workers took to the streets. They marched from mill to mill, rallying more workers as they went.(3) The crowd had grown to around one hundred men when they arrived at the Eddy Bros. & Co. saw mill and tried to shut it down. The workers there refused to join the strike and the crowd went on to the next mill.

These early strikers were mostly immigrants of Polish, German, and French Canadian heritage. Early on the Poles appeared to be behind the recent action. Bay County Sherriff Martin Brennan said that “They were all sober. The leaders were generally Polanders, who were shoved to the front by their more cunning backers.” (4)

Madison Ave. Park
By the end of the first day the crowd had swelled to over four hundred men. They gathered at Madison Avenue Park to listen to several men who claimed leadership of the strike. One of them, D.C. Blinn would become the force behind the strike. He would be present at nearly all the major events and was constantly rallying his men. Blinn was a firebrand, the editor of a newspaper called the Labor Vindicator, and on that night he was calling for the men to shut down all of Bay City’s industries.

The crowd must have been energized, because the next day they used even more pressure. The workers at Pitts & Cranage had resisted them the day before, but now they stopped work and joined the ranks. As time went on the crowds became more aggressive and those still working began to worry about their safety. Many joined up, but later said they did so out of fear.

By July 8th their movement had doubled in size, now boasting eight hundred men. The growing mass was shutting down everything in their path, even Bay City’s pipe works.(5) By now the crowd was also armed, carrying clubs and even a few pistols. Sherriff Brennan warily eyed the crowds and tried to find a way to keep a lid on events. Brennan, Deputy Sherriff Perrott, Bay City Police Chief Nathaniel Murphy and nine others anxiously kept watch on the crowd and urged them to obey the laws.

The lawmen tried their best to stay ahead of the crowd, moving quickly to the next mill where the marchers were expected to arrive. Their numbers were small and they must have worried that there was little they could actually do to maintain order. This seemed especially true when the crowd’s anger finally burst at the mill of Hay, Butman & Co. on July 8th. The mob attacked workers and equipment and tried to interrupt business. During the riot the police sustained minor injuries but drove off the crowd. The police arrested three of the suspected ringleaders, but despite this the mill still closed down.

Chief Nathaniel Murphy, a “bull of a man,”(6) made matters worse when he struck one of the prisoners. He had restored some degree of law and order to “Hell’s Half Mile,” stopping the serious crime wave there with brute force. Rumors quickly spread that Murphy had killed the prisoner and the outraged crowds returned. They burned effigies of Murphy in the streets, gathered outside of the Bay City jail and demanded the release of the prisoners.

Mayor Shearer

Mortified, Mayor George H. Shearer (a supporter of the strike) made a crucial mistake. He ordered Sherriff Brennan to release the prisoners.(7) Brennan felt that giving in to the crowds would have a devastating effect, but he reluctantly did as he was told. He later declared that “the action by the mayor knocked the pluck all out of the police.”(8)

On the 9th, a politician from Saginaw who had been instrumental in getting the 10 hours law passed arrived in Bay City with a proposal. His name was T.B. Barry and at a meeting in Madison Avenue Park he invited five hundred strikers to help a sister strike in the two Saginaws a few miles south. The next day eight hundred and eighty men boarded barges and tugs. They were greeted in East Saginaw by a band and immediately set to work disrupting any mill they could find. They caused such a ruckus that the mayors of the two Saginaws wanted to request a Gatling gun and four militia companies from Governor Alger to keep order.(9) Despite promises that they would keep the peace, the strikers were waving clubs, siding and other weapons. They threatened any workers who refused to strike. The police could only follow the crowd and try to head them off at the next mill.

The drama reached a crescendo at N. & A. Barnard’s mill in East Saginaw. One hundred strikers assaulted the gates and forced their way in and someone fired a pistol at the foreman. The foreman was beaten relentlessly before he could be pulled to safety.(10) By the end of the day the strikers returned to Bay City and the town awaited their next move.

A meeting was scheduled between Blinn and the mill owners. On July 11th, the New York Times reported that “It is generally expected that the meeting to-morrow between the mill owners and the strikers’ committee will settle matters amicably. It is now quiet as Sunday here.”(11) At the meeting Blinn demanded the ten hour work day without loss of pay and was roundly rejected. The mill owners were not about to let a mob interfere in the handling of their private businesses.(12) Then the Knights of Labor, easily the strongest labor organization in the Saginaw Valley, tried to take control of the strike and sideline Blinn. They approached Sherriff Brennan and requested to be deputized to help control the strike. Brennan warily agreed with the stipulation that they obey his orders and protect private property under any circumstance. Uninterested, the Knights of Labor refused and the idea died.(13)

Disappointment spread through the ranks, and the hot Bay City summer continued on. Despite their best efforts, the Knights of Labor couldn’t put Blinn down. He remained one of the focal points of the strike and was in the thick of things throughout the whole summer, except for a brief imprisonment.

Small reports of violence at various mills continued to roll in to Sherriff Brennan. Unable to get weapons from Governor Alger to deputize many locals, Brennan’s hands were tied. The mill owners called in the notorious Pinkerton detectives to provide security at the mills, but this move was met with outcry throughout Bay City. They didn’t stay long and only a couple of days later Governor Alger, a lumberman himself, arrived in Bay City to discuss the crisis and address the community.

Many of the local politicians actually supported the strike. The mill owners wanted troops, but Brennan was reluctant to make the situation worse. His concerns were ignored by Governor Alger, who agreed to call in some militia to keep order. These arrived on July 15th and only stayed a couple of days.

The Saginaw strike faded away quickly, but in Bay City the issue continued to smolder throughout the summer. In the Saginaws, the strikers realized that they had to return to work or else everyone would begin to suffer. The strike there petered out before too long, but in Bay City the mill hands continued to hold out.

The strike continued into August, but as time went on more mills re-opened and people went back to work. There was hope that the worst was over and Bay City could return to normal. Employers were welcoming the strikers back at their old wages with promises to honor the 10 hour work day in September. Many strikers abandoned the cause because their jobs were being outsourced to Saginaw and they feared losing them forever. One laborer said that “if the men who talked this strike up would [quit] and leave us alone, we would be able to go to work very soon.” The mill owners agreed. They said their workers were good men who were riled up by politicians and that there was no ill-will toward their employees.

Eddy Bros. mill - Belinda St.
But on August 6th the peace was again broken. Two hundred strikers marched again on the Eddy Bros. mill and threatened to shut it down, ignoring orders from the police to leave. In the fight that ensued, Sherriff Brennan sustained a minor injury and nine strikers were arrested.(14) The movement was running on fumes now and the strikers were hitting out desperately to keep it going. But the assault on Eddy Bros. failed and “Ten Hours or No Sawdust” burned out before it was accomplished. By early September the strike was finished. Bay City was tired, prices were rising and the owners were eager to re-open their mills. The strikers gained nothing from their efforts. The law went into effect as planned, and the mill owners actually benefitted from the work stoppage. They needed a few months of no work to help balance their finance books.

The drama was finished by September and things had finally returned to normal. The long Bay City summer was at an end.

List of Sources:

  • Arndt, Leslie E. By These Waters: A Bicentennial Year Souvenir. Bay City, MI: The Bay City Times, 1976.
  • Kilar, Jeremy W. “Community and Authority Response to the Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike of 1885.” Journal of Forest History 20, no. 2 (April, 1976): 68-77.
  • “Some Reminiscences Attorney McHugh Tells of the Late P.J. Perrot.” The Bay City Tribune, April 21, 1895: 7.
  • “The Striking Lumbermen.” The New York Times, July 11, 1885.
  • Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics. 1886. Thorpe and Godfrey, State Printers and Binders.

Reference Notes:

  • 1 The Bay City Tribune, “Some Reminiscences Attorney McHugh Tells of the Late P. J. Perrott,” Sunday April 21, 1895, pp. 7.
  • 2 Kilar, Jeremy W., “Community and Authority Response to the Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike of 1885,” Journal of Forest History 20, no. 2 (April 1976), pp. 68
  • 3 Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, (Thorpe and Godfrey, State Printers and Binders, 1886), 93.
  • 4 Ibid., 94.
  • 5 Ibid., 94.
  • 6 Arndt, Leslie, By These Waters: A Bicentennial Year Souvenir (Bay City: The Bay City Times, 1976), 78.
  • 7 Kilar, 69.
  • 8 Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, 98.
  • 9 Ibid., 98.
  • 10 Ibid., 99.
  • 11 “The Striking Lumbermen,” The New York Times, July 11, 1885.
  • 12 Kilar, 72.
  • 13 Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, 95.
  • 14 Kilar, 77.

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