A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: The 1894 railroad strike in Ludlow proved disastrous for workers and the city

By Dave Schroeder
Special to NKyTribune

Northern Kentucky at one time had a very strong labor movement. Manufacturing and railroads were a strong element in the Northern Kentucky economy, even in small towns like Ludlow. Ludlow prospered throughout the 1870s and 1880s. The economic depression of 1893, however, brought much of this prosperity to a halt on the national level. Large corporations began to cut their work forces and reduce wages. Unemployment rose dramatically.

Two of Ludlow’s biggest employers were the Southern Railroad and the Pullman Car Repair Shops. Both of these companies took steps to reduce costs. The average Pullman employee had his wages reduced by 25%. Not able to meet the needs of their families or pay their mortgages, these employees went on strike on May 10, 1894 in Chicago. On the following day, George M. Pullman was forced to close his Chicago plant. At first, the Pullman employees in Ludlow continued to work. Pullman workers, however, were members of the American Railway Union (ARU), which represented over 150,000 railroad workers across the country.

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In late June, ARU officials encouraged the 136 employees of the Ludlow Pullman shops to strike. By June 25, 1894, 67 of the 136 shop workers were out on strike. In the following days, many more Ludlow employees walked off their jobs. George M. Pullman refused to back down. Many employees of the Southern Railroad in Ludlow, and other Northern Kentucky railroads, also went on strike.

On June 1, Southern Railroad workers held a meeting Ludlow. “It was decided by the engine drivers and their firemen by an almost unanimous vote not to work with nonunion men, and if the company insisted on forcing them to do so, to leave their engines and become part of the great boycott.” Eventually, the ARU declared a general strike. This strike crippled the national railroad system.

Hundreds of Ludlow families were without an income. Officials of the Southern Railroad hired replacement workers to keep the railroad in operation, and also acquired a corps of federal marshals to patrol the Ludlow yards. On July 4, “Twenty-two additional guards were marched into the Ludlow yards of the Cincinnati Southern Railway last evening. They were from the Miller Detective Agency and are special police. They will however, cooperate with the United Sates Deputy Marshals.”

The residents of Ludlow were not pleased with the presence of the marshals in town.

“There is in Ludlow a strong feeling against permitting the deputies to patrol its streets with Winchester rifles conspicuously displayed. The strike leaders declare that the sight of the weapons seems to enrage the men.”

Ludlow was on edge and city officials feared violence could erupt at any time. This feeling was only heightened when Ludlow resident Edward Glenn was arrested on July 10 for interfering with the non-union men working on the Southern. Frank Farrell and Ben Bodkin were also arrested under similar charges. Bail was set at $500.

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Many Ludlow strikers believed men were being held on unsubstantiated charges. As a result, Ludlow residents began wearing white ribbons on their clothing to declare their support for the strikers.

In July 1894, President Cleveland sent federal troops to stop destruction of property and violence in Chicago. On July 7, the federal troops were attacked and responded with gunfire. At least 7 strikers were killed and more than 20 were injured. Violence in Chicago greatly concerned strikers in Ludlow. On the day the strikers were killed in Chicago, large crowds of Ludlow residents congregated on Elm Street in front of the Odd Fellow’s Hall.

The Kentucky Post sent messengers to Ludlow with news of the Chicago events. These reports were posted on a board set up in front of the hall. Officials from the Ludlow ARU No. 352 promised city officials that the strikers would remain peaceful. Ludlow’s ARU Committee included Patrick J. Lean, Louis A. Poliquin and John Driscoll. Poliquin was an important leader in the union. A Ludlow resident who lived at 24 Forest Avenue and a fireman on the Southern, Poliquin served as secretary of the American Railway Union Local #352.

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Enthusiasm for the strike began to decline in mid-July. A number of Ludlow workers began returning to their jobs. A large ARU meeting was conducted in Ludlow’s Odd Fellow’s Hall on July 12, 1894. A national ARU representative forcefully denounced Ludlow strikers who had returned to work. The rally did little to bolster the hopes of the strikers. Their enthusiasm was further reduced by the ability of the Southern Railroad to continue operation. Trains were running on time despite the strike using non-union labor.

By early August 1894, Ludlow Mayor R.H. Fleming began encouraging all the strikers to return to work. Many chose to do so. Returning to work, however, would not be an easy task. The Southern, and most other railroads, refused to hire back many of their former employees. This was done as a punishment and as a deterrent to any future strikes. Former Southern employees hired Covington lawyer William Goebel to file suit against the company. The former strikers claimed they had been blacklisted. Legal action proved unsuccessful and a number of the Ludlow strikers lost their homes. Many were forced to find work in other cities.

Mayor Fleming stated, “Over one hundred families, besides a number of unmarried men, who derived a livelihood from the railroad company, but who were refused reinstatement in their former positions, have moved away from the city.” He continued, “During and following the strike our building associations were drained by withdrawals, over $75,000 being thus laid out.”

The above is an excerpt from, Life along the Ohio: A Sesquicentennial History of Ludlow, Kentucky 1864-2014, by David E. Schroeder (Milford OH: Little Miami Press, 2014).

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