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Our Rich History: Cincinnati in 1894 — Fry’s Army (passes through) and a major economic depression

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

The sounds and smells of manufacturing still enveloped the city of Cincinnati and its Northern Kentucky suburbs in 1894. Some 100,000 people worked in the city’s industries, producing over $220,000,000 in products each year (“Queen, Indeed! Is Cincinnati among the Fair Cities of the Great Southwest,” Cincinnati Post, 5 January 1894. p. 1).

Fry’s Army in Cincinnati. From the Cincinnati Post, 20 April 1894, p. 6.

Topping the list of manufactured goods were: clothing; buggies and carriages; candles and soap; distilled spirits; malt liquors; furniture; safes and bank locks; boots and shoes; books and newspapers; leather; and building materials.

The statistics, however, were based primarily on census and other data from 1890-92. And much had changed in the intervening years. In 1893, a deep and long-lived economic depression hit the United States. Despite the downturn, Cincinnatians continued building projects in 1894, including the new Rawson Building on the northeast corner of Fourth and Elm Streets, and the Oddfellows Temple, on the northwest corner of Seventh and Elm Streets.

Yet, no one knows how many residents of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky were still suffering from the prolonged effects of the Panic of 1893 that changed the very course of American history. So many people were unemployed, up to 20% nationwide, that clearly something larger than the earlier economic downturns seemed to be at play. For the first time in American history, major protest movements — in the form of industrial “armies” — traveled to Washington, D.C. to demand change.

Colonel Thomas Galvin. From the Cincinnati Post, 20 April 1894, p. 1.

On Friday, April 20, 1894, 210 men of “Fry’s Army” arrived in Cincinnati, aboard a freight train that left their prior stopping point, Cochran, Indiana, at 5:30 in the morning. They disembarked and set up camp near the railroad tracks. Cincinnati policemen awaited to arrest their leader, Colonel Thomas Galvin.

Galvin hailed from Los Angeles, California, where he was left unemployed by the Panic of 1893. The initial leader of the group, however, was General Lewis C. Fry, a member of the American Federation of Labor and also of the Socialist Labor Party of America. Fry and 600 men departed Los Angeles in March 1894. They crossed over the Arizona Territory, then proceeded through Texas, where Governor James Stephen Hogg intervened to assure their release from the hands of Southern Pacific Railroad officials. Eventually, they traveled through Arkansas to St Louis, Missouri, and then to Vandalia, Illinois.

At Vandalia, Fry’s Army split into two, representing separate ideological factions. Colonel Thomas Galvin, a Populist, led over 200 men east across Indiana to Ohio.

Quartermaster Joseph Beasely. From the Cincinnati Post, 20 April 1894, p. 6.

Colonel Galvin and Quartermaster Joseph Beasely were taken before Colonel Philip Deitsch, superintendent of the Cincinnati Police. Galvin explained that all of the men were law-abiding American citizens, heading to Washington, D.C. to “call the attention of Congress to the condition of the American workingmen, and demand employment” (“They Are Gone. The Advance Guard of Frye’s [sic] Army,” Cincinnati Post, 20 April 1894, p. 1).

Next, Galvin and Beasely appeared before Cincinnati Mayor John B. Mosby. There, Galvin complained that the nation’s economic problems were “the natural result of laws passed for 20 years past. Both parties are managed by capital” (p. 6).

Like many Americans, Galvin viewed the large railroad corporations as rapacious monopolies. Referring to his home state, he related that California “raises an abundance of fruit and grapes every year, they rot because there are not enough people there to consume them; while the poor in the East go hungry, because private monopolies want so large a profit on operating railroads that we can not [sic] ship them. The Australian Government owns and operates its own railroads, and so should the American Government.” (p. 6)

In Cochran, Indiana, Fry’s Army expressed their disgruntlement and their demand for change in a series of resolutions stating their rationale and their goals:

The new Rawson Building, northeast corner of Fourth and Elm Streets, Cincinnati. From the Cincinnati Post, 5 January 1894. p. 1.

“Why is it that those who produce food are hungering?

Why is it that those who make clothes are ragged?

Why is it that those who build palaces are houseless?

Why is it that those who do the Nation’s work are forced to choose between beggary, crime or suicide when the Nation has enough fertile soil to produce plenty of food and all the necessities of life?

We demand that the Government furnish work for all the unemployed, prohibit foreign immigration for 10 years and allow no alien to own real estate in the United States.” (p. 6)

Although Mayor Mosby initially refused to let Fry’s Army proceed through the city, he relented, and the city even gave them a wagonload of groceries.

Escorted by Cincinnati police, Fry’s Army eventually marched up Spring Grove Avenue to Ivorydale, where they fixed their dinner, and planned to hop freight trains of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to Pittsburgh, on their way to Washington, D.C.

There, along with Coxey’s Army and other organized protestors, they met with opposition and frustration.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of Our Rich History, Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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