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Our Rich History: ‘Gray-eyed mountaineers with rifles’ — The Newport Steel Strike of 1921-1922

“Gray-Eyed Mountaineers with Rifles:” The Newport Steel Strike of 1921-1922

By Margo Warminski
Special to NKyTribune

Part 43 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

On November 11, 1918, fighting on land, sea and air ended between the Allies and their opponent, Germany. While the signing of the Armistice brought peace to warring nations, it left the United States’ industrial sector with a temporary problem: excess production capacity. “Steel companies faced enormous competitive pressures as national output plummeted from 31,156,000,000 tons in 1918 to 14,774,000,000 tons in 1921” (Thomas L. Purvis, ed., Newport, Kentucky: A Bicentennial History. Newport, KY.: Otto Zimmerman & Son, 1996, p. 168).

The owners of the Newport Rolling Mill, and its affiliated company Andrews Steel, decided to reduce overhead by decreasing the average wage of workers to 28 cents per hour, which had been the usual pay for American manufacturing workers as recently as 1915. Management argued that employees were currently earning 4% to 28% more (or one to eight cents) than prewar wages in the steel industry, without making any offsetting benefits in productivity. The owners also insisted that their plants be organized on an open shop principle, where employees were not required to join a union.

Contract negotiations failed. After Andrews Steel President William N. Andrews told his union counterpart to “go to Hell,” the union called a strike in November 1921 (Purvis, p. 169). On November 30th, the owners issued an ultimatum: They insisted on an open shop and fired any employee who spurned the new wage. In response, “a thousand workers capitulated, and another thousand took to the picket lines” (Purvis, p. 169).

Strike sympathizers and soldiers, Newport Steel Strike, December 1921. (Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.)

“The union’s failure to remain united left the community torn between the pragmatists who kept working and the hard-liners who fought to the end.” The strike involved one of every five men in Newport’s labor force of about 10,000 adult males. “Longstanding friendships dissolved, neighborhoods split into factions, and even families tore apart. Men who had rubbed shoulders for years suddenly found themselves enemies as the city teetered on the brink of violence” (Purvis, p. 169).

“Strikers began a campaign of harassment to intimidate workers into staying home.” Marchers on the picket lines “openly brandished revolvers and plant guards toted machine guns while patrolling their barricades” (Purvis, p. 169). The home of one prominent company supervisor burned down under mysterious circumstances. “Management hired a private security force, whom Frank Andrews, Jr., remembered as ‘gray-eyed mountaineers with rifles,’ and purchased thirty-six machine guns in case they needed extra firepower” (Purvis, p. 169).

On December 18th, “union stalwarts” fired on cars carrying workers to the mills. On the 19th, strikers began shooting out the rolling mill’s windows, and “President William N. Andrews blazed back at them with his own rifle.” Strikers shot out the windows of President Andrews’ Newport home; his children and their nanny hid under a bed “listening to glass panes shatter throughout the mansion.” A torchlight mob marched up Waterworks Road toward other Andrews family homes but retreated when confronted by “armed Ft. Thomas citizens” near the reservoir (Purvis, p. 169).

It is not surprising that for weeks, the strike dominated the front page of The Kentucky Post, sometimes to the point of crowding out almost all other news. On December 22, 1921, the paper displayed the following banner headline: “Newport’s Strike—The Public’s Interest—The Solution.” The editors proclaimed their support for the union, stating that “This newspaper believes the open shop not only is bad for workers in a given industry, but is bad for a community in general, in the end bad for employers. But regardless of whether one feels that the company or the men are responsible for this situation, all of us will agree that steps should be taken to bring it to an end.” The situation was untenable, with the “chief industry of the city” idle. “Families of men on strike,” the Kentucky Post continued, “are suffering from loss of income to buy food and clothes” (“Newport’s Strike—The Public’s Interest—The Solution,” The Kentucky Post, December 22, 1921, p. 1).

The newspaper’s editors proposed that the mayor “should call a meeting with representatives from both sides. Out of this meeting should be appointed a body which will represent both sides…. It is no visionary idea that prompts this suggestion. It is a workable plan that has demonstrated its success in other controversies where resort to firearms or other weapons of violence has failed . . .” (“Newport’s Strike, p. 1).

Meanwhile, the city’s commissioner of public safety, Christopher Ebert, assured Kentucky Governor Edwin P. Morrow that everything was under control—“The situation is well taken care of,” he wrote in a letter, “and every effort to forestall further disorder will be exercised.” Likewise, a union representative declared that prohibition laws were being abided by: “If any of the several hundred men doing picket duty are found to be drinking, it is the duty of the picket officer to send those men home” (Strike Zone Quiet,” The Kentucky Post, December 22, 1921, p. 1).

It was merely a calm before the storm, however. On Friday evening, December 23rd, the steel mill turned its searchlight on Brighton Street. Shots fired out, and both strikers and residents sought shelter. “Bullets whined viciously down Ninth-st from the direction of the plant, perforating houses in the neighborhood” (“State Troops Stop Battle in Newport Strike Zone,” The Kentucky Post, December 24, 1921, p. 1). Kentucky state troopers attempted to keep the situation at bay, but it proved too much.

On Saturday, December 24th — the day before Christmas — Governor Morrow dispatched 200 National Guard troops to Newport, a force that was increased to 330 four days later. That evening, the only fatality of the prolonger steel strike occurred when Robert Deaton, a 20-year-old guardsman from Barboursville, Kentucky, was accidentally killed when a fellow soldier fainted, fell into Deaton, and knocked Deaton’s firearm from its holster, which then dropped to the ground and discharged (“Soldier Killed: Barboursville Youth, on Newport Strike Duty, Meets Death when Gun is Dropped,” The Kentucky Post, December 26, 1921, p. 1).

On December 26th, a “truce was declared” and “quiet reign[ed] in the strike zone” as militia upheld the rights of strike pickets, including the right to meet in the small huts constructed around the mills (“Quiet Reigns in Strike Zone, Truce Declared: Militia Upholds Rights of Strike Pickets, Bunking is Tabooed, Strikers Have Right to Meet in Huts,” The Kentucky Post, December 26, 1921, p. 1).

At the same time, however, troops were building barracks around the strike zone, digging in for an anticipated “long stay in Newport.” “Indications are we’re going to be here for some time,” Col. H. H. Denhardt, the commanding officer, said. “We are going to stay until the local authorities enforce the law, something they have not been doing” (“Strike Settlement Debated as Troops Build Barracks for Long Stay in Newport,” The Kentucky Post, December 28, 1921, p. 1). Denhardt claimed that no martial law would be declared in Newport, even if the entire city was placed under military guard.

At the same time, The Kentucky Post expressed “hope for an early settlement between the Newport Rolling Mill Company and its striking employees,” following a meeting on Tuesday evening, December 27th at the First Baptist Church at Eighth and York Streets. “W.N. Andrews, official of the company, and Edward W. Miller, president-elect of Local No. 5, Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, the principal speakers at the meeting, presented their arguments” to the public. Rev. W.B. Harvey, pastor of First Baptist, commented that “If I understand the speakers, there is only a little difference between the company and its employees.” Miller’s and Andrews’ statements, however, belied that optimism. Miller announced that “[If] the company agrees to Proposition No. 1—which provides that the company shall recognize and treat with the unions, the difference [between the two] can be ironed out very easily.” To which Andrews responded, “The men cannot change the national laws” (“Hope for Labor Peace is Expressed after Overflow Church Mass Meeting,” The Kentucky Post, December 28, 1921, p. 1).

Andrews Steel Mill, Newport, 1919. (From a postcard in the collection of Paul A. Tenkotte.)

Resolving the situation would not be as easy as Newporters had initially hoped. After fights broke out on bridges to neighboring cities, the “strike zone” was increased in size. Clearly, as Colonel Denhardt remarked, the Newport police department, which only employed eighteen officers and the county sheriff’s only six (counting himself), had been unable to quell the hostilities (“Strike Guard Zone Extended,” The Kentucky Post, December 30, 1921, p. 1).

The year 1922 literally got off with a bang as snipers “peppered the plants with stray rounds” from positions on the west bank of the Licking River in neighboring Kenton County. Colonel Denhardt’s militia responded by “pouring machine-gun fire into the hills of Kenton County” ushering in “the most violent year of Newport’s history” (Purvis, p. 170). Denhardt issued a shoot-to-kill order, and strikers responded with pot shots at guardsmen. A closed-door meeting failed to inspire a settlement, and the strike persisted. In the meantime, “The mills continued to operate with the grudging labor of ex-union members and inexperienced, recently hired men” (Purvis, p. 170).

Five weeks later, the troops were removed by order of the governor. However, Governor Morrow was soon informed that the situation in Newport had grown steadily worse. Twelve detachments of Kentucky state guardsmen—350 men with tanks and machine guns— were newly ordered to Newport to control the situation, which culminated Thursday night, February 2nd, in the most serious rioting that had taken place to date. In an “all-night battle between mill guards and strike sympathizers,” bullets struck many homes, forcing families to flee (“State Troops Again Rule Newport Strike Zone; Police Fired Upon; Families Flee From Homes as Battle is Carried On Through the Night; Sheriff’s Narrow Escape,” The Kentucky Post, February 3, 1922, p. 1).

Newport’s mayor and safety director “accompanied strike sympathizers to the mills and attempted to prevent disorder.” In a “vigorous address” directed to the people of Newport, Governor Morrow stated: “The law of Kentucky shall not and must not surrender to the forces of lawlessness and terror…The state troops will be kept at Newport until law and order are restored” (“State Troops,” p. 1).

In the meantime, Brighton Street was the epicenter of the night’s fire fight. Bullets crashed through homes on the street, wrecking walls, damaging furnishings, possessions, even an American flag. A nearby streetlight was shot out, casting the street into darkness (“As Bullets Whistled in Newport Battle,” The Kentucky Post, February 3, 1922, p. 1). Eventually, 500 guardsmen in Newport quelled the hostilities. It was “the largest militia force ever used to control civilians in Kentucky, at least since the Civil War” (Purvis, p. 171).

In the interim, the steel mill and strikers both pursued legal proceedings. Union members had obtained a temporary restraining order against Denhardt and the National Guard from intimidating strikers. On Saturday, April 1, 1922, state Attorney General Charles L. Dawson appeared in Campbell County Circuit Court, declaring that the court had no right to issue a restraining order since Newport was in a state of “disorder” (“State Questions Court’s Right,” Kentucky Post, April 1, 1922, p. 1). Likewise, in early April, US District Court Judge A. M. J. Cochran, at a session held in neighboring Covington, denied union officials their injunction (“Strikers Appeal; Surprised When Court Said ‘Hands Off Soldiers’—Men are Firm,” The Kentucky Post, April 3, 1922, p. 1).

Then, on Wednesday, April 19, 1922, the Andrews Steel Co. — a corporation “under the laws of Delaware” and involved “in an interstate business” — filed an injunction in US District Court “against officers and 150 members” of the local lodges of the International Association of Amalgamated Iron, Tin, and Steelworkers.” The injunction included threats or damage against the mill, its officers, and employees, or even attempting to dissuade people from “seeking employment at the plant” (“Strikers Again Enjoined: Prohibited from Attempting to Induce Men Not to Work at the Steel Plant,” The Kentucky Post, April 19, 1922, p. 1). Cochran’s US District Court, at its Maysville session on Friday, April 21st, granted the steel company its injunction (“Soldiers to Leave Newport; Strike Duty is to be Ended,” The Kentucky Post, April 22, 1922, p. 1).

Newport merchants and manufacturers were anxious that Colonel Denhardt and his soldiers leave the city, perhaps because Denhardt had taken it upon himself to conduct raids against liquor violations and gambling. Denhardt, meanwhile, was not ready to hand over operations to Newport’s chief of police, Frank Bregel. Bregel had been indicted by federal and state juries who “charged him with conspiring to possess liquor and with malfeasance in office in connection with gambling” (Denhardt Goes after Police,” The Kentucky Post, April 21, 1922, p. 1).

On Monday, April 24th, Governor Morrow sent a telegram to “the people of Newport.” Stating that for the prior three weeks “only 30 soldiers” remained in Newport, he announced their withdrawal and the confidence that Newport and county officials could maintain the peace (“Governor Appeals for Law Observance in Newport,” The Kentucky Post, April 24, 1922, p. 1). Within days of the announcement, only a handful of troops remained in the city as observers for the governor and also on behalf of maintaining the steel mill’s injunction (“Withdraw Newport Troops,” The Kentucky Post, April 24, 1933, p. 1).

The steel strike had failed. The rolling mill had broken the labor union in Newport. An open shop prevailed. As editors of The Kentucky Post stated on April 13th: “Skilled workmen who helped make the Newport Rolling Mill one of the most successful plants in the United States are leaving Newport. Newport is the loser and so are the Andrews.” The steel workers could readily find jobs in other cities, and by that time, they were being encouraged to do so by labor union officials to relieve “the strain on the union funds” (“Losing,” The Kentucky Post, April 13, 1922, p. 4).

Today, nothing remains of the actual steel mill within Newport itself, except for a building that once served as its company offices.

Margo  Warminski is Preservation Director for Cincinnati Preservation Association, a position she has held since 2004. She is a native of Detroit with lifelong interests in urban living and historic architecture, particularly buildings that tell the stories of ordinary people. Margo has written numerous National Register nominations and has contributed to several books. She is presently restoring a house in Bellevue’s Taylors Daughters Historic District that came close to being demolished.

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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One Comment

  1. ruth bamberger says:

    I have had to play catchup with NKY history since I learned nothing as a kid in the local schools about the labor unrest and other topics in this series of articles about local history. Thanks to the Tribune and the local historians for sharing these pieces of history in our region. I hope that social studies elementary and secondary school teachers are using this series to give their students a sense of history about where they are growing up.

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