RELATED: Sheet & Tube name rises from the ashes – online
By JORDYN GRZELEWSKI
A century ago, the city’s steel mills were blasting back into production after the end of a catastrophic labor strike.
What started as a labor dispute devolved into a day of rioting. By the time 2,000 National Guard troops arrived, they found a community charred and devastated.
On Jan. 7, 1916, thousands of people in the village of East Youngstown took to the streets. East Youngstown, which today is the city of Campbell, was home to steel manufacturer Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.’s operations. Historical accounts depict a drunken mob looting, burning and shooting in acts fueled by pent-up frustrations about low wages and unsavory working and living conditions.
Historians seem to agree on both the ruinous nature of the event itself, and its result of getting steel companies to take better care of their workers.
The circumstances that would later boil over into a full-scale uprising first began to bubble upriver, when workers at Republic Iron and Steel Co. in Youngstown went on strike demanding raises as 1916 began.
“HARD TO GET AHEAD”
The area at that time was home to a booming manufacturing industry, dominated by a few major corporations and fueled by wartime demand for steel products.
Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. – which would go on to become one of the country’s top steel manufacturers – was founded in 1900, led by James A. Campbell and George D. Wick, with the aim of maintaining local ownership of the city’s manufacturing industry.
The company built its operations on a stretch of farmland along the Mahoning River – “mere wooded hillside, waving grain fields and tangled river bottoms,” according to an account written by historian Joseph G. Butler Jr. – that hastily grew into a thriving industrial community.
“East Youngstown – so called for want of initiative or care in giving it another name – was born, and born with a ‘boom,’” Butler wrote.
Wilson Avenue was the hub of East Youngstown and featured a bridge that led to the S&T plant. It was a main thoroughfare lined with banks, stores, restaurants, offices and bars, said H. William Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
The community was made up mostly of young, single men from eastern and southern Europe who had immigrated there to work in the mills.
“It was rough and tumble. You had dozens of saloons, and ... it was a hard life. You were usually working 12 hours a day in the mills, sometimes six days a week, making very low wages and trying to get a foothold – really just trying to feel you’re getting paid what you’re worth,” Lawson said.
“They weren’t building housing fast enough; some of it was substandard. You had [multiple families living in houses.] It was tight, congested. There wasn’t a lot of running water. All of those issues that are about quality of life,” Lawson said. “And then of course at the rates they were making, it was hard to get ahead.”
THE FIRST SHOT
The starting wage for unskilled steel-mill laborers at that time was 19.5 cents per hour, usually for 10-hour work days.
Workers at Republic Iron and Steel went on strike first, demanding a raise to 25 cents per hour. S&T workers followed suit a few days later. Between the two plants, an estimated 16,000 people were out of work during the strike.
The tension reached a fever pitch Friday, Jan. 7, when a crowd of pickets gathered outside the company’s headquarters.
Someone in the crowd reportedly fired a shot or threw a stone at the men charged with guarding the plant, leading the guards to begin firing into the crowd. Some question remains on whether the guards fired in the direction of the provocateur or fired indiscriminately into the crowd, said Dr. Thomas Leary, an industrial and labor history professor at Youngstown State University.
For the next 12 or so hours, the situation devolved into what’s been called a “riot,” a “melee,” and a “debauch” that would leave East Youngstown a ghost of its former self.
Coupled with the strike itself, the disturbance sparked lasting repercussions.
A fire started when rioters broke into company headquarters and began burning records, Lawson said.
The Youngstown Daily Vindicator, as the paper was then called, painted a picture of utter chaos in a Jan. 8 article: “Scenes never before known to this locality were enacted by the strikers of the Youngstown Sheet & Tube company Friday night and Saturday morning at East Youngstown when nearly 100 business blocks and residences were burned to the ground and damage estimated at $1,000,000 was done.
“Men crazed with drink and wild-eyed, yelling at the top of their voices, smashed in windows of stores, looted the contents and then set fire to the buildings. ... The destruction was wanton, the foreigners smashing windows in any and every store they happened to see, shooting revolvers through windows and into crowds and breaking whiskey bottles in the street as fast as they could carry them from the saloons.
“Big strong men carried out of saloons on their backs quarter kegs of whiskey and took them home for future use. ... After looting buildings until they believed they had cleared them of their contents, the match was applied. Fires raged in buildings in almost every street in East Youngstown and not a drop of water was thrown upon the flames until the Youngstown fire apparatus arrived on the scene about 3 a.m.”
The riot ended by morning with the arrival of three regiments of the Ohio National Guard after the sheriff telegraphed the governor: “Please send National Guard to village of East Youngstown at once. Lives are being taken and many portions of East Youngstown are being burned. We are helpless in trying to cope with the situation,” according to The New York Times, which along with other national media, reported extensively on the strike and riot.
The Times reported Jan. 9 that, “For the first time in the history of the city, saloons were closed in Youngstown on a Saturday, this action being taken by the city authorities in an effort to prevent further disorder. Saloons in East Youngstown and Struthers also were closed, but those in Girard, 5 miles away, were open, and cars running to that town were crowded. All but two of the 20 saloons in East Youngstown were burned last night.
“Today was payday at the plant of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. Owing to the burning of the pay office by the rioters last night, the men were compelled to line up in the streets to receive their checks.”
The National Guard remained in town to keep the peace for several days.
Accounts differ on an exact count, but historians agree there were several fatalities and dozens of injuries in the course of the riot. Hundreds of people were arrested, and the village’s business district was decimated.
Within a few days, however, steel-mill laborers were back at work, making 22 cents per hour.
Five years after the event, Butler wrote, “East Youngstown bears marks of the riot in scarred buildings and unoccupied lots. Not for a long time will the last mementoes of this affair disappear, although they might well be dispensed with to the advantage of the city.
“In general, however, better buildings have risen from the ruins and the rapid growth of the municipality has made its marks even less noticeable.”
Despite the destruction, historians agree the strike and riot woke company executives up to quality-of-life issues for their workers. Sheet & Tube went on to help rebuild East Youngstown, including better housing options for workers. It set up a company to buy land and develop it for housing, some of which remains standing in present-day Campbell.
“Once the strike was over, the company really began to engage in what historians call welfare capitalism. What they mean by that is the company started to engage in doing things for their employees. It’s never stuff like giving them better pay. It’s stuff like company picnics, company newsletters. ... One of the big things Sheet & Tube did was to build worker housing,” said Dr. Donna DeBlasio, a YSU history professor.
She, Leary and others at the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor will host a program about the 1916 strike later this winter.
Sheet & Tube developed four housing sites for its workers; one in Campbell, two in Struthers and one in Youngstown, DeBlasio said.
“They had indoor plumbing, central heating, electricity. You’re talking about a time when a lot of people still had outhouses in the city. So this is not bad housing. The cost was somewhere around $20 a month, which was about one week’s pay,” she said. “It’s not like those horror stories of company towns. ... This is a very different story. These homes are very modern.”
Another result of the strike was a Mahoning County grand jury inquiry into the riot with a surprising result.
In addition to dozens of people who were indicted on charges such as arson, burglary and rioting (the court heard 500-plus witnesses, Leary said), several steel companies – Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Republic Iron and Steel, Brier Hill Steel Co., Youngstown Iron and Steel Co., Carnegie Steel Co., U.S. Steel Co. and Judge E. H. Gary, executive chairman of U.S. Steel – were charged with conspiring to fix the wages of common laborers in the steel industry.
“To lump steel industry executives with what were thought to be drunken, rioting foreigners was considered to be quite an extraordinary outcome from a grand-jury investigation,” Leary said.
Charges against the companies eventually were dismissed. Many rioters ended up facing consequences, however, including one who was given a $300 fine, five who were sent to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, and one convicted of manslaughter who was sentenced to prison, Leary said.
“I think the message to steel companies was, you need to pay more attention to your workforce under these wartime conditions, so Sheet & Tube began conducting a kind of profile of its workforce to find out where people live, what sort of previous work experience they had, to try to get a sense of why workers would have gone to the extent of striking and maybe rioting that they did under these conditions,” Leary said.