N.P. Ry.

Years of Trial and Tumult

The Northern Pacific Railway and the Great Shop Strike at Auburn Yard, 1921-1923

With the entry of the United States into what had become World War One, American railroads struggled to move ever-increasing amounts of traffic as their own nation mobilized for war. Although this flood of goods and passengers had begun two years prior to the United States' entry into the Great War, the added strain of mobilization proved to be the straw which broke the camel's back. Shortages of workers, equipment and strife between competing lines led to nationalization under William G. McAdoo's United States Railroad Administration.

This settled the issue for American railroads in the short term, but raised several new questions over the long run. How much would be paid to the individual systems for the war-time use of their facilities? In the event of another war, would they be nationalized again? Most importantly, would the railroads have to continue to pay the same wages in the post-war economy as they had during the worker shortages, inflation and nationalization of war-time? The first of these would only be settled through protracted legal wrangling between the railroad's legal departments and the Federal government. The second issue would be settled by the systems themselves, whose managers would work to keep nationalization from ever recurring. The last question, between the managers and workers of the railroads, with the government trying to act as referee, would be settled by a strike. It had taken almost two years to come down from the war-time high of 1918, but come down it did. By the summer of 1921 the U.S. economy was sliding towards a deep recession the following year. Bankruptcy due to the expenses of the war was all but destroying European economies, the stiff punishment metered out on Germany would eventually make it necessary to have a wheelbarrow heaped with money simply to buy food. At home the country was facing a steep fall-off in prices and a slowing economy. Congress' recipe of protectionist trade legislation was not helping the matter, but making it worse. American railroads were no better off. The economic slump quickly translated into fewer passengers and fewer car loadings. The situation must have seemed more hopeless still in the face of the physical state of the railroads at war's end. Howard Elliott, the Northern Pacific's Chairman in New York estimated the Railway had an astronomical $150 million dollars worth of repairs to bad-ordered cars alone. (Auburn Republican 7-22-21 p. 10)

Against this backdrop of looming expenses for repairs and improvements in the midst of a burgeoning world economic crises, American railroad managers moved to increase their capital on hand by cutting operating expenses, partly through the reduction of employee's wages. The ax fell with Decision 147, a ten cent an hour reduction for the employees of all American railroads. In one fell swoop the Government had reduced the annual payroll of the NP by $400,000. (Ibid., 7-8-21 p. 8) In less than a months' time the rumors of a strike had begun. The Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks sent out official strike ballots at the end of summer, with stories of a five to 13 cent an hour pay reduction flying. (Ibid., 8-26-21 p. 10) Soon after this first step, the local members of the other Brotherhoods began receiving their ballots. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers, the Organization of Railroad Conductors and the Switchmen's Union all had their ballots in hand by the end of the first week of September. (Ibid., 9-2-21 p. 11)

There will be bread lines galore during the coming winter in the middle west.

As members contemplated the implications of a strike, the economy picked up for a moment. The end of September saw the Republican reporting that Business conditions in the railroad world are returning to normal. It seemed to be true with some 25 trainmen having moved off the extra board and into regular runs. In addition, traffic finally warranted the return of W-3s into helper service on the mountain, train tonnage having grown too much for the small force of Z-3s alone. (Ibid., 9-30-21 p. 12)

For a while the carrot of steady work seemed to keep things out of strike territory. The carrot was abetted by voices from within the workers' own ranks, sounding threats against possible picket lines. Nationally, Trainmen's Union president W. G. Lee asked his members see the concessions that they had just so recently won in the light of the war-time conditions. The post-war reality was that the cost of living had decreased 16 percent in the short time since July of 1920. Those walking off the job to maintain their wages would join the ranks of five million unemployed men. (Ibid., 9-30-21, p. 8) Locally, Auburn Mayor and NP Conductor Otto Bertsch journeyed to Saint Paul to attend a conference of Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen. He returned to Auburn clearly worried, his only word to the local paper being There will be bread lines galore during the coming winter in the middle west. (Ibid., 10-14-21 p. 6)

Ibid., 9-30-21 p. 8) Nearly a month of bargaining seemed to be to no avail. Management-government-union negotiations muddled forward through late September and far on into October. Finally, things appeared to be coming to a head, with the Brotherhoods and the Switchmen's Union getting ready to strike on October 25. By the preceding Friday no word had come and a Sunday walk-out appeared immanent. (Ibid., 10-23-21 p. 1)

Instead, the unions carried the moment. By October 28 the strike threat had worked and railroad managers blinked. The concession was an extra hour of work on Saturday, making a six-day, eight-hour-a-day work week. For this the crews would get one-minute's extra pay for each hour worked during that six day week. In the face of having to spend the coming winter in bread lines and picket lines it may have seemed a bonanza. But while the Brotherhoods had carried the moment, they would certainly rue the day. The railroads were playing for bigger stakes, and within a few short months they would let the fact be known. In the meantime, Auburn's crews spent their time battling the Cascade snows, or repairing the Railway's physical plant and rolling stock. But what was bustling one day would soon be quiet the next.

Not even the Milwaukee was that Mismanaged...

It wasn't not long in coming and of course, it hit the Milwaukee Road first. Before Christmas of 1921 the CMStP&P found itself temporarily laying off some 400 shop workers and 120 clerks, half its available force in Tacoma. (Ibid., 12-23-21 p. 10) The Great Recession of 1922 had begun. No Auburnite could now fail to see the country's economic slide, for not even the Milwaukee was that mismanaged. February brought more ominous news. That month, the Great Northern's massive Hillyard shops in Spokane were declared closed for six long weeks. With one bulletin 500 people had found themselves out of work. What had looked bad now must have appeared genuinely bleak, as a first-rate road's shops had closed entirely. Ironically, the national car situation being what it was, the GN's rip tracks stayed open, though on a short four-day week. (Ibid., 2-10-22 p. 5) By now the town must have begun to wonder collectively: how long could Auburn expect to hold out?

At the end of December the ax, actually more of a hatchet, fell at Auburn. One of the mountain locals was laid off, along with a mere 15 carmen. (Ibid., 12-30-21 p. 8) Then, in early January the force reductions were stepped up, as 12 engineers were demoted and 12 trainmen cut. Also, beginning on January 1 the six-day work week was chopped to five. (Ibid., 1-6-22 p. 12) Still, the cuts had yet to become as severe as the Milwaukee's.


The end of January 1921 found the Brotherhoods, the managers and the government were back at the bargaining table. The issue now was overtime. The eight hour day would stand but a shop workers would have to make it ten hours straight before receiving time and a half. Agents had it easier, they would only have to make it 12. (Ibid., 1-27-22 p. 2)

There would be no reassurances come March, which found the NP beginning to stockpile Roslyn coal in the yards, in anticipation of a national miner's strike. (Ibid., 3-10-22 p5) Even if there were passengers and freight to haul, who could say if the locomotive's would have fuel? The hits just kept on coming. On March 17 oil in the inspection pit beneath Z-3 4009 burst into flames. The Auburn Fire Department and an NP fire car moved into to douse the blaze, but not before it had done $4,500 worth of damage to the first stalls of the roundhouse. (Ibid., 3-17-22 p. 1)

April 1922 brought the first truly good news, the hundred or so car repairers at Auburn were going to get to work with a roof over their heads. Working in the open since the construction of the yards in 1911-13, an 80 by 460-foot shed costing $20,000 was now going to afford the crews some measure of protection from the elements. (Ibid., 4-7-22 p. 1) This good news was soon followed by more of the bad, as the coal strike cost 12 firemen and seven engineers working extra their jobs. On the mountain, all but one helper job was cut. (Ibid., 4-14-22 p. 8) While this strike was having a sharp effect in some places, Auburn still had some 33,000 tons of coal stockpiled around the yard. The trains, with or without cargo, would roll a few more miles yet. (Ibid., 5-5-22 p. 8)

Strike Not Expected Here.

Spring became the summer of 1922 and the rip track shed was started by Quist & Co. of Seattle. (Ibid., 6-23-22 p. 10) Soon after the groundbreaking for the new shed took place, talk of another strike began again. Around the country, railroad unions had become fed up with the slide toward pre-war wages. The members of 11 of the 16 rail unions had voted for a walk-out, this time with a definite date: July 1. The local paper reported the rumors and genuine news items nonchalantly enough, on page five read the headline Strike Not Expected Here. Though how the Republican's editor, the NP or anyone else planned to keep Auburn's union members out of the strike went unmentioned. (Ibid., 6-30-22 p. 5)

July 1, a Saturday, must have come then as something of a surprise when it finally rolled around. The day began with 138 employees staying off the job. Two other employees the papers noted, showed up for work, found out that this time the strike was indeed on, then left. The 50 assorted roundhouse workers and 90-odd carmen had effectively idled the shops. While the rip track shed continued to be built, there were no inspectors, carpenters, oilers or carmen to fill it. All that remained were a handful of officials from Seattle and Tacoma Terminals Division Superintendent J. J. McCullough to Car Foreman Frank Windley and a cadre of some 24 special agents. (Ibid., 7-7-22 p. 1) Bridge and Building Inspector Jim Meacham found himself pressed into service as a car inspector, though only for a day. He caught his finger on a brake shoe and was sent home to recuperate. The strikers, the Republican noted, hoped to be back on the job in a few days. (Ibid., 7-7-22 p. 8)

The strikers must have thought they were winning for a while. At the NP's west-end shops at South Tacoma only seven of 1,300 had stayed on. The general chairman of the NP's Federated Shop Crafts in Saint Paul reported to his membership that a whopping 98 percent of shop crafts were out on strike system-wide. (Ibid., 7-14-22 p. 1) Later that July the strong news continued. Another 23 roundhouse employees, mostly engine wipers, fire builders and assorted helpers, those who could least afford the strike's burdens, walked out as well. The immediate effects of the strike could begin to be seen at the Auburn roundhouse, where two Mallets and three Mikes were already laid up. (Ibid., 7-14-22 p. 5) Then ripples of the strike began to spread outward. Twenty brakemen and six chain gang crews soon found themselves laid-off. (Ibid., 7-21-22 p. 1) Only the rip track shed construction managed to stay under way.

A strike now exists on the Northern Pacific Railway.

Saint Paul was in a pinch with a coal strike, a shop strike and a recession, all coming on fast on the heels of nationalization and the Great War's strain. In the midst of all this adversity, Saint Paul now resolved to break the unions where they stood. Vice-President Jules M. Rapelje came forward and announced that workers not immediately returning to their jobs faced losing all seniority and pension rights. (Ibid., 7-21-22 p. 1) In the scheme of things, it was the death knell for the strike and the strikers. The union member's jobs were now up for grabs in the middle of a recession. With five million unemployed workers hungry for jobs the outcome of the strike was only a matter of time.

Auburn's papers also found themselves in a bind, advertising competing interests. July 21 saw a statement from E. H. Fitzgerald, president of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees and July 28 saw a statement from the NP. President Fitzgerald's address was a slow recital of the facts as he saw them. The Government Board overseeing railroad wages, in direct violation of Congressional law which mandated just and reasonable wages, allowed railroads to pay their clerks from eight to 40 percent less than other industries, less, in fact, than the Federal Government itself. The new wage rate agreed upon by the board was in some cases under half the amount needed to provide the minimum standard of living endorsed by the U.S. Department of Labor. While the clerks made out poorly with 30 percent less than the minimum, other crafts represented by the same union managed to do even worse. Truckers would be making 51 percent less, common laborers a monstrous 56 percent less. (Ibid., 7-21-22 p. 4) The NP's statement was more direct. In simple, plain type the Railway advertised for men, lots of men, in lots of trades, at 75 to 47 cents an hour, depending on the job and skills. Work over eight hours paid time-and-a-half. The only other item mentioned was the fact that A strike now exists on the Northern Pacific Railway. (Ibid., 7-28-22 p. 7)

Saint Paul now let the strikers know their intentions in a less than subtle manner, with the NP announcing it would purchase of 1,000 new 50-ton box cars, 250 stock cars and 70 express refrigerators. Even with a strike, a recession, and the strain of a World War, the Railway was saying it could find and pay new workers and it would still have more than enough capital left over to purchase millions of dollars worth of new equipment. The message was clear: there would be no bargaining. (Ibid., 7-28-22 p. 10)

The 'Rogue's Gallery...'

Within days of the NP's call for men it had begun. Early August saw 100 men at work in the picketed yards, nine chain gang crews had been put back on, six eastbounds were making their way over the hill each day. (Ibid., 8-4-22 p. 7) To avoid trouble, the scabs were now being housed on the premises; a shanty-town of ragged housing was growing up around the shops. By the middle of August the local courts moved against the strikers; a temporary restraining order forced them down to just one picketer at a time at each point of entrance and egress from the yard. Strikers fought back by setting up a Rogue's Gallery, a photo plastered billboard of scabs who dared to cross the picket line. (Ibid., 8-18-22 p. 1)

While the shanties and the restraining order may have helped to reduce tensions, it did not eliminate them. Dan Taylor, a switchman who moved six cars instead of 16 as Yardmaster Grover C. Stacey had requested, wound up in such a quarrel over the misunderstanding that the Yardmaster hit him, knocking Taylor down. After going home for a short while Taylor returned to the yard, drunk and armed, to settle the score. Entering the yard office, he and Stacey grappled, the result being bullets through both lungs and the right shoulder for the 35-year-old Yardmaster. Taylor fled the scene, only to kill himself before he could be arrested; Stacey was sent to the local hospital to recover from his wounds. This would be the only violent incident reported throughout the duration of the strike in Auburn. (Ibid., 8-25-22 p. 1)

There is no settlement contemplated and there will be none.

In contrast to the violence between those staying on the job, those outside the yard found themselves actively supported by non-railroaders of their town. A rally and dance was thrown for the strikers in August, with a large group coming together to help. Auburn's Mission Theater ran ads for a week before all their features, the Auburn Military Band and Rooney's Orchestra donated their musical talents and the Auburn Music House chipped in with a piano. Local builders Colby & Dickinson put together the orchestra platform, lights were provided by the Parks Electric Co. Finally, to what must have been everyone's pleasure in the middle of what had become a very long summer, the Auburn Ice Cream Co. donated the refreshments. Here, at the time when violence had finally come to town, hand in hand with strikebreakers and the promise that the Railway would hold out longer than the striker's could bear, the citizen's of Auburn rallied around their union members. (Ibid., 8-25-22 p. 1)

It was to be their last good news. The month of September came and went without a settlement, as did October. The only real news to report was that Saint Paul was at it again, announcing in late October that the Northern Pacific would purchase 1,000 automobile boxcars, 250 convertible carriers, 250 gondola coal cars and 70 more express refrigerator cars. The price tag was $4 million, several times Auburn's entire annual payroll at the time of the yard's opening in far-off 1913. In the same edition of the Auburn Republican which reported the latest NP purchases, ran an article on the visit of Saint Paul officials to Auburn. Maintenance-of-Way Engineer Bernard Blum, Chief Engineer H. E. Stevens and Vice-President Rapelje came to town for an inspection tour. The steely Vice-President's message was straightforward and very clear. There is no settlement contemplated and there will be none. (Ibid., 11-10-22 p. 8)

As the cold, Christmas and 1923 closed in, the locals officers had trouble keeping the strikers together. The word from the shops was that strikers would be taken back as vacancies occurred. Newly elected local Shop Crafts Chairman Fred Haas made it clear that both locally and nationally, the strike was still on. They were going to stay out, he said ...Until a satisfactory agreement has been made. (Ibid., 12-22-22 p. 1) But such an agreement would not come in 1922, or any year.


The new year finally brought an end to the sharp recession and the beginning of a recovery that would last right up to the very end in 1929. On the mountain, with six feet of snow reported at Easton and four in Lester, the NP put 150 men to work, their sole task being to fight Mother Nature's big white blanket. (Ibid., 12-15-22 p. 14) In the Yakima Valley, the NP was actually short of crews. During the closing weeks of December and the opening weeks of January the Railway had shipped some 5,000 carloads of hay alone. To meet this surge, the NP needed 50 trainmen and 20 enginemen, all by January 15. (Ibid., 1-5-23 p. 1) January also saw Train 42, the Mississippi Valley Limited to Denver and points East, advertised in local papers for the first time since the strike had begun. That month also saw yet another massive equipment purchase announced by the NP. Saint Paul placed orders for 3,000 forty-foot boxcars, 1,000 refrigerator cars, 1,000 fifty-foot boxcars, 250 Hart cars, 250 steel gondolas, 70 express refrigerators along with 25 Mikados, 20 Pacifics and four more Mallets, some $17 million dollars worth of rolling stock and motive power all told. (Ibid., 1-19-23 p. 1)

Whether witnessing the huge outlays for equipment, seeing the recovery of the national economy, or just the long months without incomes convinced the unions to give up may never be known. No matter what they were a stubborn enough lot to stay out another month before finally admitting defeat. On February 13, 1923 the Chairman of the NP's Federated Shop Crafts, A. R. Henning, called off the strike from Saint Paul. He closed the announcement by thanking all who had supported the unions and their members. (Ibid., 2-16-23 p. 1) His craftsmen had been out on the picket lines more than half a year, seven-and-a-half grueling months all told; from blazing summer to frigid winter, during the midst of a national recession. In Auburn, as the crews went back, the symbols of the strike were slowly torn down. The strike-breaker's shanties were converted to storage space, though not before the loyal union men had the small pleasure of seeing the Northern Pacific's own Special Agents serve eviction notices to the scabs still living in them. (Ibid., 2-23-23 p. 1) Life, for a time, would return to normal.

That Tumultuous Year

Right or wrong, the strikers had lost far more then they had gained. Years of seniority rights, pensions, more than half a year's income, in addition to their very livelihoods had been washed away in the turmoil. The striking unions had bankrupted themselves in the fight, failed to achieve their goal, namely the continuance of war-time wage increases, and in the process of all this, saw their own power destroyed. The shop crafts of the Railway would have to unionize all over again in an era more sympathetic to their cause, the 1930s. The Northern Pacific Railway came through the ordeal essentially unscathed, bringing in new crews at lower pay, then riding out the recession and the unions. Those who had broke with their unions or crossed the picket lines found themselves holding the best of all worlds, steady incomes and instant seniority. For decades after the strik shop foremen's seniority dates on the NP would be emblazoned with that tumultuous year: 1922.

In the brief war years before the Roaring 'Twenties shopmen of the Northern Pacific, of Auburn and perhaps of all American railroads, stood at the pinnacle of their power. But by the middle of February, 1923 they started a journey which was to be no less painful than the strike they had just come through. With the Great Depression less than a decade away, and dieselization little more than a decade after that, the shopmen of Auburn had begun the long, slow slide towards the end. Save the years circling the next war, their numbers would never increase again. Perhaps in its own way the 1922 strike was a symbol of a greater ending, the concluding chapter of the Golden Age of Railroading.


These articles are dedicated to the Auburn Globe-Republican's railroad reporter. His tenure lasted from the beginning of Auburn Yard in 1913 to the shop strike of 1922, ending shortly after the strike began, never to continue. In a decade's worth or toil he managed to record the name of almost every individual who hired out in Auburn, as well as capture the larger picture of the ups and downs of railroading in western Washington. In spite of his efforts, he was never credited by name. This key fact, along with his trade on the NP, are lost to history.

But whatever his name, whatever his job, he was first and foremost a writer.

The scornful manner in which a man loafing around looking for news is looked upon by the busy clerks in every department of the railroad yards is discouraging to the seeker of news, and if he wasn't more of a hustler than his indolent manner indicated, this column would be shorter than it is. --Auburn Globe-Republican July 6, 1917, page 8

It must have been a slow day.


From the corporate records of the Northern Pacific Railway in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, Minnesota:

FILE 503

Charles S. Bihler, Division Engineer at Tacoma to Edwin H. McHenry, Chief Engineer at Saint Paul, 3-22-00.
John W. Kendrick, Second Vice-President to Edwin McHenry, 7-18-00.
Charles S. Bihler, Division Engineer to Edwin McHenry, 8 -25-00.
P. W. Corbett, Assistant Secretary to Edwin McHenry, 8-29-00.


FILE 644

FILE 648

FILE 907

FILE 11325

FILE 10110

FILE 9930

FILE 9239

From the collection of James M. Fredrickson, (N. P. Ry., Ret.) Tacoma, Washington:

Daggett, Stuart
Principles of Inland Transportation
New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers 1934

Tacoma Division Special Instructions Number One
Tacoma: Northern Pacific Railway December 1, 1959

List of Officers, Agents, Stations, Etc. Number 45
Saint Paul: Accounting Department, Northern Pacific Railway July 1, 1949

From the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections and Preservation Division, Seattle, Washington:

Berner, Richard C.
Seattle: 1900-1920, From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence to Restoration
Seattle: [WA] Charles Press 1991

Western Railway and Logging Railroad Directory
Portland: [OR] The Timberman 1908

Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: Auburn, 1921-1923. Years of Trial and Tumult. URL: www.netcom.com/~whstlpnk/strike.html.

© March 20, 2002