The Wobblies preached a radical message. With their association with hobo culture and suspicions of being influenced by Socialists and Bolsheviks they were not a popular movement, but were welcomed in Dunsmuir. This is a Wobblies poster from the Early 20th Century.
In the early years of the 20th century the mood in the growing mountain railroad town was probably typical of the entire country. The industrial revolution had brought lifestyle changes that made life easier for all. Immigrants from many countries were finding a better life in America. World War I, the roaring twenties, and the great depression were years in the future. Then in February of 1911, a social upheaval brought Dunsmuir into the national news spotlight – for a few days.
It began when members of the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the IWW and commonly called “Wobblies’) attempted to preach their radical doctrines on the city streets in Fresno. The Wobblies had a strong association with the hobo culture and promoted a “One Big Union” of all workers. Labor unions were at their most powerful level as workers sought safer working conditions, fair wages and political representation. Unfortunately, their efforts attracted unwelcome political ideologies. Unions were often suspected of being infiltrated by Socialists, Communists, and Bolsheviks. Relatively insignificant union activities seemed to take on sinister undertones.
Fresno city officials attempted to block their efforts and were accused of violating the Wobblies’ free speech rights. In a contentious confrontation arrests were made and speakers were jailed. The IWW responded by sending more speakers to overcrowd city jails and jam local courts. In Portland, Oregon the Socialist Party met with the local IWW chapter and after a solidarity parade through downtown Portland, the decision was made to send a delegation of union sympathizers to Fresno.
In all, 112 men headed south – mostly young timber workers. Even though railroad officials preferred to not be involved, brakemen, engineers and other railroad workers were union men as well and they freely provided space in empty boxcars. But the citizens in railroad towns along the way were not so supportive. In Albany curious residents were cold toward the Wobblies. In Junction City the men of the town were armed and suspicious although there were no problems. While Eugene and Roseburg were tense but peaceful, problems arose in Ashland. Railroad police threw the Wobblies off trains and blocked them from boarding others. Ten Wobblies turned back but the rest decided to hike ten miles to the next station at Steinman where railroad workers were supportive but no trains would stop for them. There was concern for the welfare of the group in the winter weather but they decided to continue hiking toward the south.
There was snow in the mountains, and the railroad section boss at Steinman lent the protesters shovels and axes to clear snow and build fires while his wife distributed apples and crackers. Southbound trains sped past without stopping so the protesters trudged four miles uphill to the Siskiyou Tunnel. Railroad police there again barred them from southbound trains but offered them a train ride back to Portland. The Wobblies voted to refuse the offer and continued walking toward Fresno.
As they approached the California border, railroad officials notified California’s governor, Hiram Johnson, of the approaching band. Governor Johnson – upset with the failure of Oregon officials to stop the Wobblies – ordered Maj. Gen. W.H. White to alert the National Guard companies in Redding and Chico. But at the same time, the Siskiyou County sheriff, Charles Bryan Howard, told them, “As long as you behave, nobody is going to bother you.” There were rumors that during a strike in McCloud a year before, the governor had sent the National Guard in without checking with the sheriff first. Sheriff Howard got his revenge.
When the cold and hungry marchers reached Yreka, one was suffering from frostbite and he and three others dropped out, but the remaining 98 hoofed their way south through the mountains, in spite of their cold and hunger. Montague residents provided the Wobblies with firewood to keep warm and let them stay at the baseball park during the extremely cold winter nights.
Newspapers nationwide had by this time picked up the story and while big city newspaper sentiments continued to be against the Wobblies, smaller newspapers and the public began to lean in their favor. One reporter spent a night with the group and reported that they were “astonishingly disciplined.” The group’s leaders told him, “We are not boisterous, and in order to guard against rowdyism have our own police force in the party and at no time have tolerated the bringing into our camps any spirits.” They had no weapons despite police claims to the contrary, and, “So far they have not made a single hostile demonstration.”
While no southbound trains would yet permit them to ride, in a stroke of good fortune, the Wobblies were given a 12 mile ride from Mt. Shasta to Dunsmuir in the private rail car of May Roberts, an actress and theatrical company leader. When they reached Dunsmuir, which was a strong railroad union town, they were welcomed with open arms. Tavern owners opened their doors to them and the Knights of Pythias – a fraternal organization – permitted them to stay for the night in their hall. The Knights of Pythias Hall was directly across from the railroad tracks on Sacramento Avenue, just north of the Rostel “Iron Front” building. It burned to the ground in the great fire of 1924.
Trudging on south into warmer climate, the Wobblies were welcomed in the town of Kennett – which is now under Shasta Lake. The Eagles Lodge there hosted them and they even took time out to play a baseball game with the Kennett team – and lost 2-1. In Redding the Temple Hotel offered them free beds and hot meals. When they reached Red Bluff however, word came that the confrontation in Fresno had ended – putting an end to their cause – and the contingent disbanded and headed back home to Oregon – presumably hopping freight trains.
Other than the lucky twelve mile ride between Mt Shasta and Dunsmuir, the Wobblies had walked nearly 150 miles from Ashland to Red Bluff. They never got to join their brethren in Fresno but perhaps their efforts helped the cause of free speech.
Ron McCloud is the co-author with Deborah Harton of a history of Dunsmuir. He is the owner of Dunsmuir Hardware which dates to 1894. ♦