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This Day in Labor History: November 11, 1919

[ 30 ] November 11, 2011 |

On November 11, 1919, the people of Centralia, Washington, a small lumber town in the southwestern part of the state, celebrated the first anniversary of Armistice Day with a parade. However, town leaders and the local American Legion post decided to turn the parade into an attack upon Centralia’s Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) union hall, which they considered the center of subversion and sedition in their community. When the Legion reached the hall, they broke in and began tearing the place apart. What they did not expect was that the radical loggers had prepared an ambush. The I.W.W. had stationed at least two shooters on a hill approximately ¼ mile away. In addition, some of the workers in the hall had weapons. In the hail of bullets, four American Legion members died. Warren Grimm, a University of Washington graduate and lawyer, had not only fought in World War I, but had also served in the military’s anti-Bolshevik force in Siberia before returning to his home town of Centralia. Arthur McElfresh had spent eighteen months in the army in France. The third dead Legionnaire was Ben Casagranda, a Greek-American who went to war for his new nation. The fourth was another University of Washington graduate and member of the Centralia elite, Dale Hubbard.

Infuriated, the Legionnaires chased a man they thought was Britt Smith, the local I.W.W. secretary, but who in fact was Wesley Everest, an itinerant logger and I.W.W. member. They beat him severely and threw him into a prison cell with other Wobblies they had rounded up. That evening, still incensed, local men took Everest from his jail cell, possibly castrated him, and hanged him from a bridge on the Chehalis River. Trials quickly ensued for a dozen other I.W.W. members. A jury found eight guilty of second-degree murder, and they received sentences ranging from twenty-five to forty years at the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. The I.W.W. claimed that the timber industry, the American Legion, and local authorities had railroaded the eight men into prison; and their cause served as a rallying cry for an increasingly marginalized I.W.W. over the next twenty years.

Violence in this little lumber town took place as forces of order battled against radicalized loggers over control of the timber industry. Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, timber companies treated their workers like animals. Conditions in the timber camps were horrific conditions. Loggers dealt with adulterated food, fleas and other vermin in their overcrowded housing, straw for bedding, the smell of disgusting wet socks drying near the bunkhouse’s one heater, latrines located directly next to the dining hall so that they could smell feces when they sat down to eat, etc. They were paid next to nothing for their work and frequently ripped off by a collusion of timber operators and employment agencies who would force men to pay for jobs and then the job not be there when they arrived. These men also lived in all-male spaces, completely isolated from women in their remote camps. Thus, when men could get to town, the first thing they headed for was to purchase the services of a prostitute. They could not live with dignity either in the camps or when they returned to society. In desperation, and with the American Federation of Labor showing almost no interest in organizing these workers, they turned to the I.W.W.

Maybe I’m not being explicit enough. Let me clarify. In 1916, Red Cross doctor W.H. Lipscomb took a tour of Northwestern timber camps. He was outraged by all I mentioned in the previous paragraph. He mentioned one camp. It had bunkhouses that held approximately 80 men. Those 80 men had one sink in the bunkhouse. The company provided one towel for those 80 men. A new man came into camp. He was infected with gonorrhea. He used the towel to wipe places he shouldn’t. The bunkhouse witnessed an epidemic of gonorrhea among the men. In their eyes.

So you can see why workers would join a radical organization like the I.W.W. But the Wobblies were hated by the timber industry and local authorities. We have seen how the Everett police responded to the I.W.W. with murderous violence. They were not alone. A year before, in 1918, Centralia residents had destroyed the local I.W.W. hall. They figured they could do so again. Little did they know that the union would set up shooters on the hills surrounding the town and arm some of the men inside.

The I.W.W. was on the decline even before Centralia. The logging strike of 1917 had forced the government’s hand to intervene in the timber industry because it needed spruce and fir to build airplanes for World War I. The government sent in the military. Rather than operate strictly as strikebreakers, the military chose to mediate the situation. It forced timber operators to improve the camp conditions and give the military rights to inspect them. No improvements=no soldiers to log and no government contracts. In return, it created a paramilitary loggers’ organization and forced loggers to join it and renounced the I.W.W. in order to work. Most did, particularly since the government was providing them the safe working and living environments loggers were fighting for. Some refused of course, including the men still fighting to organize loggers in Centralia.

The Centralia Massacre was not the final blow for the I.W.W. in the United States, but it was close. The official repression of the Red Scare combined with organized violence against the union to make it all but irrelevant. It did retain a small presence in the Northwestern woods through the 1920s and even into the late 30s, though the successful unionization of loggers in the CIO and AFL after 1935 made the organization pointless. Still, loggers in 1919 and 1939 showed a great deal of respect for all the I.W.W. had done for them.

Mentioning the Centralia Massacre quickly became totally unacceptable in the community. Literally none of the participants on the Legion side ever told their story. They all took it to the grave with them. At some point, I think sometime in the 80s, Centralia residents commissioned a bunch of murals for their town representing their history. There are lots of scenes of white people settling the land, but nothing on Centralia. The labor hall in town put up its own mural, though it is kind of hard to see from the road because it is on the second floor. You have to know where to look.

Previous editions of this series have covered the creation of the CIO in 1935 and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.


Comments (30)

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  1. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Wow, I totally didn’t know any of that. My knowledge of Centralia was previously limited to the city being the northernmost home to Burgerville.

  2. Spokane Moderate says:

    There’s a statue in the park in front of the local library, honoring the four dead Legionnaires. If I recall correctly, there is no mention of Wesley Everest.

  3. Karl Radek says:

    75th anniversary of the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strike:
    Late in January, the upper-Midwestern city, noted for its fiercely cold winters, had been hit with unseasonably warm weather, and the need for coal had slackened. But on February 1, temperatures suddenly dropped below zero, and the following day the tight-knit group of workers leading the effort to secure improved working conditions, higher wages and union recognition called a meeting. The unorganized coal delivery workers, poverty-stricken and having borne the worst of the Great Depression, voted to strike.

    The strike caught the ruling elite of Minneapolis by surprise. One of their representatives communicated to the Regional Labor Board (RLB), “An emergency exists in this city, whereby the life and safety of the public is menaced and endangered.”

    • Hogan says:

      Farrell Dobbs’s book Teamster Rebellion is well worth reading. Dobbs was a Teamster organizer and one of the strike leaders, and he probably could have become the president of IBT if he hadn’t left to work for the Socialist Workers Party.

      • The Trotskyite leaders of the strike were nominally Teamsters (then in the AFL) but completely at odds with the national leadership, which eventually got Roosevelt to send them to jail for anti-war statements.

        In Dobbs book about the strike it turns out that the five leaders (Dobbs, three Dunne brothers, and Skoglund) were also operating independently of the national Trotskyite organization, which was in the midst of factional disputes. So it was really just the five guys.

  4. Karl Radek says:

    Another foundational struggle:
    Driven by the determination and militancy of the rank and file, this 83-day struggle defied the employers’ Industrial Association of San Francisco, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s federal mediators, the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) union leadership, and culminated in the San Francisco general strike.
    The San Francisco strike combined with two other momentous labor struggles in 1934 to alter the American political landscape—the Toledo Auto-Lite strike led by socialists in the American Workers Party, and the Minneapolis truck drivers strike led by Trotskyists in the Communist League of America. These three strikes—which were, in essence, rebellions not only against business interests but also against the business unionism of the AFL—paved the way for the pivotal victories of Detroit auto workers in sit-down strikes led by socialist-minded workers in 1937 and the formation of the mass industrial unions in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations.)

  5. BradP says:

    From what you have written, the IWW and its members behaved as they should have, and labor will never receive the support of government when they do as they should.

    • BradP says:

      I really need to stop adding stuff to my comments without reading the result as a whole.

      It cannot be inferred from your post that government will never support labor when they act as they should. I just don’t believe it will.

  6. Julia Grey says:

    A new man came into camp. He was infected with gonorrhea. He used the towel to wipe places he shouldn’t. The bunkhouse witnessed an epidemic of gonorrhea among the men. In their eyes.

    And in the days before antibiotics.


  7. Ed says:

    Nice post. The working classes are always expendable. They die earlier for lack of health care and even now our miners work in unsafe conditions and everyone more or less takes this for granted.

  8. DrDick says:

    Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, timber companies treated their workers like animals

    I think that would apply to many, if not most, industries in the US. Hence Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and other similar books during this period.

  9. BonnyAnne says:

    As a mostly-casual lover of local history, especially the history of Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, and the peninsula, I just can’t thank you enough for this labor history series. I’m going to think about it every time I drink at the Olympic Hotel.

    (As a side note, I find it interesting that apparently there is a decent exhibit about the IWW massacre, at the Lewis County Museum in … Chehalis.)

  10. bobbyp says:

    Thanks again, Erik. I look forward to your post on December 30


    A resident of the 48th soviet of Washington.

  11. Jim says:

    any one with links to finding pictures of the AC stike in flint, 1930’s. I had grandparents who were in the AC & the Buick strike. Especially interested in the photo ‘s of the wifes giving food to the strikers,

  12. […] series has also covered the Centralia Massacre of 1919 and the Stono Rebellion of […]

  13. Ursula says:

    Ghost of Hangman’s Bridge an upcoming Educational Historical Documentary film by Ursula Richards-Coppola. What really happen to Wesley Everest!

    I had researched about the events for 15 years now. Some things were confusing until I read through about 3500 pages of the court documents and countless of Bureau Investigation documents along with countless of books. I read a book one of the Legions wrote… the book was published in 1920.

    Anticipation date fall 2014.

  14. Ursula says:

    Ghost of Hangman’s Bridge an upcoming Educational Historical Documentary film by Ursula Richards-Coppola. What really happen to Wesley Everest!

    I had researched about the events for 15 years now. Some things were confusing until I read through about 3500 pages of the court documents and countless legal documents along with countless of books. I even read a book one of the Legions wrote… the book was published in 1920.

    Anticipation date fall 2014.

  15. […] The Long Arm of Woodrow Wilson [ 0 ] February 27, 2012 | Erik Loomis var addthis_product = 'wpp-262'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true,"data_track_addressbar":false};if (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}Woodrow Wilson’s reputation has been torn to shreds in the last ten years. This can go a bit too far; in the end, regardless of his motives, Wilson did sign a lot of legislation the country really needed. Nevertheless, it’s easy to argue that, outside of JFK, Wilson is the most overrated president in American history. We can argue about the worst thing Wilson did, but I don’t think any of his actions have a more detrimental effect on American society today than the Espionage Act of 1917. Wilson first proposed this law in 1915, but with the entry of the U.S. into World War in April 1917, the Espionage Act, along with a lot of other very bad legislation, became law. The government intended to use the war to crack down on all the radicals threatening it, threats many Americans defined very broadly, mostly to include the “foreign” of various definitions, races, and ideologies. For instance, the 18th Amendment became law during these years after a sixty year temperance movement because alcohol became equated with foreigners in the minds of self-respecting Americans. In my own research, this law comes to bear upon the Industrial Workers of the World and the opening government repression gave to local communities to eliminate radicals once and for all, whether we are talking about the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 or the Centralia Massacre of 1919. […]

  16. Ursula I found your Information in my Local Town of Centralia. I am wondering how your Film is coming along. Centralia to me is a Town of Deep Secrets and a Hidden Good Ole Boy Club. I am making short films about Centralia My Self. Some people Like em, some don’t. I am very interested in your project. Whats up with the building. It dosen’t look like anybodys been there in years?

  17. […] series has also covered such other highlights of denying civil rights to the working-class as the Centralia Massacre of 1919 and the Bisbee Deportation of […]

  18. […] series has also discussed such events as the Centralia Massacre of 1919 and the murder of Jock Yablonski in […]

  19. […] 1916–The Everett Massacre November 9, 1935–Creation of the CIO November 11, 1919–The Centralia Massacre November 22, 1909–Uprising of the 20,000 December 2, 1946–The Oakland General Strike […]

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