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riot / Tracy railroad strike

riot. Wanton or unrestrained behavior; uproar; tumult. The doing of an act n a violent and tumultuous manner against the peace, by three or more persons assembled together of their own authority for that purpose. — Webster, 1882

Tracy, Lyon County, June 17, 8:20 p.m. Gov. Pillsbury: A large riot has broken out on the Chicago & Dakota railroad, at this place, which I am unable to quell with the posse of police at hand. Send company of soldiers from New Ulm, as the nearest point, as soon as possible. When do you want a special train for them. J.A. Hunter, Sheriff of Lyon Co. – The Saint Paul Globe, June 18, 1879

Although Laura Ingalls Wilder includes a near-riot by railroad workers in De Smet over a pay dispute by men who Big Jerry leads to do their devilment at a neighboring camp instead (see By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 11, “Payday”), there is no record of any such event either in Kingsbury County or in late September, 1879. The event Wilder fictionalizes is based on a mid-June, 1879, riot at Tracy, Minnesota. Workers were demanding an increase in pay: from $1.25 per day for men and $2.50 for teams, to $1.50 and $3.00.

Newspaper accounts first mention Charles Ingalls working with a gang at Lake Benton a month later, but when working on SSL, Laura writes to Rose with figures from “Pa’s old account book” of company sales from when he worked for the railroad, and the dates recorded on the one page she quotes are from June 3 to June 16, which she says are from his work at the Big Sioux Camp. In addition, Hiram Forbes was already working on the grade. With Tracy the next station east of Walnut Grove and only about eight miles away, the riot was big news in Walnut Grove.

Both the governor and militia passed through Walnut Grove when responding to the riot farther west. While the disturbance at Tracy seems to have been somewhat blown out of proportion at the time, railroad executives and government officials were no doubt taking excessive measures because of familiarity with events of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which had also begun as a dispute over wages. With the United States still in the throes of a panic in the summer of 1877, wages had been cut for the third time for workers on rail lines in the east, and a massive multi-state strike of over 10,000 workers took place. Railroad engines and property were destroyed and many lives were lost before troops and local militia could put an end to the rioting. There was no doubt fear that the current dispute in Tracy might similarly escalate.

The June 26, 1879 Redwood Falls Gazette reported: “THE STRIKE OF RAILROAD LABORERS NEAR TRACY, last week, ended without blood shed or any serious damage. A company of State Militia, Capt. Bobletter’s of New Ulm, were ordered out by the Governor and arrived at the place of disturbance, but were not called to any active duty. The strike resulted from a dissatisfaction with the wages paid–$1.25 per day for men and $2.50 for teams. The demand was for a raise to $1.50 and $3.00 or, full payment of all due them. The majority went to work at the old prices but a number quit work, receiving the amounts due them. No damage was done to the railroad or contractors’ property, although threats were made. The strikers pressed some of the farmers teams into service and killed some stock.”

A RAILROAD STRIKE. When the Dakota Central railroad was being constructed in the summer of 1879, the workmen engaged in a strike which created great excitement and necessitated a visit from the governor and the calling out of the militia. The wildest rumors were sent out concerning depredations committed by the strikers, but as a matter of fact very little damage was done.

     On the morning of June 16, 1879, thirty-one shovelers working four miles west of Tracy struck and demanded increased wages. Their employer refused the demands and told the men to go to Tracy and get their pay. The workmen at the next camp to the west also struck when they heard of the action of the others and a large number of the strikers started west to incite the other camps and make the strike general.

     Nearly all the workmen joined the strikers and those that were inclined otherwise were forced to join the ranks. The several construction crews became a mob. The march to the west continued until nightfall and camp was pitched on the Redwood river. On the morning of the seventeenth the mob continued the march toward Lake Benton. All except the camp farthest west suspended work and the army of strikers began the march back to Tracy. Many were mounted, and when some of those forced into the strike attempted to escape they were run down and again made to join the ranks.

     The foreman in charge of the construction work was making a tour of inspection near Lake Benton when the trouble occurred. He eluded the strikers by taking a circuitous route and reached Tracy early on the morning of Tuesday, the seventeenth. He at once asked aid from the county authorities.

     Sheriff Hunter was informed that the strikers were waging war on the settlers, contractors, boarding house keepers and others and that a general riot was feared. The peace officer at once swore in about twenty deputies, who, armed with rusty muskets, took the noon train for the seat of trouble. The sheriff sent out a mounted scouting party to reconnoiter and they reported an army of 200 strikers to be fifteen miles west of Tracy. It was feared the sheriff’s company would not be strong enough to cope with the mob and a call was sent for the state militia.

     About noon on Wednesday a part of the strikers arrived at Tracy. They bore aloft on a rude frame a sheet on which was inscribed: “Railroad Strikers. $3.50 per day and $1.50 per day.” A council between the strikers and contractors was held, at which the latter agreed to have the money on the next train from Marshall with which to pay the men their wages. The train did not stop at Tracy but went through at full speed. This incensed the strikers and threats of violence were made.

     The strike was brought to a sudden close. Within a half hour after the train from Marshall went through, a special train bearing the New Ulm militia company arrived in Tracy. On the train was also Superintendent Sanborn with money to pay the strikers. Only about thirty of them applied for their wages; the others returned to work and the strike was over. Governor John S. Pillsbury made a trip to Tracy early on the morning of Thursday to investigate conditions, but the men had returned to work and the governor remained only a couple of hours.

           – Arthur P. Rose, An Illustrated History of Lyon County, Minnesota (Marshall: Northern History Publishing Company, 1912), 252-253.

The New Ulm Review published a full account of the events on June 25, 1879. Click HERE to see the article as it appeared in the newspaper, with the title: “THE TRACY RIOT. Which Was no Riot at All, but Merely a Strike for Higher Wages.”


riot (SSL 11) – see also H.H. Stebbins