Gurdon Wattles and the Streetcar Riots of 1909
Aug 26, 2016 05:53PM
By Max Sparber
It is difficult to imagine Omaha’s once-bustling streetcar system. Scarce evidence remains: There are alleys downtown paved in brick with rail lines running down them, and some old buildings that were once car barns, but that’s about it.
If there is little physical reminder of streetcars’ heyday, there is nothing left of the labor unrest that enveloped the era, despite the fact that it was national news and left an astonishing legacy.
The main character of this story is Gurdon Wattles. A native of New York and a graduate of Dartmouth, Wattles came to Omaha in 1892, finding work here as the vice president of one of the city’s banking concerns.
There were several competing forms of transportation at the time. There was the Omaha Horse Railway, which provided something called “horsecars,” which were essentially streetcars drawn by horses. They had five miles of track running through the city, transporting almost a half a million Omahans per year. Then there was the Omaha Cable Tramway Co., which owned a cable car, the only one in the city. The Omaha Horse Railway eventually merged with the Omaha Cable Tramway Co. in 1889.
The city was a mess of rail lines and competing services, which would sometimes sue each other. Wattles joined the fray in 1890, buying controlling interest in one of the companies, and then taking advantage of a Nebraska legislative measure calling for all the lines to be consolidated. The result was the Omaha Traction Co., which was not only one of the nation’s earliest streetcar lines, but also one of it’s longest–lasting. Omaha still had streetcars in 1955.
The streetcar company grew to include 140 miles of tracks and 1,500 employees, and that was a lot of employees to keep happy. In 1909, a national streetcar union called the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees attempted to unionize local labor, but Wattles rebuffed the attempts in a way that was common at the time. He hired strikebreakers.
Wattles told his men that he would not allow a union. When they went on strike, he replaced them with laborers from New York, whom Wattles cheerily described as a “jolly lot of disreputable” and “always ready for a fight.”
The strikers were ready for a fight, too. On September 19, 1909, they rioted in downtown Omaha, attacking streetcars and battling strikebreakers. They continued to riot for four days, and largely had the support of the public, who refused to ride streetcars during the strike.
But the strikers could not compete against cheap labor that was on hand to fill their positions, and by October the strike had ended. Wattles would write a book about it, crowing about his success. The book—titled A Crime Against Labor—argued for a standing national force of strikebreakers for similar incidents of labor unrest.
However, the strike damaged Wattles' reputation in Omaha. Once a city leader, he felt himself attacked by “socialistic and anarchistic elements.” In 1920, he moved to a small citrus grove in Los Angeles, and invested heavily in the development of the neighborhood, which expanded quickly and grew rich.
And that’s the strangest legacy of the 1909 strike: That neighborhood was Hollywood. His mansion still stands there today.
Visit douglascohistory.org for more information. Omaha Magazine