In 2017, it’s hard to imagine hundreds of unemployed Montanans marching down to the local rail yard to hijack a freight train as their conveyance to Washington, D.C., in order to demand that President Trump and the Congress create a jobs program.
It’s probably even more of a stretch to imagine that a lot of us—even our local elected leaders—would support them, offering up food and supplies for their journey.
Well something just like that actually happened, right about now, springtime, 123 years ago.
Before leaping into the story, we need to set the scene. In the early 1890s, the economy tanked. Banks closed. Businesses failed. There were labor troubles and mine closures. The railroads had over-extended, forcing massive layoffs. Unemployment was as high as 50 percent in some locations.
Jacob Coxey, an Ohio businessman, called for a march on Washington to demand jobs. Thousands responded. They became known as Coxey’s Army, Coxeyites, Commonwealers or Industrials.
In California, Charles T. Kelly started a similar movement which was dubbed “Kelly’s Army.” Early on, Montanans were generally sympathetic. They handed out food and offered places to stay for the night as the unemployed made their way eastward.
But by the spring of 1894, some of the most militant started forming their own “armies.” One was led by William Hogan. Organized in Butte and trained in a “vacant lot east of Meaderville,” Hogan’s group of Commonwealers grew rapidly—finally numbering 700.
On the morning of April 19, 1894, they marched to a nearby rail yard and surrounded Northern Pacific’s No. 60 freight train. They found it wanting, though—too few cars to accommodate their numbers, so they marched back to camp.
Marshals began guarding train yards and depots. Despite that, four days later, Hogan’s Army commandeered an engine and eight box cars.
The marshals made their final assault on the Commonwealers at the Billings rail yard on April 25. Despite hundred of spectators standing about, shots were fired, a Coxey leader was fatally wounded and one marshal was badly hurt. Two innocent bystanders were hit by bullets.
The crowd of spectators turned on the marshals, joining Coxeyites in disarming them. One reporter called the posse “a gang of legalized assassins.”
At hearing the news out of Billings, Charles Kelly, the leader of 2,000 Commonwealers in Iowa, said, “I fear our case is ruined. We are now reduced to the level of a mob. I would give my life to have this day’s work undone.”
The hijacked train was finally stopped near Forsyth by the Army, which dispatched six companies (300 soldiers) from Fort Keogh. The Commonwealers were put under guard and later taken back to Billings.
By comparison, it was rather quiet in Western Montana. But, the mood was changing.
The Missoulian newspaper, initially somewhat sympathetic, had now labeled Coxey and his followers “an irresponsible set. It is comprised of men whose brains are weak and whose judgment is poor indeed.”
The railroad bosses demanded their conductors stop “allowing” the Commonwealers to board their trains.
That drew a sharp retort from the superintendent of the Montana division to headquarters: “Where are your marshals? Where is the military? Where’s Grover Cleveland? Where the (expletive) is anybody? How in thunder do you expect one poor damn Irishman (conductor) to stop the whole Coxey army?”
In the early morning hours of May 19, a couple of hundred Coxeyites appropriated “freight train No. 58, eastbound, at Heron and started for Missoula at break-neck speed,” reported Missoula’s Western Democrat newspaper.
The train “swished past stations at the rate of 25 to 30 miles per hour,” stopping only briefly at Trout Creek for water, said the Missoulian.
At the request of the local Northern Pacific superintendent, Sheriff Ramsey put together “a small army of deputies” who boarded a special train in Missoula and headed out to intercept the hijackers. Higher-ups at NP, however, ordered the train recalled, saying they had turned the case over to the U.S. Marshal.
It was early evening by the time the feds and their posse arrived from Helena and headed north from Missoula aboard their special train.
At 5:55 pm, reported the Western Democrat, the marshals confronted the Coxeyites at Arlee, where the hijackers were repairing tracks, “which had been torn up for a considerable distance by order of the superintendent.” The mob surrendered “without a struggle.”
In the end, a few thousand of the unemployed did reach Washington, D.C. But Jacob Coxey was arrested for trespassing on the lawn at the Capitol and wasn’t able to make his speech. There was little or no support for their cause.
A handful of the Commonwealer organizers in Montana did jail time for stealing trains, but most were released.
Twenty years later, on May 30, 1914, “General” Jacob Coxey with an army of eight (rather than the thousands he had expected) finally made his speech on the Capitol steps.
Rep. Tom Stout (newspaper editor turned Montana congressman) personally observed the moment, and sent his observations to the state’s newspapers.
“I gazed with greatest admiration upon the footsore followers,” he recalled.
They each, he said, had “been confronted by dread terrors in the guise of offers of employment by farmers and others … but they remained true to their colors and their cause.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Montana journalist and broadcaster who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current.