Deleted Scenes from The Lost Subways: Denver

Now that The Lost Subways of North America is out, I'm posting deleted chapters.  The first one that I cut was Denver.

The Great Denver Streetcar Strike

The streetcar and interurban industries were behemoths in the early 20th century, employing 300,000 workers in the early 1920s.  This also made them ground zero for the labor strife that characterized the period.  The best place to illustrate this type of management-labor strife of the period is Denver, Colorado. There, a three-way battle between the Denver Tramway, the Denver city government, and the streetcar workers’ union ultimately culminated in the declaration of martial law.

The Tramway was Colorado’s largest mass transit operator from 1886 to 1971.  The company got its start in 1885 by bribing the Denver City Council to get a perpetual monopoly over the city’s public transit network.  This monopoly was incredibly lucrative and widely loathed.  In 1895, Thomas McMurray was elected mayor, vowing to renegotiate the monopoly.  The Tramway offered the City a one-time payment of $50,000 ($1.8 million in 2022 dollars). McMurray rejected the offer.  His counteroffer was for the Tramway to pay a portion of its profits to the City.  The Tramway responded by opposing McMurray’s 1899 re-election bid. McMurray lost the election, and his successor, Henry Johnson, accepted the Tramway’s renewed offer of a one-time payment.  The Tramway paid $74,000 into city coffers to settle the matter ($2.7 million in 2022 dollars).

Despite the payment, the public’s anger at the Tramway never really went away.  To mollify the voters, the Tramway’s owners drafted a compromise monopoly in 1906 which had a 30-year expiration date. This compromise monopoly would come into effect if the perpetual monopoly was voided, with a permanent 5-cent fare.  A few years later, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that perpetual monopolies violated the Colorado Constitution in the case *City of Leadville v. Leadville Sewer Company.*  As a result, the compromise monopoly went into effect in 1910.   

Then the inflation of World War I happened, and the 5-cent fare wasn’t enough to keep the Tramway solvent anymore.  When the City of Leadville decision was handed down in 1909, five cents was worth $1.67, inflation-adjusted to 2023.  By 1918, inflation had reduced the buying power of the dollar by 40%, but the fare had remained at five cents.

Wages hadn’t kept up with inflation, either.  In 1914, a trainman could make as much as 30 cents per hour.  By 1918, wages had increased 13%, but prices had gone up 51%.   That summer, Tramway workers organized themselves as Local 746, Amalgamated Association of Street and Railway Employees of America. Wartime exigency and federal intervention initially kept the peace between the Tramway and the union.  As a temporary war measure, the Denver City Council allowed the Tramway to raise fares to six cents in early September 1918.  Two months later, the federal National War Labor Board awarded Local 746’s workers a 41% increase in pay, plus three months’ back pay.  The National War Labor Board’s pay increase put inflation-adjusted wages back to their 1914 level.  On December 17th, the state Public Utilities Commission, with the backing of both the Tramway and Local 746, approved another fare hike.  Streetcar fares were raised to seven cents.

1. Five Cents or Nothing

The second fare hike was necessary to keep the Tramway solvent and avoid a strike.  But it also led to public outrage.  Shortly thereafter, “Five Cents or Nothing” societies formed all over Denver. On January 2, 1919, Five Cents or Nothing protests turned violent. When streetcar crews attempted to collect the seven-cent fare, angry mobs numbering in the thousands threw crewmen from the trains, breaking train windows, and setting streetcar equipment ablaze.  Dewey Bailey, municipal Safety and Excise Commissioner, refused to deploy police in sufficient numbers to disperse the mob.

The seven-cent fare lasted for less than a month.   On January 14th, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the City of Denver, not the State, had the power to set Tramway fares.   The December fare increase approved by the State was void.  As a mayoral election was set for May, the situation was ripe for political interference. And Bailey, one of two leading mayoral candidates, had thrown his hat in the ring.  Bailey promised to restore the five-cent fare, never mind what the unions or the Tramway thought, and made it the centerpiece of his political campaign.  Bailey handily won the 1919 mayoral election and delivered on his promise.   On June 30th, the city government reduced the fare from six cents to five. Bailey had won.

The reactions from the Tramway and the union were entirely predictable.  Unable to balance the books with a five-cent fare, the Tramway cut service, unilaterally reduced workers’ wages, and announced mass layoffs.  Local 746, in turn, voted to strike in July 1919.  The press blamed the Mayor.  The Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver’s two major newspapers, opined: “Until this question was dragged into politics the transportation company and the public were getting along all right. … Mr. Bailey, as the ‘paramount issue’ of his campaign pledged himself to a five-cent fare, and a majority of the voters took him at his word.  He cannot escape responsibility for what has taken place.  He must have realized that a reduction in fares meant a reduction elsewhere and a general upheaval.”  The suburban Aurora Democrat put it more bluntly: “That ‘bunk’ issue of a five-cent fare at the last Denver election should be dropped into a well.”   Mayor Bailey, for his part, accused the union of colluding with the Tramway to secure higher fares at the public’s expense.  

The strike caught the Tramway flat-footed. Company attempts to hire strikebreakers and run the system without union labor flopped.   Feeling the political heat, the city and the Tramway folded, agreeing to restore the previous wage scale after less than a week.  Bailey and his allies agreed to temporarily restore the six-cent fare until a citywide referendum could be held in October 1919 to make the six-cent fare permanent.  The trouble was, voters rejected the six-cent fare referendum at the polls.

2. Be Sure and Shoot Straight

Over the winter and spring of 1919-20, attempts to permanently solve the dispute through negotiation went nowhere.   By the late spring of 1920, the negotiations had reached an impasse and the Tramway was once again threatened to reduce workers’ wages. The City sued Local 746 and the Tramway, securing an injunction from Judge Greeley Whitford on May 29th, 1920 that froze the status quo in place. Judge Whitford’s injunction put the union under a no-strike order; the Tramway was ordered to keep wages and streetcar service at existing levels.  The Tramway appealed Whitford’s decision, attempting to void the injunction in the courts.  The union ignored the no-strike order altogether, despite pleas from its leadership and its lawyers.  On August 1, 1920, Local 746 workers overwhelmingly voted to strike, 887-11.

As Local 746 was putting strike preparations in motion, the Tramway was quietly enacting its contingency plan. The key man in the Tramway’s plan was a San Francisco private eye named John “Blackjack” Jerome. Jerome – birth name Yiannis Petrolekas – was a Greek immigrant who had come to America to seek his fortune.  He arrived in California at the age of 16 from a tiny village on the Aegean Sea called Kyparissi, 50 mountainous miles east of Sparta.  Young Yiannis reinvented himself in America, taking the name “John Jerome”.  He was sharp, ambitious and a natural businessman, establishing a successful private detective agency with branches in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Jerome’s detective agency specialized in supplying streetcar companies with strikebreakers willing to cross picket lines by force.  He rapidly gained a reputation as the best strikebreaker west of the Mississippi, acquiring the nickname “Blackjack” along the way. (Some contemporary sources attribute the nickname “Blackjack” to Jerome’s love of the card game; others claim that a blackjack – a lead-tipped club – was Jerome’s preferred melee weapon.)  

The Tramway’s plan was relatively straightforward. In the event of a strike, the company would buy large quantities of essentials like bedding and food to the Tramway facilities.  The streetcars would be equipped with improvised armor to resist stones, bricks, and other improvised weapons used by strikers.  Blackjack Jerome would supply hundreds of heavily armed strikebreakers to run the trains at all hazards.  On Tuesday, July 27, 1920, four days before the strike vote, Jerome telegraphed Tramway general manager Frederick W. Hild, “Am leaving this P.M. for Denver. In case of strike will break it for you. Will arrive Thursday P.M.”  Meanwhile, in California, Jerome’s team was recruiting men to break the strike. Jerome’s posse was a motley mix of thugs, University of California undergraduates, private investigators and unemployed streetcar crewmen. All had “a capacity for reckless courage under the discipline of a leader like Jerome.”  

The first group of strikebreakers appeared in Denver on August 2nd.  On arrival, Jerome told his men, “You have come here to break this strike.  We are going to do it and when you shoot be sure and shoot straight.”   The next day, August 3, Blackjack Jerome personally drove the first streetcar out of the Tramway’s depot and through downtown Denver.  He openly carried a revolver at his side, with a bandolier of ammunition slung over his shoulder.  Hild acted as the train’s conductor.  20 heavily armed strikebreakers rode in the streetcar, escorted by four carloads of Denver police.  The State of Colorado had supplied Jerome’s men with firearms and ammunition from government armories, at the City’s request.  In the meantime, the Denver City Attorney went to court, seeking to jail the leaders of Local 746 for violating Judge Whitford’s injunction.

The city rapidly descended into violence.  An angry mob looted the offices of the Denver Post. Denver police chief Hamilton Armstrong was hit in the head with a brick and had to be treated to by a surgeon.  A mob of rioters rampaged through downtown, beating strikebreakers into unconsciousness, derailing streetcars, and setting the trains on fire.  One party of strikebreakers was forced to take refuge in downtown Denver’s unfinished Catholic cathedral.   At one of the Tramway depots, Jerome’s men opened fire on rioters, killing five and wounding 25.  

By August 6th, the situation was well out of control.  Mayor Bailey attempted to deputize 2,000 civilians as special policemen and called out the war veterans of the American Legion to keep order.  It was too little, too late.  That day, Colorado Governor Oliver Shoup telegraphed Major General Leonard Wood of the U.S. Army, “Riotous situation following strike in Denver beyond control of city and state authorities.  Eight hundred federal troops urgently necessary to preserve order, save lives and prevent destruction of property. Prompt action imperative.”   Thus, at 1:30am, August 7th, federal troops began to arrive in Denver.  The federal commander, a decorated World War I veteran named C. C. Ballou, issued a declaration of martial law.  Colonel Ballou’s men, armed with tanks and machine guns, quickly brought the civil disorder to an end.  Jerome’s men disarmed peaceably and were gradually sent home over the next few weeks.  Except for a few isolated incidents, the violence rapidly petered out.  Denver would remain under martial law until September 8th.  Federal troops remained deployed in the city until September 17.   In total, seven died and 52 were seriously wounded.

3. The Only Winning Move Is Not to Play

The strike marked the beginning of the Tramway’s decline. Rail expansion would end in 1923.  Streetcars were gradually replaced with trolleybuses, and then motor buses. The last trains would run in 1950.  The Tramway’s bus system, in turn, was taken over by the predecessor to the modern Regional Transportation District (RTD) in 1971.  RTD’s electric light rail and regional rail system opened in 1994 as a response to the city’s smog and traffic issues.

In the end, nobody won.  The Tramway declared bankruptcy. Local 746 was dissolved. Its leaders were jailed. 700 of the original 1100 striking workers were fired.  Mayor Bailey lost his re-election bid, and the fare went up from five cents to eight cents.   Practically the only person to emerge from the strike unscathed was Blackjack Jerome.  Jerome reinvested the profits from his strikebreaking into California real estate and gambling ventures, and retired a millionaire.  At his death in 1953, he left behind a villa in his home village in Kyparissi, and an estate worth a million dollars ($11 million, inflation-adjusted).   His funeral was attended by thousand mourners from all strata of San Francisco society.  His funeral was delayed for nearly three weeks because of a boycott from the undertakers’ union.

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