Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic

Omnibus, Paris, 1828. State Library of Victoria via Wikipedia.

Omnibus (“bus for everyone”), Paris, 1828. State Library of Victoria via Wikipedia.

In my previous post, focused on the daily life of the Whisnant family at 44 South French Broad Avenue from about 1910 into the early 1920s, I noted that–owning to their complexity–three episodes would be held for a subsequent post.

This is that post, and the episodes are:

  • The Asheville Street Railway strike of 1913.  I treat it at some length here because it was Asheville’s first real strike, and  Asbury voted for and participated in it.
  • The flood of July 1916.  I treat it briefly here because it has been commented upon (usually briefly) many times before (e.g., here), because I dealt with it in three earlier posts (herehere, and here), and because Anthony Sadler’s Appalachian State University M.A. thesis, which analyzes it far more thoroughly than anyone previously has, is soon to be available online.
  • The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, in which Asbury and Ella’s youngest child–my father, then four years old–almost died (also treated at length here).

“Power and Traction” Companies: A Turbulent New Industry

At some point in the year 1912, the Asheville Board of Trade issued a thirty-six page brochure cataloguing the manifold attractions offered to tourists, conventioneers, and prospective investors by “America’s Beauty Spot in the Land of the Sky”: picturesque surroundings, natural resources, electric power, abundant pure water, elegant hotels, sparkling recreational facilties, churches of every faith, and–lest it be overlooked, uniquely advantageous labor conditions.  “Owing to the milder climate and cheaper products,” the Board promised,

farm labor is much less expensive in thie section than in the North or West. . . . This labor is at present mostly untrained, but is susceptible to intelligent training, and is easily controlled and satisfied. Strikes are unknown, and with reasonable care and training the same class of work can be done here at a much lower price than farther North.

It sounded like a good deal, but the Board’s promise was soon to be upended by the city’s (unionized) streetcar conductors and motormen.

The early history of streetcars in (and beyond) Asheville has been written about enough (most completely for Asheville in Trolleys in the Land of the Sky) that I needn’t repeat it here.  To place the 1913 strike by Asheville street railway employees in context, a timeline is sufficient:

1820s: First omnibus (trackless “carriage for all”) lines established in major cities

1830s: Horsecars appear; by 1880s, 400+ companies hauling nearly two million passengers/year

1881: North Carolina General Assembly charters street railway companies for Raleigh and Asheville

1882: First electric streetcar, South Bend, Indiana

1883: In its list of “Needed Improvements,” Asheville city directory urged that “A street railway from the depot to the center of the city . . .  would pay handsomely in Asheville.”

1886 (July): Asheville Street Railway Company organized

Country Home (Asheville), July 1886. Pack Memorial Public Library clipping file.

Country Home (Asheville), July 1886. Pack Memorial Public Library clipping file.

1886 (November 1): Ordinance by Board of Aldermen allows Asheville Street Railway Company to build a “single-track” railway

1889 (February): First electric streetcar run in Asheville

First electric streetcar run, February 1889. Pack Memorial Public Library.

First electric streetcar run, February 1889. Pack Memorial Public Library.  Click for larger version.

1892 (September): Amalgamated Association of Street [after 1903: and Electric] Railway Employees of America (A.A. of S. & E.R.E. of A) organized

1895: Streetcar strikes begin in U.S. cities; by 1913, major ones had occurred in Brooklyn, Cleveland, St. Louis, San Francisco, Pensacola and Indianapolis.  Some were violent.

1889: General Electric (successor to Edison’s Electric Illuminating Company of 1880) formed expressly to buy up and capitalize upon small early electricity-generating entities. Began buying up traction and power companies nationwide.

As Trolleys in the Land of the Sky sketches the period, the following few years were turbulent.

1905: GE formed subsidiary Electric Bond and Share Company to sell GE-acquired companies.

1908: Electric Bond and Share bought Asheville and Raleigh companies and combined them as Carolina Power & Light Company (CP&L).

1908 (perhaps earlier): Asheville street railway employees organized as Div. 128 of the street railway employees’ union (A.A. of S. & E.R.E. of A).

1913 (spring): CP&L’s Asheville unit, operated out of Raleigh, became Asheville Electric Company, the local “power and traction company” which both supplied electric power and operated Asheville’s street railway system.

Big Strike in a Small System

In April of 1913, when Div. 128 opened negotiations with Asheville Electric for a new contract, Asheville’s system was still small.  Even at peak (1915) size, it operated only forty-three cars on eighteen miles of track.

As a member of the union, Asbury had a good bit at stake.  He was in his thirteenth year of employment as a conductor–with a narrow set of skills and experience that suggested no other obvious work opportunity.  Stable, continuous work was essential, since he had a wife and two children (a three year-old and a two month-old) to support.

Despite its nearly exclusive reputation as a tourist mecca, Asheville was also an industrial city with many industrial jobs, but most were not attractive.  Asheville Cotton (earlier, C. E. Graham) Mills had been there since 1893, but cotton mill wages were notoriously poor ($5.00 to $9.00 per week for men, said the Board of Trade brochure), and living conditions in the Chicken Hill mill village, a half-mile from 44 South French Broad, were not attractive.

Chicken Hill mill and mill worker housing, 1900. Situated on the French Broad River, west of downtown Asheville. From Chicken Hill: Asheville's Oldest New Neighborhood.

Chicken Hill mill and mill worker housing, 1900. Situated on the French Broad River, west of downtown Asheville. From Chicken Hill: Asheville’s Oldest New Neighborhood.

Asbury’s wages were also modest.  At 21 1/2 cents per hour, he would have taken home about $12.00 per week for a nine-plus hour day, six days a week.  No doubt somewhat more than a cotton mill hand would have made at the time, but still barely a living wage.

The 1913 negotiations in Asheville (and the strike that ensued) fit a common pattern within the industry.  Within a three-year period, there had been twenty-two street railway strikes and six lockouts–one in 1909, seventeen in 1910, and ten in 1911.  Since Asheville had never had one during its twenty-four years of operation, it was about due for one.

Div. 128 officers with International Vice President George Keenan (3rd from left, seated). Motorman and Conductor (1913).

Div. 128 officers with International Vice President George Keenan (3rd from left, seated). Motorman and Conductor (1913).

Motorman and Conductor reported that Division 128 workers presented their wage request on April 19.   Despite intercession by national union Vice President George Keenan, workers became deadlocked with the company, and the company refused arbitration.

On the Saturday the 26th, workers assembled at Central Methodist Church, voted to strike, and walked out at noon after informing the company that the cars were “on their way to the [car] barns.”

Asheville street Railway employees afterrstrike vote, Central Methodist Church. Asbury Whisnant at ---; George Keenan at---

Asheville street railway employees (approximately eighty-seven in number) after strike vote, Central Methodist Church. Asbury Whisnant (mustache and bow tie) slightly below and to R of 2nd column from left; George Keenan standing at center (smaller of two men in dark suits and bowler hats).  Photo by H. W. Pelton, from collection of Jean Johnson. Also in Pack Memorial Public Library.  Click photo and zoom browser window for much larger image.

The company confidently declared that it would operate the cars with office employees and street workers,” but those who tried it were withdrawn that evening.  “This action,” reported the Atlanta Constitution on Sunday morning, “followed successful attempts on the part of a mob of boys and young men to cut the trolley ropes of the cars.”  Undaunted, the company promised that “sufficient men to operate the entire system” would arrive on Monday (the 28th).

On Monday, however, the Asheville Gazette-News was less hopeful. Saturday night and Sunday had brought “scenes of disorder” among strike sympathizers, and  no negotiations were under way despite talks between the union’s strike director George Keenan, Division 128 representatives and the mayor.

Adding to the tension, the Gazette-News continued, “a score” of strikebreakers had arrived from New Jersey on Sunday.  Exiting quietly from the train in Biltmore, they seem to (accounts differ) have gotten into carriages and automobiles and headed toward the streetcar barn.  Meanwhile, a quietly hostile crowd of 1000, many wearing”We Walk” buttons awaited them at the Asheville depot. When the train pulled into the depot minus the strikebreakers, the crowd piled into their own carriages and autos and headed uptown.  They overtook the strikebreaker caravan on South Main Street, hooting, jeering and calling them “dirty scabs.” “It looked,” the Gazette-News continued, “as if a riot might be precipitated” if the imported men tried to take the streetcars out.

A full-scale confrontation took place at the Langren Hotel, where rooms had been booked.

Langren Hotel, ca. 1915. Postcard by E. C. Kropp Co., Milwaukee. UNC CH Library, North Carolina Postcard Collection

Langren Hotel, ca. 1915. Postcard by E. C. Kropp Co., Milwaukee. UNC CH Library, North Carolina Postcard Collection

Shouts of “Drag them out, the dirty scabs” welled up.  Resisted by only a single police officer, the crowd surged to the top of hotel steps before other police arrived and shoved them back down.  The mayor cautioned that he “would not be responsible” for what happened if the strikebreakers tried to operate the cars.

Langren Hotel advertisement in Asheville Citizen-Times during strike (May 1, 1913)

Langren Hotel advertisement in Asheville Gazette News during strike, May 1, 1913, p. 6.

No doubt fearing bad press and reduced patronage for their spanking new hotel if an ugly event took place on its steps, the Langren’s managers gave notice “that the men [accompanied by a street railway official] would have to get out at once.” Their concern was understandable, given that the Langren had been open for less than a year, replacing the old Buck Hotel, built in 1825 as a drover’s inn. A modern fireproof structure built of reinforced concrete, the Langren  catered to businessmen instead of the tourists who preferred the older Battery Park (1886).

Failing to find another hotel or boarding house that would take the men, the company tried to get cots for them, but failed at that, too. Company officials “came to a hasty conclusion,” observed the Gazette-News, “that it would be wise to send the men away.” They came out under police guard (one had been arrested for carrying a pistol inside the hotel) and boarded the 7:00 p.m. train.  At  the station, a few  were reportedly “ill used” by some members of the crowd.

The strikers deplored the Langren confrontation, and renewed their call for an “orderly” process.  But on Saturday night, a crowd of several hundred gathered at the Square, yanked a few trolley poles from wires, and milled around in a rather holiday mood.  Police, sensing a “judicial calm,” took no action. A few uniformed “streetcar men” were spotted in the crowd, but they took no part.  Whether Asbury was present, I do not know.  His meticulously kept time books, which might shed light upon that question, are not available to me.

The next day (the 29th), the Constitution added that there were rumors that another “squad of sixty-six strike-breakers” were on their way from Salisbury, and that “a mob of three or four hundred men and boys quickly formed on Pack Square, many of them, it is reported, armed.”

Newspaper accounts do not make clear how many men (on either side) might have been armed, but an item among Asbury’s possessions suggests that at least he thought it wise

Asbury's .38 Smith & Wesson pistol

Asbury’s .38 Smith & Wesson pistol.  Private collection.

to arm himself.  As previous posts indicate, he had long owned and used guns for hunting.  But this time he bought a .38 Smith & Wesson pearl-handled revolver.

Smith & Wesson logo

Smith & Wesson logo

Manufacturing and patent data inscribed on the barrel show that it was manufactured at Smith & Wesson’s Springfield MA factory after September 14, 1909 (the last of three inscribed patent dates), nearly ten years after Asbury came to Asheville.

From the  serial number (47XXX) and other design details I supplied, Smith & Wesson company historian Roy Jinks identified the gun as a .38 caliber S&W 5-shot, top-break, automatic eject, perfected-action pistol manufactured sometime in 1912-13–near the time of the strike.  It seems reasonable to me to assume


Manufacturing location and patent data inscribed on top of barrel.  Click photo for larger image.

(in the absence of a purchase receipt) that that was probably the moment when–and the strike the reason why–Asbury bought it.

In any case, gun violence apparently never erupted.  After the Salisbury strikebreaker rumor proved false, the “mob” (as the newspapers called it) dispersed.  The strikers petitioned city aldermen to decree that cars were not to be operated “by men not familiar with the streets of the city,” and asked again for arbitration.

By Wednesday (the 30th), the Gazette-News published Div. 128’s statement on “our side of the controversy.”  It deprecated “any violence, injury, disorder, or bloodshed” and promised to accept “any fair plan of arbitration,” to continue to work as “peaceable and law-abiding citizens.”  The statement included a table of wage ranges by years employed in cities less than or equal to the size of Asheville (between 17 and 42,000). Beginning wages were lowest in Elmira NY (17 cts/hr) and the highest maximum was in Butte MT (45 cts).  Asheville Street Railway’s profits had risen steadily during the four years ending with 1912, the men pointed out, but the cost of living in Asheville had risen 40% during the past seven years, and wages were up only 1.5 cts/hr.  The company said they couldn’t afford the requested increase, but their own North Carolina Corporation Commission report showed that to be false.

In what may have been an afternoon edition, the Gazette-News ran another long headline:

Asheville Gazette-News, April 30, 1913

Asheville Gazette-News, April 30, 1913.  Click image for complete article.

Details too extensive to repeat here followed: the company said it would send out four streetcars, and expected “no trouble” because the authorities will “have affairs well in hand” if a “lawless element” tries to start trouble.  A citizen petition revealed “concern” about the situation, with scabs a central focus.

Just in case of trouble, the chief of police began “swearing in special officers.”  Apprehension was widespread.  An accompanying editorial asked rhetorically, “Why delay?” in settling the strike.

Asheville Citizen-Times, May 1, 1913.

Asheville Citizen, May 1, 1913, p. 1.  Click image for complete article.

Why, indeed?  The company’s bland assurances that, whatever ensued, they and the police could handle it rang hollow the next day when “the city is quiet” was superseded by “MOB VIOLENCE” in large type, followed by “No Signs of Disorder” in small type.  Since the union was still on strike, the cars were operated by thirty scabs hauled up from Salisbury and moved into the city under police escort.

The article itself offered more evidence of the former than of the latter: angry crowds of 200-700 people (not a single striker among them) forming and re-forming around the city, bricks and stones through car barn windows, shots fired in the building, seven arrests, police “unable to clear the streets,” “special [citizen] officers” commissioned, rumors of large quantities of  liquor shipped in, company officials declaring themselves “practically terrorized by young hoodlums,” but four scab-operated cars making runs for about eight hours (each protected by four to eight officers).

Meanwhile, as ten scab-operated cars rolled, Governor Locke Craig was on his way to Asheville, citizens were reluctant to be deputized, power transmission lines were attacked, and there was talk of calling out the militia.

On May 2, with the Governor in town accompanied by his Adjutant General, 1800 people gathered in the city auditorium to press for arbitration, which the union had been asking for since before the strike started.  A resolution praised both the motormen and conductors (“the manhood of our native mountain country”) and the company (“a great pride of our city and country”), and proposed an arbitration plan.  The Governor, for his part, sought a peaceful resolution and assured the crowd that the special officers (by then numbering above fifty) were able to handle the situation.  Straddling the union/no union line, he asserted that the company was “free to operate those cars with any men it may choose,” but that “we do not want to give up our old motormen and conductors.”  In the streets, word was that the scab-operated cars were carrying increasing numbers of passengers.

In a meeting that began that afternoon and ran into the late evening, the strike was settled.  The union had asked for a minimum of 20 cents per hour for new men and 25 cents for the third and later years.  The new rate was set at 19 cents (first year), 20 (second), 23 (third), and 25 (fourth and thereafter, and the cars rolled on their regular schedule the following morning.  At these new rates, for a nine plus hour day, Asbury would have brought home just under $14.00 for a six-day week, and a new worker about $10.50.

Division 128’s president said that there never had been “the slightest ill will” between men and the company, and that every man pledged to give “the same unswerving loyalty, the same conscientiousness, and the same hard work” as always.  A Citizen editorial praising the settlement said there was “glory enough for all” and  “a spirit of optimism all over the city.”  The whole process, they said, “augurs well for the continued prosperity of the city.”

Asheville Citizen-Times, May 1, 1913.

Asheville Citizen, May 1, 1913.

That logic, while perhaps sound in the long run, did not hint that some businesses had endeavored to turn a profit out of the strike itself.

While the strike was still very much in progress and strike sympathizers were sporting “We Walk” buttons, the Racket Store appropriated “We Walk” for their shoe and clothing advertisement.

Meanwhile Bon Marché, a somewhat more upscale department store, tried it both ways: On May 1, while the strike was still going on, they ran an advertisement for “striking specials,” and the day after it ended they ran a follow-up ad that tapped into customers’ relief that it was over.

Asheville Citizen-Times, May 1, 1913, p2.

Asheville Citizen, May 1, 1913, p. 2.

Asheville Citizen-Times, May 4, 1913, p. 2

Asheville Citizen, May 4, 1913, p. 2

The Asheville Socialist Local had a very different take on the strike–“the first real strike in

Asheville Gazette-News, May 3, 1903, p. 8.

Asheville Gazette-News, May 3, 1903, p. 8.  Click image for readable view.

the history of Asheville,” they called it in their weekly column in the Gazette-News on the day the strike was settled.  “Under present conditions,” they said,

[any] corporation can ignore any demands made by its employees, however reasonable.  If its employees strike, it can replace them with scabs, and in case of trouble, call to its aid every officer of the law in the city, every able-bodied man if necessary, and the national guard. The laws are made for the capitalists.

The workers’ demands were so modest, they continued, that they should have been granted immediately, and their behavior during the strike had turned out to be beyond reproach.  “Municipal ownership of the street railway” in Asheville, in the Socialists’ view, “would have made the present strike impossible.”

Looking forward, they urged that Asheville establish an industrial school, provide free books and lunches to school children, supply “free water to all women who take in washing for a living,” establish a farmer’s market, buy back any public facilities it does not already own, and institute an eight-hour day and union wages for all city employees.

Asbury’s perspective fell somewhere between  the Socialist one and the major newspapers’ “glory enough for all” euphoria. He had a wife and two children, so being out of work for a week was no small matter.  But he was also a loyal union man, and the strike had raised his pay by about sixteen percent.  When his third child was born about fourteen months later, he and Ella named him John Keenan.  The line of John Whisnants reached back into the eighteenth century, but Keenan was new–bestowed in honor of George Keenan, Third Vice President of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America, who had come from his home Division 282 (Rochester NY) to direct the Asheville strike.

The Flood of 1916

Flood district at Riverside Park, July 16-17, 1916. North Carolina Postcards, UNC-CH Library.

Flood District at Riverside Park, July 16-17, 1916. North Carolina Postcards, UNC-CH Library.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, I have commented upon some aspects of the 1916 flood several times in earlier posts.  I return to it here only to provide a few key details, and to sketch its impact upon the Whisnant family.  Since their home at 44 South French Broad Avenue was situated about 200 feet above the river, the flood did not affect them in that way.  The effects that touched them derived from Asbury’s employment with the street railway system, which was severely damaged.

As Forster Sondley pointed out in his 1922 history of Asheville and Buncombe County, there had been a few floods (“freshets,” as they were sometimes called early on) around the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers that bordered Asheville since the 1790s.  In 1852, one had taken out bridges on these rivers and their tributaries, and there was a much larger one in 1876.

A U. S. Forest Service Report of 2008 presents illuminating data on rainfall at nearby western North Carolina locations fifteen years before the flood of 1916:

During August, 1901, the total rainfall for the month at Flat Rock was 30 inches; at Highlands, 30 inches; at Hendersonville, 26 inches; at Horse Cove, 26 inches; at Paterson, 24 inches, and at Marion, 21 inches. 

The 1916 flood was far larger than any earlier one. Between July 11 and 16, two tropical hurricanes, a week of torrential rains (eight to eighteen inches in some WNC locations) on

Lighting plant on French Broad River. Schandler Family Collection, UNCA.

Lighting plant on French Broad River, Flood of 1916. Schandler Family Collection, UNCA.  Click for larger image.

already saturated ground drove the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers far above flood stage.

Flood of 1916. High water mark on tree, French Broad River at Asheville. Schandler Family Collection, UNCA.

Flood of 1916. High water mark on tree, French Broad River at Asheville. Schandler Family Collection, UNCA.

Farmers’ fields flooded.  Upstream dams broke. Bridges and dams washed away, and landslides took out roads and railway lines.

Southern Railway tracks washed out by flood of 1916, Old Fort area. Great War in the Land of the Sky

Southern Railway tracks washed out by flood of 1916, Old Fort area. Click for larger image.

Power stations were knocked out.  Raging waters destroyed countless homes, as well as factories and businesses along the riverfront. Power and communications stayed out for days, and travel ranged from impossible to perilous. Dozens of people died, and there was massive economic loss.

Trolleys in the Land of the Sky sketches the impact of the flood upon the street railway.  When the power went out, crews operating cars on the lower-elevation lines (in Biltmore, for example) had to abandon them wherever they stood.

Street car at flooded French Broad River in Biltmore, July 16, 1916. Pack Memorial Public Library

Street car at flooded French Broad River in Biltmore, July 16, 1916. Pack Memorial Public Library

The Southern Railway Depot on low-lying Depot Street flooded, and the Riverside Park-related