WAYNE REILLY

B&A strike of 1913 threatened northern Maine economy

Potato storage houses, like these in the Aroostook County town of Westfield, stood near the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad  tracks a century ago, providing the railroad with a major source of business.
Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum
Potato storage houses, like these in the Aroostook County town of Westfield, stood near the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad tracks a century ago, providing the railroad with a major source of business.
Posted Jan. 21, 2013, at 10:29 a.m.

“B&A ENGINEERS AND FIREMEN QUIT TODAY,” declared the lead headline in the Bangor Daily News on Saturday morning, Jan. 18, 1913, a century ago. Negotiations had broken down between 166 engineers and firemen and the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. The main travel artery connecting Aroostook County to Bangor and beyond would be severed. The result was one of the longest strikes in Maine history, according to Maine labor historian Charles A. Scontras.

The fear that the strike caused among the growing business interests supporting the upstart railroad’s operations, which stretched from Searsport to Houlton and Fort Kent and as far west as Greenville, may be what is most interesting about this long-forgotten event. Shipments south of potatoes, paper and lumber, as well as the passenger business, had given the sparsely populated area a tremendous economic boost. In about 20 short years, northern Maine had become dependent on the B&A.

B&A engineers and firemen wanted higher pay and better working conditions, more like their brethren on the Maine Central Railroad and other roads to the West. The railroad wouldn’t — indeed said it couldn’t — give an inch. It had a huge debt after 20 years of expansion. It could barely meet its fixed costs let alone stockholder dividends. Besides, B&A employees shouldn’t expect to be paid the same as workers on larger roads where the work was harder and more dangerous.

Things were already looking grim before the strike began. It was well known that aspiring striker replacements had been coming to B&A’s headquarters at Northern Maine Junction in Hermon and other terminal points all week.

In Houlton, about a dozen strike breakers were reported around town the day before the strike. The B&A announced it had stopped taking freight at 3 p.m. Farmers were storing their potatoes out of the weather. “Considerable excitement prevails here,” reported the Houlton correspondent in the paper Saturday morning.

“MILLINOCKET WOULD BE VERY HARD HIT,” declared another headline in the same paper. The Great Northern paper mills there and in East Millinocket only had a two-week supply of coal. Even if there was coal, there was no place to store new paper except in the freight cars that strikers were expected to abandon. The mills might have to shut down, putting hundreds out of work.

The strike began at 2 a.m. Saturday, said the Bangor Daily Commercial that afternoon. Most passenger trains remained on schedule, but freight service was tied up because of efforts by strikers to “intimidate” the new workers assembled by the railroad. An armed guard was said to be stationed on every train. Within the next few days some passenger trains were sidelined so more freight could be transported south.

Passengers who wanted to go on the short run between Bangor and Northern Maine Junction, which was over Maine Central track, would have to take one of the Maine Central trains that ran the same route. Because of the strike, Maine Central workers would no longer work the B&A trains.

A day or two later, passengers coming from the north were encouraged to take special electric trolley cars from the B&A’s station in north Bangor to downtown Bangor and vice versa.

Editorial writers were already weighing in. The Commercial found it “strange” that “intelligent men” like many of the engineers and firemen didn’t understand why the B&A couldn’t pay the same rate paid by bigger railroads. The editorial writer was incensed that the strike was being coordinated by union leaders from out-of-state.

The union men held a meeting Saturday at Royal Arcanum Hall in Bangor, where their leaders rejected violence and sympathy strikes by other groups of workers. They warned Pinkerton detectives hired by the railroad might cause damage and blame strikers. It was “an old Pinkerton trick.” No one had seen any Pinkertons, however. Sheriff deputies had been detailed to guard railroad property.

On Sunday, Hugh Morrison, superintendent of motive power for the railroad, was the B&A’s hero of the day. Serving as engineer, Morrison ran a train filled with perishable goods that morning from Northern Maine Junction to Millinocket and that afternoon returned with 75 cars loaded with potatoes.

Meanwhile, B&A’s President Percy R.Todd labeled as “absurd” rumors that the strike was concocted by competing railroad interests who wanted to buy the B&A after devaluing its stock.

More warnings were heard from potato shippers. This was the time of year when Aroostook farmers sent seed potatoes for planting to farmers in extreme south Atlantic states and Texas. “Any delay … would result in wholesale cancellation of orders and … heavy loss to shippers,” said the Bangor Daily News. It would be “a tremendous loss.”

On Tuesday, the newspaper declared B&A officials were confident “normal conditions would be restored within a week.” No trouble had been encountered yet, except for two arrests in Houlton when two strikers “interfered” with the new employees. Boards of trade in Presque Isle, Van Buren and Houlton had passed resolutions condemning unspecified violence that had occurred in their communities. A few days later, a striking engineer was arrested and charged with bribing a replacement to quit.

“AROOSTOOK, FACING DISASTER, APPEALS FOR ARBITRATION,” said a BDN headline the same day. A federal law established a procedure for management and strikers voluntarily to enter binding arbitration. Potato shippers had asked the Legislature to step in and order the railroad to submit to arbitration. B&A engineers and foremen had already agreed to enter mediation or arbitration.

Lawmakers after much impassioned debate adopted a weak resolution urging a speedy settlement.

Gov. William T. Haines announced in a newspaper story on January 30 that there was nothing the state could do unless the laws were changed to force the parties into arbitration. It was the first time in the history of the state a Maine governor had sent a message to the Legislature about a strike, said the Bangor Daily News. But attempts to pass a compulsory law failed.

Meanwhile, conditions on the railroad were getting back to normal. The strikers’ position was weakening. The only passenger train that hadn’t moved on Wednesday was the one between Van Buren and Fort Kent and that was because of a foot of frozen snow on the rails.

Further south, the steamer Millinocket had unloaded merchandise at Stockton, which was brought by train to Northern Maine Junction and Bangor. The vessel had taken on a load of paper and potatoes bound for New York. It was becoming apparent the railroad could get along without the strikers.

“Passenger service over the road is being maintained on a complete schedule with the exception of two through trains temporarily discontinued to aid in the movement of freight,” said the Commercial on Jan. 27, as the second week of the strike began. “Freight is being moved both north and south over the road, and while the embargo with regard to the acceptance of general freight had not been removed Monday morning it was expected it might be during the day.” Seed potatoes, the biggest worry, were getting the top priority.

As the days went by the strike story disappeared inside the newspaper, although occasional instances of violence topped the front pages of both Bangor papers. Switches had been vandalized at six locations and trains derailed at West Seboeis and Bowden’s Siding, the Commercial said on Feb. 12. The next day the newspaper announced that telegraph wires had been cut, shutting communication in the B&A’s northern division above Houlton.

Despite such problems, the railroad recovered. Full freight service did not return until March 24, and it wasn’t until May 13 that the Maine Central resumed handling B&A trains between Northern Maine Junction and Bangor, according to Jerry Angier and Herb Cleaves in their book on the history of the B&A.

The strike didn’t end until January 1915 “when strike benefits ceased,” according to Charles A. Scontras in his timeline of Maine labor history. “The strike ended in complete victory for the railroad.”

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him atwreilly.bdn@gmail.com

 

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