A June 1903 labor dispute sparked enough mob violence to cause the city's mayor to call out the state guard, resulting in gunfire and death in Richmond.
From the 1888 inception of Richmond's electric-streetcar system, various companies jousted with courts and City Council for supremacy and exclusive rights to lines. Meanwhile, carmen's earnings steadily declined. They successfully struck in August 1902 for a 2-cent raise.
After that first taste of victory, union representatives proposed another contract to the Virginia Power & Passenger Co. the following June. They asked that conductors receive $1.89 per day and motormen $1.98 (a 3 1/2-cent raise). Those on the Petersburg lines would receive a 2 1/2-cent increase.
S.W. Huff, Virginia Power's general manager, said no, in part because just 10 months before, a pay increase of $30,000 was distributed among all the company's employees. Huff also dismissed the union's request for arbitration, declaring that such a concession would diminish the company's "power of discipline over the men."
To no one's surprise, on June 17, Division 152 of the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees, representing 700 motormen and conductors, struck VP&P.
The day after the strike began, notices posted by the company in its car barns instructed strikers to pick up their last paycheck and turn in their badges, buttons and rulebooks. Ads simultaneously appeared in the newspapers of nearby cities seeking car operators for $2 a day, with assurance of employment when the strike ended.
A train arrived in Richmond on July 19, carrying 67 Philadelphia men ready to work for VP&P. When strikers persuaded some of the out-of-towners not to work, the company upped the salary to $4.50 a day.
An estimated 3,000 people surrounded the VP&P offices at Seventh and Main streets, where strikebreakers and streetcars were pelted by mud, eggs and trash. Percussion caps placed on the train tracks caused explosions. In Fulton, gangs of men piled obstructions on the tracks and tried to burn a streetcar trestle. Threats were made against Huff's family, and guards were posted around his house.
Mayor Richard "Honest Dick" Taylor, "a working-man's candidate and idol" who held five consecutive terms between 1895 and 1904, resorted to asking Gov. Andrew Jackson Montague to call out the state militia in order to guard the cars and assure their continued operation. On June 23, Montague activated 16 companies — 1,300 men, including Richmond's Light Infantry Blues regiment. Manchester Mayor Henry Maurice requested troops a week later.
Henrico County's Sheriff Solomon, perhaps with striker sympathies, at first relied on private security to protect cars when they rolled over the county line, which was near Lombardy Street at the time.
On June 25, at Vine and Lombardy streets, by the car barn where transfer between soldiers and guards occurred (today's Trolley Shops on West Main Street), a car was fired upon. Guards responded by spraying squirrel shot that injured six people. A nighttime retaliatory attack wounded three operators.
The strikers started their own newspaper called The Opinion. The paper urged calm among all strikers, argued for their demands and occasionally tweaked the opposition. About Mayor Taylor, the so-called workers' friend, they wrote, "Much ought not be expected for a self-confessed figurehead. Don't blame a man for not going above his capabilities."
Striking motorman Charles E. Gresham got into an altercation with fellow striker Walter H. Lowery about other strikers returning to work. A fistfight resulted, further provoking Gresham. On July 3, Gresham attacked Lowery, who pulled a knife and slashed his assailant. Gresham died from the wounds, and a grand jury decided Lowery acted in self-defense.
The next night, a state guardsman reprimanded Manchester ironworker Luther Taylor for drunken and disorderly conduct. Taylor cussed out the guard and was placed in custody; a guard corporal rode in Taylor's buggy. At Hull Street and Cowardin Avenue, Taylor, still driving despite his arrest, turned onto Cowardin and stopped.
The two men struggled, and Taylor shoved the guard out of the buggy, bolted away and refused to halt. The corporal and several soldiers fired, killing the horse and mortally wounding Taylor. A grand jury later found that had a similar situation occurred with civilian police, they would have been doing their job, and so it was with the guard. Taylor was the first case in Virginia involving a soldier shooting a civilian during peacetime duty.
After 68 days, the union ultimately got nothing and dissolved. Mayor Taylor lost the 1904 election due to his handling of the strike.
The cost of combating the strike and a subsequent boycott by African-Americans protesting segregation ultimately bankrupted the VP&P and delivered it into the hands of New York City transit interests.