November 06, 2006

Everett Massacre 90 years later

by David Chircop

Historian David Dilgard takes a new look at the 1916 conflict that left five labor activists and two deputies dead on the Everett waterfront.

On a clear fall afternoon 90 years ago today, simmering labor friction came to a violent boil on Everett's waterfront, taking at least seven lives.

Anarchist labor agitators with the Industrial Workers of the World, know as Wobblies, faced off in a bloody shootout at the dock with a posse of 200 deputized citizens under Sheriff Donald McRae.

Today at 2 p.m. at the Everett Public Library, local historian David Dilgard will present "A Fresh Examination of the Everett Massacre."

Wobblies jailed in connection with the melee sang loud songs taunting McRae, whom they portrayed as a drunken fiend.

In reality, the sheriff was considered progressive among the ranks of the local labor unions. But IWW's biting rhetoric had reached beyond the town's shores.

Joyce Timpe, 80, of Everett wasn't around for the mayhem, but she remembers stories about the songs.

Her father, John Fowler, was a shingler who lived near the county jail northeast of Rockefeller and Pacific avenues.

"He could hear them singing and rocking," she said. "The rhythm of the rocking was about to shake the old building apart."

How you view the chaos that landed the men in jail can depend on your background, Dilgard said.

"To a certain extent, it still shakes out across class lines," he said.

However, the workers have gained wider sympathy, even among the families of former mill managers, in recent years, he said.

"If you can silence the working man, then his fate is sealed and he'll never improve his lot," he said.

The fighting Nov. 5, 1916, was stirred amid a bitter labor clash between the shingle weavers' union and mill-owning bosses.

More than 300 young Wobblies had traveled from Seattle to Everett aboard the wooden passenger steamships Verona and Calista to show solidarity with the striking mill workers - ostensibly through a free-speech rally.

The socialist-leaning group came to test a 1913 city ordinance that banned political speeches in the city's central business district.

Wobblies had opposed similar bans, such as a 1909 law in Spokane that outlawed street speaking. They also effectively organized workers of East Coast textile factories, Rocky Mountain mines and ranches in California and reached even into South America.

But the would-be protesters, mostly unskilled laborers, didn't get the chance to fan the flames of discontent in Everett that fateful autumn day.

"The idea that the Wobblies died in the defense of free speech was something that was certainly embraced by their contemporaries," Dilgard said.

In his presentation today, he will focus on free speech and street gatherings in Everett's early days.

The city fathers who met the passenger ships weren't all power-hungry lumber barons, Dilgard said.

They represented a broad cross section of Everett's establishment, including community leaders and businessmen.

They had received word that the agitators had come to burn down Everett's mills, and they were ready to defend them.

No one knows for sure who fired the first shot, but when the smoke cleared, at least five IWW men and two deputies were dead.

Tacoma historian Ronald Magden said the most objective account of the event is found in the King County court case that followed.

Upon their return to Seattle, 74 Wobblies were arrested. Only one, Thomas H. Tracy, was charged with murder. The IWW put up a vigorous defense and a jury acquitted him in May 1917.

The evidence and testimony help cut through inflammatory and often contradictory accounts of the shooting, he said.

In preparing for his 1991 book "Working Longshoremen," Magden interviewed two witnesses who were near the Verona's wheelhouse when the bullets started flying.

"They didn't know who fired the first shot," he said.

University of Washington-Bothell professor Dan Jacoby is chairman of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

The IWW believed in worker-controlled industry, and they were effective at articulating their beliefs and organizing workers, Jacoby said.

But their anti-capitalist views, which resemble Bolshevism, also brought pressure from threatened government and industry interests.

In the 1920s, the I.W.W. saw its influence diminish even further.

Portland police department's infamous communist detail known as the "red squad" was said to have helped dismantle the radical group. Similar crackdowns played out across the country.

Because the Wobblies often rejected contractual agreements, they were never able to build the infrastructure needed for the "One Big Union" that it sought.

"They tended to be strong on rhetoric and relatively weak on long-term organization," Jacoby said.

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or

Massacre programs

"Bloody Sunday: A Fresh Examination of the Everett Massacre" is the topic of a presentation Sunday by local historian David Dilgard on the 90th anniversary of the waterfront killings.

Sponsored by the Museum of Snohomish County History, the free event is at 2 p.m. Sunday in the auditorium of the Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt Ave.

Another event, "A Celebration of Free Speech: Remember the Everett Massacre 90 Years Later," is at 7 p.m. Monday in the library auditorium. Banjo player Leith Kuhl will perform union songs of the era.

Donations will benefit the Free Stehekin, an underground newspaper run by Cascade High School students.


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