Dynamite and Cable Cars - 1886-1887 Newspaper Articles
Collected by Joe Thompson

These articles, from The San Francisco Call, discuss strikes against several San Francisco transit companies. I also dug up two mentions of the strike in books. We don't always appreciate what we have today.

Sutter Street Strike

From the New York Times / Thursday, December 9, 1886. Page 1.


SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 8.-- A tie-up began on the Sutter-street company's lines this morning that promises to be the most stubbornly contested strike that has occurred in this city. It includes Sutter and Larkin streets cable lines and Polk-street horse car extension. About 200 men went out, comprising conductors and drivers on horse cars and hostlers and firemen in engine room. ‘Tis possible the strike may extend to other lines. The men have been working 14 hours daily for $2.25. They demand $2.50 for a day of 12 hours. They are the poorest paid car men in the city. On the Market-street system -- four of the longest lines in the city, belonging to the Central Pacific -- the wages were recently voluntarily raised to $2.75 for 12 hours. This has made other men discontented. The cable roads cannot supply the places of grip men as horse roads can, as it takes a long time to break in men for the grip, consequently it is expected the strike will be of long duration.

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From the New York Times / Tuesday, December 14, 1886. Page 1.

Superintendent McCord, of the Sutter-street line, with his platoon of plug uglies, must have been a real jerk.


SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 13.--The strike on the Sutter and Geary street lines has been productive of much ill feeling between the old hands and those who have been taking their places. All day to-day cars that were run on both lines were stoned and windows smashed, but the strikers say that hoodlums did the damage. About 6 o’clock this evening Frank P. Swett, First Assistant Superintendent of the Sutter-street line, left the car at Vanness-avenue (sic - JT), and had proceeded along the avenue but a short distance when a crowd of men assailed him and beat him severely. Within half an hour thereafter Samuel Gibson, Second Assistant Superintendent, was also attacked and beaten to such an extent that he was left insensible. He was conveyed to his home and medical attendance summoned. The railway authorities say that the strikers were the assailants in both cases.

This forenoon Superintendent McCord, of the Sutter-street line, who has made himself very unpopular by his treatment of the employes, engaged a party of 20 or more heelers, many of them ex-convicts, as a sort of bodyguard for himself at the terminus line. All were armed. About noon a procession of strikers marched past the terminus and disbanded. Just them McCord dispatched a car, but when a little down the hill it lost the cable and stopped to pick it up. On the car were four of McCord’s heelers as guards. A number of strikers gathered and persuaded the gripman to leave the dummy. They then turned their attention to the conductor. Some one threw a cobblestone, and in a minute a fight began. Four guards jumped off the platform, revolvers in hand, and one fired a shot at one of the strikers. For a moment the mob was struck dumb, but they gathered their scattered senses and the battle began. From a saloon on the north side of Sutter-street came a shot directed at the four men in the middle of the street, who stood half way down the block.

Then the fighters commenced deliberately pouring bullets into the crowds standing between them and McCord, who was stationed at the top of the hill. The mob returned the fire, and for a few seconds bullets were flying around in all directions and whistling past the ears of the spectators. When the shooting was at its height McCord’s men from the top of the hill opened fire upon the crowed shooting at their back -- the bloody work was done in a few seconds, but it was not so quickly executed that that portion of the crowd not interested in the strike did not have ample time to stampede and get out of harm’s way. They rushed into saloons and private houses and fell over each other in their wild attempts to get beyond the range of flying bullets, some of them climbing out on the roofs to find safety.

When the firing ceased it was found that apparently but one shot had taken effect. An unknown man, a spectator, has a bullet in his brain, and it is asserted that several others were wounded. This must be the case as shots were poured point blank into the crowd. The mob then made a dash for McCord, threatening to kill him, but the police surrounded him and hustled him off. He has not been seen since. It is claimed on good authority that McCord fired the first shot as the signal and that then his guards turned loose.

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Sutter Street Dynamite

From the New York Times / Tuesday, December 28, 1886. Page 1.

Interesting suggestion about solving the problem with Gatling guns, early machine guns.


SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 27.--Early this morning masked men appeared almost simultaneously on the lines of the Sutter and Geary Street Cable Roads ready for mischief. It was about 6 o’clock, and the darkness was favorable to their operations. They acted in accordance with a plan which had been evidently prearranged, as the programme was the same on both roads. Accounts as to the number of men engaged differ, but there were between 15 and 25.

The Sutter and Geary street roads began to run at the usual time. Last evening cars were drawn off about dusk, according to custom since the strike was begun. It was quiet Sunday so far as any demonstration against the roads was concerned. A parade had been planned to take place, but the police were in readiness, and so it was abandoned. Early Sunday morning, however, a dynamite bomb was exploded on the Sutter-Street Road, blowing up a portion of the street, but doing little damage. Then masked men to-day attacked a number of cars on both lines, smashed windows, and beat the gripmen and conductors. The policemen fired on them and made five arrests, all of whom turned out to be strikers. No one was hurt, so far as known, by the shots. Several cars were uncoupled and let run down the grade, wrecking them by the collision.

The strike seems to be approaching a crisis and it looks as if considerable blood would yet be shed. The entire police force of the city is concentrated on the lines of the striking roads, and has been so employed for over two weeks. The other roads are thus left unprotected, and there is much complaint in consequence. In addition a large force of militia is kept under arms at the armories day and night, and their pay and food allowance will consume many thousands of dollars. Neither side shows any signs of giving in, and it is generally conceded that as soon as the police are withdrawn from the striking roads there will be serious trouble. The explosion of the dynamite yesterday shows what may be expected.

An attempt was made on Saturday to wreck a train on the California-Street Road, whose employees are the best treated and most contented men in the city. The lawlessness thus manifested is ready to break out at any moment and every one is apprehensive as to what the outcome will be. A good many people think the police should be sent about their business and then, if the mob attacks a road the militia and Gattling batteries should be turned loose at them. Summary action of this kind would put an end to the violence which dilly-dallying so far has only encouraged.

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Geary Street Dynamite

From the New York Times / Wednesday, December 29, 1886. Page 4.

The oiler found something in the conduit. He didn't know what it was. So he took it to the powerhouse...


SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 28.--When the chief oiler of the Geary-street road, one of the tied-up lines, was making his rounds early this morning, at the corner of Van Ness-avenue he found that one of the underground pulleys for the cable road was not running. He lifted a man-hole cover and found a large dynamite cartridge with a fuse dangling about the pulley. He didn’t know what it was, but immediately took it to the company’s office. There its nature was quickly ascertained and detectives were notified. They at once made a search, and in the cable channel, a short distance from where the first cartridge was found, they discovered two more, which were carefully removed. It is a miracle that they had not exploded and caused loss of life. Great apprehension among the public has been caused by the discovery and by the explosion of dynamite on the Sutter-street road last Sunday, and people are afraid to trust their lives on the cars. The strikers are getting desperate, and from indications are ready now to resort to any means without regard to life or property to carry their ends. A conference had been held between the city officials and the officers of the tied-up roads, and the former suggested a compromise, but the latter would have none of it. They were very arrogant and declared that they would run the roads to suit themselves. Now there are rumors of a general tie-up all over the city, and Senator Stanford, who controls half a dozen lines, was notified that a tie-up would occur. He telegraphed back that if a strike took place he would tie up the roads for a whole year. The situation is now more serious than at any time since the strike began.

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Increase in Robberies

From the New York Times / Wednesday, January 5, 1887. Page 7.

With the police tied up guarding the cable lines, criminals expanded their activities.


SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 4.--The morning papers of this city will publish to-morrow a record of burglaries, highway robberies, and other crimes committed here since the strike on the street car lines began, and which the police have carefully kept from the public as far as possible. Almost the entire city has been left unprotected in order to concentrate the police on the tied-up lines, and for nearly a month no officers have been on duty at night in a large part of the city. The result has been that burglaries, highway robberies, and open thefts have been frequent, and, as no arrests have been made, many of these robberies have been kept from the reporters, and are only accidentally heard of. The record includes all sorts of crimes, and the people are beginning to grumble loudly at the railroad company being protected at the expense of all the rest of the taxpayers.

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From the New York Times / Tuesday, January 11, 1887. Page 1.


SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., Jan. 10.--People are feeling much alarmed since the explosion of dynamite and the shattering of the dummy on Geary-Street Road yesterday. The numerous outrages committed by the strikers also adds to the uneasiness of the situation. Some papers openly charge that the police are in collusion with the strikers and are conveniently blind to the commission of crime. When a gang attacked a car last Friday night and assaulted passengers, conductor, and gripman two policemen with heavy revolvers in their belts and clubs in their hands stood impassive and never lifted a finger to prevent the assault or to arrest the offenders. This was so flagrant, however, that they have been suspended. An officer states that a majority of the force belong to the same labor organization as the strikers and will not make arrests unless absolutely forced to do so. In the meantime people are afraid to travel on the cars, and the residents on the lines of the striking roads live in continual fear of some disastrous dynamite explosion.

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Larkin Street Dummy Blown Up

From the New York Times / Saturday, January 15, 1887. Page 2.


SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., Jan. 14.--The residents on Post-street, between Larkin and Polk streets, were startled between 7 and 8 o'clock last evening by the sound of a tremendous explosion and by the shattering of glass about their ears. A dynamite cartridge had been placed on the track of the Larkin-street branch of the Sutter-Street Cable Road, and had exploded under dummy No. 34. The dummy was completely wrecked, and the windows of the car and of the houses in the vicinity were demolished. Mr. Helderbrandt and his wife and brothers were sitting on the dummy on the side where the explosion took place. They were all thrown in to the street, and Mrs. Helderbrandt, it is feared, was seriously injured. She was taken into a neighboring house and medical assistance was summoned. Later in the evening she was conveyed to her home.

Officer Conboy, who was on the dummy, in describing his sensations, said the explosion had the effect of momentarily stunning him, and it was fully half an hour before he recovered his hearing. The excitement caused by this explosion was intensified when it became know that another explosion had taken place on the Sutter-Street Cable Road near Dupont-street at about 9 o’clock. The explosive, which is believed to have been giant powder in a cartridge, was set off by the dummy wheels running over it. The dummy was disabled and had to be taken to the carhouse for repairs. No one was injured in the later explosion as the charge in the cartridge evidently was small.

The Sutter-Street Railroad Company offers a reward of $1,000 for the conviction of the persons causing last night’s explosions and Chief of Police Crowley offers an additional reward of $250. W. H. Barry, Robert Warwick, and Patrick Curley, three striking car men, have been arrested and charged with complicity in the explosions and the police say that they have strong evidence against them.

L. C. Winegar, Chairman of the Executive Board of the striking car men, states that strikers were not the perpetrators of the explosions, but that they were the work of sympathizers with the strikers.

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Geary Street Dummy Blown Up

From the New York Times / Tuesday, February 8, 1887. Page 2.


SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., Feb. 7.--The Geary-street cable road was the scene of another dynamite explosion last night. Just as a train going west had reached the corner of Fillmore and Geary streets a loud explosion occurred. The whole side of the dummy was blown to splinters. There were no passengers on it and the only person aboard beside the gripman and conductor was a policeman who was detailed to discover obstructions on the track. He was riding on the front of the dummy, and his complete escape from injury and that of the gripman and conductor are marvelous. The conductor had stopped the train a minute before to permit a party of ladies and gentlemen to leave it. The concussion was felt for a distance of a mile. The wrecked dummy was quickly replaced by a new one and traffic was not interrupted. There is no clue to the perpetrators of the outrage.

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Two Arrests

From the New York Times / Thursday, February 17, 1887. Page 1.


SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., Feb. 16.--The police to-day arrested J. E. Stiles and H. C. Dean, the alleged perpetrators of the recent dynamite outrages on the Sutter and Geary streets cable lines. The former was captured early this morning while on his way to put dynamite on the track. The police had spotted him and were shadowing his house, No. 412 Larkin-street. He emerged therefrom at 4:30, and was closely followed by four detectives. He was ordered to stop, but continued on his way. Ten shots were fired after him, not one of which took effect. He was finally captured by running into the arms of policemen coming from the opposite direction. While fleeing he was seen to throw something over a fence into a garden. His was recovered and proved to be a dynamite bomb ready to be placed on a car track. A quantity of dynamite and caps were also found on his person, and materials for making bombs were later found in his house.

Dean was suspected by the police to be implicated in the dynamite plots, and immediately after the arrest of Stiles his house, No. 52 Fourth-street was searched. Here a quantity of dynamite and other bomb material were found, and Dean’s arrest followed. Stiles said he had no intention of placing the dynamite on the track. He said he had left the house of one of his friends names Williams, whom he had agreed to accompany and assist. He added that it was his intention to obtain sufficient evidence against Williams to convict him of the crime when he would expose him to the authorities and gain the reward offered for the apprehension of the dynamiters. The police, however, place no faith in Stiles’s story. Dean denies all knowledge of the dynamite plots and professes utter ignorance regarding how the bomb material found in his house got there. Both prisoners are striking carmen.

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From the New York Times / Saturday, March 5, 1887. Page 1.


SAN FRANCISCO, March 4.--The strike of the employes of the Sutter Geary-Street Cable Car Roads, which began four months ago and has led to several dynamite explosions and other criminal attempts to terrorize passengers on boycotted lines, has come to an inglorious end. The strike had little effect on the roads, which soon filled the places of the strikers. Then the strikers started an opposition bus line, and appealed for public patronage and sympathy. The busses were well patronized, and were generally thought to be doing a paying business. The managers of the line, however, constantly demanded aid from the trades unions of the city, and in may cases received liberal contributions. Last Saturday night a benefit for the striking car men took place, the receipts being nearly $4,000. This bonanza proved the ruin of the strikers, an attempt of the Carmen’s Assembly, Knights of Labor, to distribute it among the needy members being resisted by the officers of the busses, who said the money was needed to get out of debt. Then the fact was revealed that the line had run behind several thousand dollars, while those on the inside had lived on the fat of the land. L. C. Wynger, President of the bus company, formerly a car conductor, was unable to account for $700 worth of tickets for the benefit which he had sold, except by saying the money had been sunk in expenses of the line. The meeting of the assembly was very stormy, the final conclusion being to withdraw the busses and abandon the strike. It is stated that President Wynger demanded $22 to pay bills for which he presented no vouchers. The strikers are much disgusted at the exposure of alleged rottenness in their own ranks, though some declare they will no give up the fight against the car lines. Others intimate that the recent arrest of one of their number when about to place a dynamite bomb on the track was a potent factor in turning public sentiment against them, causing the collapse of strike.

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Police and Prison Cyclopædia

Excerpt from the Police and Prison Cyclopædia By George Wesley Hale, William T. Sellers. 1893.

PATRICK CROWLEY, Chief of Police.

From the San Francisco Examiner / Saturday, September 22, 1889.

The Sutter Street car strike developed another gang of dynamiters.

I was possessed of pretty good information of the conspirators during the strike, but the trouble was to get the proper evidence to convict. After a good many sleepless nights and weary vigils I learned from a rather good source that another attempt at wreckage would be made, and that J. E. Stites was the one selected for the job. About midnight one night we surrounded his house, at 412 Larkin Street, with Captain Lees and Detectives Dan Coffey, Bohen, Silvey, Cox, Rodgers, Hanley, Sergeant Birdsall, Clerk Colby, and Policemen Bingle and William Callinan. Nothing happened till about 4.30 in the morning, when a man stealthily left the house by the rear door. He walked fast and evidently sighted two of the officers across the way. When he reached Turk Street he started to run. The officers were close behind and ordered him to halt. The command only added speed to his flight, and they began firing at him; but he escaped the bullets and ran on, finally running into the arms of Policeman Callinan. At headquarters he was searched, and a revolver and a box of cartridges were found on him. He denied that he had flung anything away in his flight. On searching the gardens along Turk Street, however, we discovered a dynamite bomb. It was made of two dynamite cartridges, a handful of loose dynamite aiid several caps, the whole bound together with slate-colored twilled silesia. I searched his house with Captain Lees, and on the sewing-machine we found cloth cuttings similar to that found on the bomb. Other evidence left no doubt that Stites was a bomb-thrower.

The dynamite found on Greenwich and Leavenworth streets this week was a portion of the lot secreted by the Stites gang of dynamiters. We were hot upon its trail several times, but they always managed to smuggle it away from us before we could reach its hiding-place.

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California Men and Events

Adelina Patti was a famous opera singer during the Nineteenth Century.

Excerpt from California Men and Events. By George Henry Tinkham. 1915.

The strike which was on during the Patti concerts was that of the carmen of the Mission street line. It was the first of those strikes which were quite common during the following fifteen years. The workingmen's organizations of 1887 rapidly grew, and as we have noted, influenced legislatures and elected to office some of their members. Every trade had its union, and uniting under the general name of "Knights of Labor," they began demanding from their employers certain rights and concessions. Among the organizations none was stronger than the "Carmen's Assembly" of San Francisco. And July 14, 1886, two-thirds of the conductors and brakemen on the North Beach and the Mission street lines struck because the superintendent of the last named road refused to reinstate two of their discharged members. New men were placed on the cars. And when an attempt was made to run them, stones, bricks and other missiles were thrown at the horses, drivers and cars. After all the windows had been smashed in the sixteen cars sent out, the superintendent ordered the cars to be run into the barn. The following day the cars were again sent over the road. Nothing happened until 5:00 o'clock that evening. At that time 5,000 men had gathered at Mission and Fourth streets. Placing timbers across the track, as the "bob tails" came along the men cut loose each horse and overturned the cars. The police, clubbing the mob, finally succeeded in clearing the street. No further effort was made to run the cars until July 17th, the superintendent having reinstated the discharged men. This was the first and only strike in California wherein the union won a complete victory.

The success of the Mission line car strike elated the Carmen's Assembly and in December, 1886, the conductors and gripmen of the Sutter street and the Geary street (g) cable lines demanded higher wages and shorter working hours (h). The directors of the two lines refused these just demands. December 8th over two hundred cable men struck (i).. For six weeks the strike was on and during that time the company by every means possible tried to run the cars. All the efforts failed, as the strikers and their friends blocked the game. Stones, bricks and rocks were hurled at the "scabs," smashing windows and doors. Rocks and wooden wedges were firmly driven in the cable slots. Some fiend on January 13th placed a bomb on the Larkin street branch ; it exploded, and wrecking the car, three lady passengers were badly hurt

(j). So many were the policemen taken from their regular beats to guard the company's property, the city was left unprotected. Robberies and assaults were numerous and the citizens began to make complaint.

During the strike Superintendent McCord hiring some twenty-five "toughs," they had a set-to with the strikers at the end of the line. A spectator was killed by a stray bullet, a gripman pulled from the car was badly beaten, and several died injured by stray bricks. Although the company was daily losing thousands of dollars, it refused to give up the fight. It finally won a victory, as the public, "tired of walking," compelled the strikers to surrender. The carmen, however, practically won the fight as it led to the enactment of the twelve-hour law, which declared twelve hours a legal day's work, with double rate per hour for overtime.


(g) This line is now owned and operated by the city of San Francisco, which began its operation in January, 1915.

(h) The carmen made a demand that the wages of each man be increased from $2 to $2.50 per day of twelve hours work. The men on some of the car lines were then working from thirteen to fifteen hours per day. including Sundays. It was a slave's life and truthfully as they claimed, they had not time enough to get acquainted with their families. The children were asleep when they returned from their work at night, and when they left home at early dawn.

(i) The strike inconvenienced thousands of citizens, as some of them were compelled to walk miles to and from their business. They cheerfully submitted to the inconvenience, however, as they knew that the carmen were right in their demands.

(j) This act caused the Legislature, March 27, 1887, to pass what was known as the dynamite law. It declared it a felony to recklessly handle or maliciously deposit or explode any explosive upon or near any railroad track.

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