Below: a rare photograph of a northwest American group of men, travelling as members of the Industrial Workers of the World, at a stop in Ashland Oregon in February 1911. At was at this stop--hundreds of miles from their destination--that the men were forced to leave the train and rely on their own feet--and the goodwill of those good samaritans along the way---to take a stand for the rights of working people in America. (from The Medford Mail-Tribune article, June 13, 2010.)
The Wobblies were the nickname of an early 20th Century American labor group known as the Industrial Workers of the World. They were a more radical bunch than the much larger American Federation of Labor, an organization that helped skilled workers but left industrial laborers and their kind out in the cold so as not to cause fear in the hearts of business men and politicians who were concerned about organized labor becoming too large ar demanding too many laws protecting the welfare of industrial workers.
Because of the hostility engendered by some who had socialist and syndicalist views, "The Wobblies" were often not welcomed in smaller towns. This was certainly true in February 1911, when just over a hundred men set off from Portland, Oregon to ride freight cars nearly 700 miles south to Fresno, California.
This group of men made it through miles of railroad tracks, past large and small rural towns. It was not illegal for men to travel on freight cars in those days, but it was if the train carried passengers.
Some Oregon communities like Grants Pass, 200 miles south of Portland, welcomed them, others did not in part because of the IWW being vilified in local newspapers as "hobos" and violent revolutionaries. None of the men used their own names when talking to reporters or ordinary people, for fear of reprisals to themselves and their families. They referred to each other by a number.
It was at approximately at 250 miles into the journey, at the Ashland Oregon train station just 15 miles from the border, that the men were forced off the freight cars by railroad police. A few of the men turned back at this point, but most of them starting "riding the grits" in train parlance of the time. They began to walk in other words.
The trek took them dozens of miles up into the Siskiyou Mountains that separate the California and Oregon state lines. The railroad tracks were the only means of getting over the mountains in those days and it took the IWW up steep terrain 3-4000 feet above sea level into the mountains in some of the worst weather the area had seen in years. Over three feet of snow blanketed the pass. One man had severe frostbite when they finally made it to Yreka, California, the first major town just inside California.
The group pushed on...and on. It is estimated they walked over 150 miles. Then they were allowed to take a train to continue their journey to Fresno. Finally, at the small farming town of Red Bluff in the Sacramento Valley, the IWW men found out through local reporters that the Fresno strike was over. It was at that point that the leaders burned all records and notes of meetings to keep them from falling into the hands of the authorities. All in all, in much adversity, they had covered 550 of the grueling 700 mile scheduled trip.
The Trek of these disciplined and non-violent band of men would be all but forgotten were it not for a journalist, a professor at Southern Oregon University and a local historian in Oregon who have collected what information they could find through the newspaper records. Here is part of a front-page article on the journey,as written by Paul Fattig in the Medford Mail Tribune:
"Thrown off a freight train in Ashland this morning by special police in the employ of the Southern Pacific railroad, nearly 200 members of the Industrial Workers of the World are encamped just south of the city limits of Ashland," the Mail Tribune reported on Feb. 17.
"So far they have not made a single hostile demonstration," the article continued. "The police are on guard against their entering the city."
The Wobblies eventually decided to walk along the tracks — hit-the-grits in hobo parlance of the day — to Steinman, a railroad watering site some 10 miles south of Ashland, Mullen said.
When they arrived, hungry and without shelter, railroad section boss A.W. Nell loaned them shovels to clear an area in the snow and axes to cut wood and build warming fires, the historian said. Nell's wife gave the Wobblies apples and crackers, albeit not enough for all, he said.
In a Feb. 19 article in the Mail Tribune, a reporter who had spent the night with the Wobblies found no weapons, despite declarations to the contrary by the Ashland police.
"The railroad has given orders that no trains shall stop at Steinman, and mountaineers who know the Siskiyou pass say there is grave danger that the wayfarers may perish in the storm and snow," the journalist wrote.
For those interested, here's a link to the complete article: http://www.mailtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100613/NEWS/6130315
Their aim was not to cause violence or intimidate ordinary citizens. They were simply supporting the rights of "working stiffs" like themselves to a better life. And they were willing to go peacefully to jail for what they believed.
Why have The International Workers of the World been all but forgotten in mainstream America? The major reason was the establishment backlash to the IWW, a process that picked up steam after the IWW opposed entry of America into World War I. And even though many major IWW national leaders, like Bill Heywood, soon moderated their opinions to save the union from anti-free speech laws pushed through by Congress, the rise of Marxists in Russia in late 1917 excited a great deal of worry. Coupled with bombings blamed on labor "agitators", the government under Wilson and his Attorney-General William Palmer introduced a massive series of raids. These "The Palmer Raids", against 43 IWW offices nation wide in May of 1919, were only the beginning of an anti-radical campaign that decimated the IWW and other organizations with hundreds of arrests, most of which were declared illegal after the initial fears died down in the 1920's. These arrests and political fissures between those who remained active in the concept of "One Big Union" ended the IWW as an effective force by the mid-1920s. It survives today as a shell of a group that once boasted tens of thousands of members.
Here's a bit of background on The Industrial Workers of the World and the polarized conditions between capital interests and undervalued labor which brought the organization into existence.