Enjoying Your Senior Years in PittsburghMay 23, 2015
Guide to Banks in PittsburghJuly 13, 2015
The dictionary defines a riot as a “violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.” Riots start for different reasons. Pittsburgh’s first recorded riot occurred in 1794. Unfortunately, it was not the last notable riot to be seen in Southwest Pennsylvania.
After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States government was deeply in debt in 1791. At the urging of the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, President George Washington approved an excise tax on liquor to raise revenue for the new country. At that time, Pittsburgh was the whiskey distilling capital of the country with more than 4,000 stills in operation in the region. As one local distiller noted, Pittsburgh was Kentucky before Kentucky was.
A revolt broke out as the Distillers were outraged by the tax. Farmer-distillers in Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania burned tax collectors in effigy, engaged in skirmishes, and launched attacks. Outrage spread through the distillers in Pittsburgh In the summer of 1794 nearly 400 rebels gathered and burned the Bower Hill mansion of tax collector John Neville, who had served as an officer in the Revolutionary War.
Knowing that the riots were a threat to his authority, Washington needed to quell the unrest immediately and called up a militia of 13,000 men to quash the rebellion. Around 150 rioters were arrested, charged then released. However, two men were convicted and sentenced to hang. One of them was Philip Wigle, who had a distillery in the area named after him.
Washington eventually pardoned the pair, but not before The Whiskey Rebellion changed the country forever. Out of the protests grew our country’s two-party system as Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, repealed the tax when elected, in opposition to the Federalists, who asserted that the Federal government had overriding jurisdiction in all matters.
Railroad Strike Riots of 1877
During the Civil War, the railroads rose to prominence, but after the war, the nation went into an economic nosedive. Railroads across the nation tightened their belts and began to lay off workers, increase workloads, and cut wages. Nearly 25 percent of the nation’s workforce was unemployed by the summer of 1877. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut workers’ pay by 10 percent. This was the second such measure since the first cut in 1873. In July, workers blocked the B&O trains in cities near Baltimore. The protests quickly spread to the Pittsburgh area and the railroads here. Pennsylvania Railroad President Thomas A. Scott called for military protection for railroad property. President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered strikers to disperse within 24 hours, and when they refused, City of Pittsburgh police and local Pennsylvania National Guard units refused to move against the strikers.
Pennsylvania Governor John Hartranft brought in units from the eastern part of the state. These National Guard units were met with angry mobs of men, women, and children who taunted them and tossed rocks and bottles. Several of the troops were caught in PRR’s Roundhouse, which the mob set on fire. To escape, the guardsmen shot their way out of the building and opened fire on the crowd, killing 20, including a woman and three children. Twenty-nine were also injured.
Enraged at the carnage, more joined the rioters, who then went on a rampage setting fire to 39 buildings, 104 locomotives, 46 passenger cars, and 506 freight cars. Every building on Penn and Liberty Avenues, from the Union Depot to 28th Street, was burned. On July 26, U.S. Army troops along with more units of the National Guard were sent in to halt the destruction and violence. This was the first time ever that federal troops were used against union protesters.
Pittsburgh Riots of 1886
In September of 1886, Irish Americans and Italian Americans clashed. Since the mid-1880s, tension between the two groups had been escalating as Italians were moving into the Four Mile Run neighborhood (Greenfield). On a Saturday in mid-September, a gang of six Irish laborers attacked an Italian laborer, Joseph Vernard, near Daly Brothers. Although Vernard was severely beaten, he managed to escape to his home. On September 19, around noon, a band of 20 Irish laborers went to Vernard’s home and demanded to be let in.
Italian boarders living in the house barricaded the doors. The Irish mob broke down the doors, forcing their way in, and a violent melee erupted. Italian laborer “Paddy” Rocco had his skull crushed when an Irish rioter hit him with a chair, while Irishman Patrick Constantine was fatally shot in the abdomen. Pittsburgh Police were called in. Five Italian laborers were arrested, while most of the Irish rioters escaped.
Homestead Steelworkers Strike
In 1889, only Carnegie’s Homestead mill had union labor. During that summer, they had won concessions from Carnegie. However, in 1892 when their contract expired, they faced negotiations with Frick. He was still seething after Carnegie had forced him to back down in the previous labor dispute.
The summer of 1892, Carnegie was vacation in the remote Scottish Highlands, leaving Frick in charge with the instructions that if the workers didn’t accept Frick’s terms, to close the plant and wait the men out. Instead, Frick built a fence 3 miles long and 11 feet high around the plant. He announced that he would not negotiate with the union, but only with individual workers. On June 2nd 1,100 workers were locked out and four hundred more went on strike on July 1. Frick planned to reopen on July 6 with a non-union workforce.
On July 6, two barges filled with 300 armed Pinkerton guards glided up the Monongahela River toward Homestead. Workers on shore urged the guards not to disembark, but they did. No one knows for sure who fired first, but for 14 hours, union workers and armed guards traded gunfire. Strikers set a railcar on fire and sent it down the tracks toward the barges. They used dynamite and tried to pour oil into the river and set it on fire. When the Pinkerton guards gave up, union leaders promised the surrendering guards’ safety. Instead, mobs of angry workers and their wives beat them with clubs and rifle butts. When the fighting ceased, three guards were dead as well as nine workers. The workers took over the plant, but the governor sent in the militia to reclaim it for Carnegie.
In public, Carnegie criticized the workers, but in personal letters to relatives he cursed Frick. When the plant reopened a Russian anarchist, not affiliated with the union, fired two bullets into Frick and stabbed him three times in the neck. After surgeons dug the bullets out of his neck and patched his wounds, Frick went back to work and put in a full day.
Fallout from the Homestead riots was enormous. Union leaders were blackballed and many workers had no jobs. For 45 years there would be no steelworker’s union. Frick resigned as chief executive, but Carnegie convinced him to become Chairman of the Board.
Martin Luther King Assassination Riots of 1968
On April 4, 1968, James Early Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. The shock and sadness of this horrific event soon transformed into anger. Riots broke out across the United States. The day after the assassination riots erupted in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and other predominantly black neighborhoods. The next week was full of hate, looting and vandalism. During that time there were 505 fires. There was over $620,000 worth of property damage. One person was killed, and 926 people were arrested. The National Guard was called in, and Mayor Joseph Barr imposed a curfew until order was restored.
Super Bowl XLIII Riot of 2006
A conflict between two or more groups is usually the cause of a riot. That was not the case after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII in 2006. In celebration, fans took to streets and destroyed parts of the city. Signs and mailboxes were broken and thrown. People flipped cars and set them on fire, while others climbed statues and telephone poles. The riots and damage was primarily in one small area of town. Control was quickly regained over the situation.
It is clear to see that there are many reasons a riot can start. The price paid for those riots can be property or lives. Either way after the dust has settled its clear that the price is often too high. Resolving issues through communication and understanding is always a better way.