WOBBLIES ALONG THE TRACKS

A soft-spoken eighty-seven-year-old Subway Hitchhiker told DL about the hazards of working on the tracks back in the good old days. “You shoulda seen the machinery,” the old-timer insisted. “You were lucky to keep your fingers and hands attached.” Which was why he had joined up with the Industrial Workers of the World, the wild Wobblies of labor infamy. Better wages were also, he allowed, a consideration. But whenever they heard of a labor strike anywhere, they’d do all they could to lend their support.

The Kings County Sheriff had other ideas. He was one tough hombre, vowing that no rabble-rousing Wobblies would ever cross into his Brooklyn.

At first, a few leaders tried to slip in individually or in small groups. No dice. They were hauled from their trains, clubbed, and even cut up.

When they realized their small approach wasn’t working, the Wobblies dispatched a larger delegation. When those forty-one men, too, were yanked out of their subway car and, as DL hears it, “forced to run a gauntlet of cudgels, sawed-off billiard cues, billy clubs, blackjacks, and even pistol butts,” the battle line was drawn. So much for the Sheriff’s system of justice. The Wobblies heard a higher calling. “We didn’t know it, of course,” the old-timer explained, “but the American Federation of Labor, one of our archenemies in those days, wasn’t doing any better in crossing the river the other way. Back in those days, a man’s beliefs were everything to him.”

Bruised, beaten, and bloodied Wobblies decided to use power in larger numbers. They filled an entire ten-car subway train and headed off to confront the Sheriff, only to be halted while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. “He held one hand in the air and I heard his words. ‘Who’s your leaders!’ he bellowed out. And from every window of every car of that train came the united response: ‘We’re all leaders!’ And he says, ‘Then you can’t cross here!’ and somebody else yelled out, ‘The hell we can’t!’ The Sheriff turned, like on a signal, you see, and then a volley rang out. Oh, it was terrible, I’ll tell ya. People ran to the other side of the cars to escape the gunfire, and that caused the train to list, you know. It spilled untold Wobblies to the river way below. To this day nobody knows for certain how many died. ’Course, some of us was armed, jes’ in case, but nothin’ like what we run inta. I know this much: they fired at us first, no doubt about it.”

Official reports, which are extraordinarily difficult to locate, say five unionists were killed and twenty-seven others injured, while two peace officers were mortally wounded and twenty more suffered hurt.

“But I’ll tell ya, there was lots more casualties. Yessir. Lots more drowned in that awful river.”

DL wondered why he had never heard that story in American history class. Why none of the New York newspapers covered the Great Subway Massacre, either.

“But it did happen,” Holly insisted later. “My great-uncle was on that train.” He was the first to instructed her in esoteric practices she maintained so well.

The IWW’s revenge came several decades later, when the proposed Cincinnati Subway System came to a screeching collapse. Somehow, in constructing tunnels too narrow for any possible style of subway car, the city had made a fatal miscalculation. Millions of dollars went down the drain.

When DL failed to understand the connection, his elderly fellow-traveler broke out in the weirdest grin. DL wanted to inquire about the fate of the Wobbly movement but decided to forgo it. Then gum-lips spoke: “T’weren’t long after that massacree that there was a huge rise in the number of Subway Hitchhikers. Can’t blame ’em for not wanting to ride regular. That’s when I got my start. Wasn’t any older than you.”

~*~

For more from my THIRD RAIL collection, click here.

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