On April 25, 1894, some 650 unemployed persons calling themselves the Northwestern Industrial Army march out of Seattle in military formation, heading toward Washington, D.C., to urge Congress to relieve joblessness following the Panic of 1893. The Seattle contingent plans to join a similar force from Tacoma at Puyallup, and then to travel by train to meet Jacob Sechier Coxey (1854-1951) whose movement for federal relief is called "Coxey's Army."
In the Panic of 1893, tens of thousands of men were thrown out of work, especially railroad construction crews in the Far West. Coxey, a silica sandstone quarry operator from Massilon, Ohio, offered the idea of federally issued bonds for public roads, which would put the unemployed to work. He organized a march on Washington, D.C., in March 1894. Numerous groups of men (and some women) from across the country gathered to join the march.
On April 7, 1894, Seattle's unemployed, "all sturdy, active fellows, neatly dressed and with earnest faces," (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) organized themselves as the Northwestern Industrial Army in a vacant Northern Pacific Railroad storage shed at 2nd Avenue S and S Weller Street. They elected Henry Shepard, an unemployed surveyor, as their leader and formed a "regiment" of seven companies.
While preparing to leave for Washington, D.C., the army staged several parades through Seattle led by the Rialto Band. One banner carried by the well-drilled marchers read "Gold at a Premium -- Humanity at a discount." Citizens and businesses in Seattle provided the men and needy families with food and with some funds.
On April 9, 1894, army "Headquarters" issued General Order No. 1 which read:
"The officers in charge of headquarters will not allow tramps or bummers, or any persons under the influence of liquor, to loaf around these premises. These rules shall be absolute. Any person not conforming shall be ejected and handed over to the police."
Riding the Rails
Shepard helped organize a similar group in Tacoma, which chose "Jumbo" Cantwell as their leader. The two commanders planned to converge at Puyallup to board Northern Pacific trains there.
Across the country, other "industrial armies" boarded eastbound trains, sometimes with transportation purchased by the cities they were leaving, but more often by stealing rides and even entire trains. National Guard units were called out in many states to regain control of the railroads and to conduct the armies across state lines.
At Puyallup, Henry Shepard was dismissed for failure to account for funds donated to the army. "General" Cantwell took over, but he was unable to negotiate free travel from the Northern Pacific. He instructed followers to break into small groups and to board trains away from stations. Two hundred specially sworn deputy U.S. Marshals and U.S. Army soldiers patrolled the Northern Pacific to see that the men didn't steal rides. As many as 100 men at a time jumped aboard freights, but crews sidetracked the trains, and deputies cleared the cars. For days, between Puyallup and Spokane, marshals ejected some Industrial Army men from trains and arrested others.
In Yakima, shooting erupted and one deputy died (shot by another deputy). Marshals arrested 154 men for attempting to steal rides on trains and 18 Yakima citizens for inciting them. All were brought to Seattle by train on May 12, 1894, to stand trial. Because of strong public sentiment in Seattle in support of the men, five companies of the 14th U.S. Infantry Regiment from Vancouver Barracks were dispatched to insure peace. Eventually, 111 "Commonwealers," as they were also called, were sentenced to 60 days in jail each for contempt of court (the Northern Pacific was under the control of the U.S. Courts which had issued an injunction prohibiting interference with railroad operations).
On May 1, 1894, the main body of Coxey's Army arrived in Washington, D.C. Coxey was jailed for trespassing. Some members of the Northwestern Industrial Army eventually made it all the way to the East Coast, but only in small groups.
By June, the movement was played out and national attention turned to the labor troubles of the Pullman strike, which began in May at the company town of that name near Chicago and in June spread to rail lines across the West, including Washington, bringing transportation throughout the region to a standstill until being suppressed by federal troops.