Time Machine Tuesday: The 1920 Denver Tramway Strike

A recent pandemic, economic instability, and protests in downtown Denver. Sound familiar? Only this was 1920, not 2020. Exactly one hundred years ago this week occurred one of the most tumultuous events in the city’s history, when Denver Tramway Company workers went on strike for higher wages — and chaos ensued.

Overturned streetcars at Colfax and Logan, Denver, August 1920
Overturned streetcars at Colfax and Logan, Denver, August 1920. Photo courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department.

Prior to the First World War, employees of the Denver Tramway Company — precursor to today’s RTD — had earned reasonably livable wages. But these wages did not keep up with inflation caused by the war. In 1918, the workers formed a union, but by 1919 the company was laying off workers, cutting service, and reducing pay. On August 1, 1920, the workers overwhelmingly voted to strike, and streetcar service across the city came to a halt. The company brought in scores of armed strikebreakers, and violence ensued as the two sides clashed. Streetcars were derailed, overturned, or set on fire in several places around the city, and on August 5, strikers and their sympathizers raided the headquarters of the Denver Post, which had sided with the tramway company. The violence continued to escalate, resulting in seven deaths and more than fifty people injured, including several children. On August 7 the U.S. Army was ordered to intervene. In the end, the strikers were unsuccessful; there was no increase in wages and, as the company ran into financial trouble, hundreds of workers lost their jobs.

Crowds on 15th Street during the tramway strike.
Crowds on 15th Street during the strike. Photo courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department.

A detailed account of the events of the August 1920 strike can be found in historian Stephen Leonard’s article in the Colorado Encyclopedia. This piece is adapted from a lengthier article in Colorado Heritage magazine (v.15, no.3, 1995), which is available for checkout from the State Publications Library. In addition, the library’s digital collection includes several historical documents which provide contemporary accounts of the strike. Among these are descriptions in the reports of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the state’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additional resources available for checkout from the library include Voice of Empire: A Centennial Sketch of the Denver Post (Colorado Historical Society, 1992) and The Gospel of Progressivism: Moral Reform and Labor War in Colorado, 1900-1930 (University Press of Colorado, 2010), which includes a chapter on the Denver Tramway strike. Finally, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the strike, Metropolitan State University of Denver has posted a new article and interview with Stephen Leonard, author of the Colorado Encyclopedia article.

 

Amy Zimmer
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