The Year Was 1894

The year was 1894 and the world was still in the midst of the “Long Depression.” In the U.S., following the Panic of 1893, unemployment was estimated at more than 18%. People were desperate for work and in 1894, Jacob S. Coxey led a protest march from Massillon, Ohio to Washington, D.C. Starting out with one hundred men, five hundred arrived in Washington demanding work on public projects. They were denied and the Coxey was arrested for trespassing when he tried to speak. “Coxey’s Army” was one of several groups planning to march on Washington, but the only sizeable group to complete the journey. (The image accompanying this post iis of Coxey’s Army from the Library of Congress Photo Collection at Ancestry. Click on the image to enlarge it.)

In Chicago, George Pullman had cut pay for his employees by 25%. All of his workers were required to live in “Pullman City” and paid rent to Pullman–a rent that remained static despite the pay cuts. The hardship this created pushed three thousand Pullman workers to strike. It was a “wildcat” strike (without the approval of the union), but some American Railroad Union workers followed in support, refusing to move any train with a Pullman car, unless it carried mail. Since most trains by this time had Pullman cars, this affected the railway system across the country. Eventually a federal court ruled that the strike was illegal and federal troops were called in. Violence ensued as riots broke out and in a violent confrontation with soldiers on July 7, many rioters were killed or wounded.

In New York, 10,000 tailors went on strike on Labor Day to bring attention to sweatshop conditions. At that time workers worked under a “task” system wherein they were given a certain number of garments that needed to be created for a fixed price. The tasks had been increasing in size, while wages remained static requiring workers to work longer hours. This meant that workers were being paid around a dollar a day, and working in some cases eighteen hour days. While the strike did attract some attention, the problems of wages and working conditions in the garment industry would continue to be a problem.

The railroad era had been a boon for the timber industry in the Upper Midwest. The ability to transport lumber by rail, rather than by water–a mode plagued by perilous log jams, rapids, and other obstacles–gave rise to small lumber towns in the Upper Midwest. The town of Hinckley, Minnesota, located between the Twin Cities and Duluth, was one such town. Surrounded by forests and built entirely of wood, on 1 September 1894, a firestorm swept through the town killing at least 419 people. Many of the victims suffocated because firestorms use up the oxygen in the area. Survivors found refuge in muddy Skunk Lake or in a gravel pit, and others were evacuated by trains that were approaching the town when the fire struck.

In London, England, traffic on the London Bridge had become a problem. While there were bridges crossing the Thames to the west, there were none to the east. With population growing on east end of London travel on London Bridge was sometimes delayed for hours. A new bridge was needed and in 1894 the famous Tower Bridge opened. At the time of the opening, it didn’t receive the warm welcome you’d expect, but it has since come be a beloved landmark of the city.

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5 thoughts on “The Year Was 1894

  1. My mother was born in Superior WI in 1894. Her father was a tailor and had been in the US only seven years. Thank you for information on the conditions in that year and links to other topics about the midwest and topics affecting the family at that time.

  2. Dear Juliana Smith,
    Thank you for this article..My grandmother and her twin sister were born in 1894 in Alabama and I have often wondered about some of the events that were happening at this time for her parents. Coxey’s army was a curiousity for me as I have heard the name several times when I was a little girl and gran would suggest we not run through the house the way children will do from time to time. She would say, and I quote, “You go through this house like Coxey’s Army”.To us that just meant slow down. I just thought that it was just one of her handy phrases. It never dawned on me to look it up…
    Thank you Juliana.

  3. George Pullman was the father of labor unions. Read history and you will find many like him. I often heard of “Coxey’s Army” but never knew what it ment.

  4. You wrote: “All of his workers were required to live in “Pullman City” and paid rent to Pullman–a rent that remained static despite the pay cuts.”

    That’s a mistake. Only Pullman Co. workers could rent in the town. However, many, many employees lived outside of Pullman. Some lived in nearby Roseland; others took the I.C. train from Hyde Park or Chicago.

    To George Pullman’s credit, no one was evicted from their Pullman home because of non-payment of rent during the strike.

    Except for this inaccuracy, I did enjoy your article about 1894.

  5. My grandfather’s brother died in the Hinkley, MN fire. He was a logger and had gone to Hinkley to look for employment. Unfortunately, we do not have confirmation, i.e. a body, that he was among the dead. My grandfather went to Hinkley after the fire to see if he could find out anything about him, but there were so many unidentifiable corpses that he was never able to locate his body. Since no one ever heard from him again, we assume that he perished in the fire.

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