The bullet entered John Vargo’s chest between the second and third ribs on his right side, then traveled downward, slicing through his aorta and shredding portions of both lungs before lodging in the sixth rib of his left side.
Vargo collapsed on 13th Street in Braddock, near a line of B&O railroad tracks. Chaos raged around him. The thousands of striking workers who’d stood next to Vargo moments before now scattered to safety. Women rushed in to help the wounded.
Two other men lay near Vargo. One, Michael Harvilka, bled from a wound to his temple. The other, Alexander Leznik (or Lasok; the spellings vary), left his home for work several hours earlier and somehow got caught in the day’s violence. Other less wounded men, some helped by fellow strikers, staggered away.
Across 13th Street, at the entrance of the Edgar Thomson Works steel mill, a collection of private and public police officers crouched behind a fortification of steel billets, looked out at the panicked crowd and reloaded their weapons.
Thus, on May 2, 1916, an extraordinary week of labor uprisings in the Pittsburgh region reached its violent apex. The moment’s brutality contrasted sharply with events occurring that same day in Pittsburgh, 6 miles northwest. There, a jarring trolley strike affecting everyone who worked, shopped or ran errands in Allegheny County entered its second day. Anticipating trouble at the city’s car barns, police making the rounds expressed surprise at what they found.
Strikes that week bubbled up throughout the Pittsburgh region as workers in a variety of industries found their voices and exercised their collective strength.
Laborers at the Aspinwall water filtration plant struck and demanded a wage increase from $2.10 to $2.50 a day. After employers refused to grant them an eight-hour day with no reduction in pay, 4,000 machinists in the Pittsburgh district walked off the job, and up to 20,000 others threatened to do so by the end of the week. At the McKinney Manufacturing Co., 200 women and 60 men struck — they, too, wanted an eight-hour day, as did approximately 3,000 striking employees of the Pressed Steel Car Co.
Two disputes, however, would rise above the rest and dominate headlines.
Streetcar tracks ran through every neighborhood, so a strike that threatened disruption to this essential form of transportation was certain to cause concern.
And in the Turtle Creek and Monongahela valleys, a strike that involved thousands of workers spun out of control and threatened production at dozens of industrial plants.
The week began on Sunday, April 30, with Pittsburgh Mayor Joseph Armstrong desperately prodding two powerful entities to avoid a strike he knew would damage his city.
For five hours, officials of the Pittsburgh Railways Co., operator of the city’s trolleys, and officers of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees attempted to reach an agreement.
Five hours of conferences ended at 11 p.m. with no deal. Newspaper reports said the two sides haggled over mere pennies per worker.
An hour later, motormen and conductors in car barns throughout the city and region walked off the job. The strike, affecting 3,100 workers, began “without a semblance of disorder,” The Pittsburgh Press reported. By 2 a.m. Monday, nothing moved on trolley lines within the city and as far away as Charleroi and Washington, Pa.
The strike’s impact became apparent before dawn. Mill workers plodded along Pittsburgh’s sidewalks and roads. They’d risen earlier than normal so they could walk to their jobs for the 7 a.m. shift change. By 8 a.m., with the sun rising and temperatures in the low 60s, a great army of office workers, bound for the Downtown business district, filled the city’s streets, the men nattily attired in suits, the women in dresses. Many had walked for miles.
Spirits rose. Commuters began the day upbeat and uncomplaining, as if entering an adventure. A number of people walking to work stopped to pick blossoms along the way and used them to decorate their offices. Newspaper photographers snapped pictures of smiling pedestrians waving at the camera as they walked.
Men fortunate enough to own automobiles offered rides to those on foot. Horse-drawn wagons, long ago considered relics, returned to the streets. Two men on Liberty Avenue offered bouncy rides to those willing to sit in one of a dozen dining room chairs placed in the back of a springless wagon pulled along by two aging nags.
Department stores deployed delivery trucks to pick up clerks and salespeople residing in outlying areas. Jitneys, touring cars, limousines and taxicabs clogged Downtown. Fares ranged from 10 cents to $2.50 per person. City officials suspended enforcement of all parking laws. Just don’t block a fireplug, they said.
Women reported to their posts with rosy cheeks. Everyone worked up a good appetite. Instead of “the proverbial pickle and dish of ice cream,” workers ordered lunches of “roast beef, vegetables and healthful bread and butter,” The Pittsburgh Press reported.
Not everyone was so gleeful. The railway company watched $36,000 in nickels slip through its hands each day of the strike. It cost unionized motormen and conductors a combined $7,000 daily. The two sides scrambled to reach an agreement. Workers wanted wages increased from the old scale that started at 23 cents per hour for new employees and 30 cents per hour for those with four years or more of service.
J. Dawson Callery, head of Pittsburgh Railways, said he was ready to talk. Shortly before noon on Monday, he met with Armstrong. The mayor emerged from the meeting and announced he stood ready to present a tentative wage scale to the union.
Union leaders prepared to call a mass meeting of the entire membership at the Labor Union Temple on Webster Avenue in the Hill District.
Downtown Pittsburgh may have been calm, even upbeat, but the situation was decidedly different in the Turtle Creek Valley, where an estimated 4,000 striking strikers paraded from the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh to the massive Edgar Thomson Works steel mill, 2 miles away in Braddock.
This was the second strike in recent years at the Westinghouse plant. During the first, in 1914, workers remained orderly and disciplined while the company played hardball, threatening to fire strikers who didn’t show up for work and eventually refusing to even meet with them. The strike sputtered to an end with workers returning to their stations, their grievances unresolved.
Months passed, then a year. Then another. Westinghouse workers continued to seethe over speedups and the company’s refusal to recognize organizational rights. On Good Friday, of 1916, 14,000 employees walked off the job. By the first week of May, their frustration had reached a dangerous level.
This time the workers, like the company, were ready to play hardball.
Led by a Lithuanian band and waving red flags, the raucous group marching out of the Turtle Creek Valley burst through the front gate of the sprawling Edgar Thomson Works steel mill that dominated Braddock. Overwhelmed guards stood back as the Westinghouse strikers called on immigrant workers to abandon their posts and join in a general strike. About a thousand did so.
Then the crowd split into groups and paraded through the streets of Braddock and the nearby boroughs of Rankin and Swissvale, breaking into industrial plants and demanding the workers join them on strike. Newspaper reports say the strikers were armed with clubs. The marchers closed two American Steel and Wire shops employing 3,000 workers, Standard Chain Co. in Rankin (500 workers), Columbia Steel Shafting Co. (400 workers), Braddock Machine and Manufacturing (600 men) and McClintic-Marshall Construction Co. (2,500 men). In all, more strikers idled 36,000 workers.
Managers at the Edgar Thomson Works, however, stubbornly kept the mill open with a reduced workforce. Smoke continued to pour from its stacks. Monday ended with the frustrated strikers retreating to the Turtle Creek Valley, determined to return.
Late Tuesday morning, a Pittsburgh Press photographer climbed onto a stage at the Labor Union Temple and snapped a picture of the striking trolley workers gathered there to vote on a wage increase that would end their strike. The image presents a sea of stern-faced men dressed in suits and ties. J.J. Thorpe, the union’s business agent, urged them to accept the company’s offer, which would increase workers’ pay to 26 cents an hour for new workers and 35 cents an hour for workers with four years of experience.
“We’ve gotten everything we can possibly get out of the Pittsburgh Railways Co.,” he said.
Pittsburgh awaited the vote. The second day of the strike had dawned differently than the first. A drizzling rain greeted commuters, who trudged along wearily in raincoats or holding umbrellas. Despite the conditions, the city’s workers remained unruffled.
Worried about trouble at the city’s car barns, police inspected each one. All 22 were quiet. At the Frankstown Avenue facility, striking workers tossed baseballs and chatted with watchmen.
“I do not anticipate the slightest trouble so long as the Pittsburgh Railways Co. carries out its promise not to attempt to import strike-breakers in case there is not a speedy settlement of the differences,” said police Superintendent W. Noble Matthews.
Alarmed by Monday’s events, managers at Edgar Thomson rushed to bolster their defenses and brought in armed private security forces from as far away as Gary, Ind. Should the strikers return, mill officials would use force to keep them from entering the facility.
Allegheny County Sheriff George Richards hastily recruited and deputized an estimated 1,000 men on Braddock streets and deployed them to various industrial plants nearby. All told, more than 1,200 guards, both private and public, prepared to defend Braddock’s mills and workshops from the angry and frustrated workers. Across the river in Homestead, the sheriff deputized another 1,000 men, in case the rebellion spread to the steel mill there.
North Braddock’s police chief ordered eight of his officers to assist in the effort to protect the valley’s industrial facilities and squash the rebellion. They refused. The town burgess fired them all.
The entire region was on edge. With the sheriff concentrating his energy on guarding industrial facilities, others in Braddock felt vulnerable. Banks placed their currency in vaults. Residents pleaded for protection against what they’d been told was a group of immigrants bent on destruction — a chief deputy sheriff said that “95 percent of the attacking mobs were foreigners and that most of them were under the influence of liquor,” a questionable claim since Braddock’s saloons had closed a week before, shortly after the strike’s beginning.
The strikers, however, had no interest in wreaking havoc on the town. They focused their anger elsewhere.
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, thousands of workers again gathered at the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh and marched out of the Turtle Creek Valley, gathering members at every block. The same gray skies that delivered rain in Pittsburgh hung over the marchers as they approached Braddock. Before them Edgar Thomson continued to rumble, a massive thumb in the eye.
Now estimated to number between 3,000 and 4,000 people, the crowd broke into smaller groups as they had the day before. Each group headed in a different direction to check on industrial operations they’d shut down on Monday and set up pickets to prevent reopening. At plants that continued to operate, marchers broke in and, with clubs, bricks and stones, threatened workers who defied orders to leave their posts. At some point, the striking workers had broken into a B&O railroad tool shed and grabbed every shovel and pick they could find.
By early afternoon, the marchers had brought the Mon Valley to a standstill. They regrouped near the front gate of Edgar Thomson.
Two railroad policemen, Harry Brice and Charles Weber, were standing at the B&O railroad crossing when the strikers arrived. The two quickly found themselves surrounded, reported the Gazette Times. Weber said Brice was ignoring the crowd when one of the workers struck him with either a fist or a brick and knocked him to the ground. While trying to get up, Brice reached for his hip pocket. Seeing this movement, a striker drew a revolver and fired, Weber said. Other newspaper reports said no strikers carried firearms, and that instead a worker threw a stone.
Brice began firing in a semicircle and backing up along the tracks and into the safety of the mill grounds. This infuriated the workers. At the plant gate, many of the 30 to 40 mill guards armed with repeating rifles stood behind makeshift fortifications and taunted the workers, who responded by hurling bricks and stones.
As tensions mounted, the strikers rushed for the mill gate. Guards opened fire. Several wounded strikers fell. Others scattered or helped carry the wounded to safety. The strikers had failed in their first attempt to break through the mill gate. Still enraged, they regrouped.
Meanwhile, a special train arrived at the mill, delivering an additional 200 security forces. Shortly after those guards disembarked, the mob of workers again threatened the front gate. By then, an estimated 20,000 people jammed nearby streets and hillsides overlooking the mill. Most were curious spectators and loiterers.
Shortly after 2:30, they witnessed the day’s second battle as the strikers again stormed the mill gate. Guards opened fire, mowing down several workers.
“Those who led the charge were foreign men and just behind them, women, several of whom carried babies,” the Gazette Times reported. “When their men folk fell, the women, disregarding danger, rushed to the front and in some cases dragged the prostrate men to the rear.”
After regrouping, strikers made another attempt to overrun the mill gate; again gunfire pushed them back.
Much of the shooting seemed indiscriminate. Bullets slammed into houses and businesses on the north side of 13th Street. One round crashed through the window of an apartment building above a barbershop, sending glass shards flying into a room and lacerating the hands of 7-year-old Mary Conroy. Next door, a half-dozen bullets blasted through the front wall of a home and whizzed through the parlor. Nearby residents claimed they heard machine gun fire, but mill officials and guards denied such a weapon was employed.
Over a period of 30 minutes, strikers repeatedly rushed at the gate. Each time they failed. Officials reported 30 seriously wounded, although the number may have been higher, since many did not seek treatment at Braddock General Hospital.
Vargo and two others died.
A bullet struck Harvilka, 32, in the left temple and tore through his brain. He fell not far from Vargo on 13th Street near the B&O tracks. Harvilka worked at the Standard Chain Co. in Braddock.
Leznik took two bullets — one in the leg, a few inches above his knee, and another in his stomach. At 6 o’clock that evening his wife, Sophia, learned he’d been wounded and was receiving care at Braddock General Hospital. She told authorities he’d left for his job as a blacksmith helper at McClintic-Marshall Construction Co. at 10 a.m. He’d apparently joined the strikers. Leznik lingered more than 24 hours and died at 9 p.m. on May 3.
Evidence of the violence remained once the day calmed. All the windows at the Edgar Thomson’s executive office building had been broken. A section of the 7-foot fence surrounding the plant lay in ruins. Bullet holes pocked building facades along 13th Street.
While blood pooled on the streets of Braddock, people celebrated in Downtown Pittsburgh. At 2:15 p.m., a Bloomfield trolley made its way down Fifth Avenue — the first to do so since Sunday. “Thousands of people swarmed like so many bees into the street and cheered the approaching car at the top of their voices,” the Pittsburgh Post reported. Within an hour, streetcar traffic had returned to normal.
The striking streetcar workers had voted 1,312-394 to settle the strike. Wages increased from 4 to 5 cents an hour, depending on years of service.
Hours after the gunfire ceased in Braddock, Pennsylvania Gov. Martin Brumbaugh ordered National Guard troops into the borough. Authorities arrested the strike leaders, charging them with “inciting to riot and accessory to murder before the fact.”
On Thursday morning, a procession of about 200 people led by a man carrying an American flag made its way along Braddock Avenue, escorting John Vargo’s body to St. Michael’s Church. A stillness settled over the route — organizers feared the traditional funeral band would incite the crowd.
More people gathered on the streets outside St. Michael’s and at St. Peter and Paul Church, where family and friends mourned Havrilka. Fear kept others from attending. National Guard troops had been drilling in the borough’s streets, spooking residents already rattled by the week’s violence.
At one point, someone in the crowd cried out, “Machine gun, machine gun!” People scattered. They’d heard persistent rumors that, during the battle’s two days, police had employed a machine gun capable of firing up to 600 bullets a minute. A simple mention of the gun was enough the clear the streets. The machine gun was, in reality, an aluminum motion picture camera, placed on a roof to film Vargo’s funeral procession.
Within two weeks, 90% of Westinghouse employees had returned to their jobs and the strike collapsed. By then, Vargo, Leznik and Harvilka lay buried in Monongahela Cemetery. They remain there to this day, on a hillside overlooking Braddock and the Edgar Thomson Works, still rumbling more than a century after their deaths.
(Sources: The Pittsburgh Press, the Gazette Times and the Pittsburgh Post, April 30-May 5, 1916, accessed through newspapers.com; “Less than Forever: The Rise and Decline of Union Solidarity in Western Pennsylvania, 1914-1948,” by Carl I. Meyerhuber Jr., Susquehanna University Press, 1987; “The Point of Pittsburgh,” by Charles McCollester, Battle of Homestead Foundation, 2008; Allegheny County coroner’s reports, accessed through Archives and Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh; Pennsylvania death certificates and census reports accessed through ancestry.com; G.M. Hopkins Company Maps, accessed through historicpittsburgh.com; Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, accessed through Library of Congress.)