Bay View Tragedy

The Tragedy and the Annual Commemoration:  Program set for May 4, 2014

Wisconsin’s most historic and bloody labor incident occurred on May 5, 1886 on the shores of Lake Michigan in the Bay View area of Milwaukee. That day dawned after four days of massive worker demonstrations throughout Milwaukee on behalf of the creation of eight-hour day laws..

Larry Penn leads in traditional song at 2013 commemoration.

Larry Penn leads in traditional song at 2013 commemoration.

As some 1,500 workers marched toward the Bay View Rolling Mills (then the area’s biggest manufacturer) urging the workers thereto join the marches, the State Militia lined up on a hill, guns poised.  The marchers were ordered t o stop form some 200 yards away; when they didn’t, the militiamen fired into the crowd, killing seven persons.

The marchers dispersed and the eight-hour days marches ended. The incident, in spite of its immediate end to eight-hour day efforts, spurred workers and their families to look forward to build a more progressive society in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

Each year, more than 200 persons gather, under the sponsorship of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, at the Bay View Rolling Mills historical marker site at S. Superior St. and E. Russell Ave. in Milwaukee to commemorate this incident.

This year’s event will occur at 3 p.m., Sunday, May 4, at the site.  Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt will be featured speaker and Larry Penn, Wisconsin’s premier labor folksinger, will perform as he has done for the last 28 years.  Again, as in recent years, the Milwaukee Public Theatre and Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre will lead in a re-enactment of the 1886 event.  The Solidarity Singers of Madison will offer pre-program entertainment  beginning at 2:50 p.m.  Click here to download flyer.

Click here to see map of location.

Below, find various resources that more fully explain the importance of this event.  Also, check out the reports of the previous years’ events.  The links are below.

More than 300 attend 127th Anniversary program on Bay View Massacre

(See photos and read excerpts from Michael Gordon’s remarks)

More than 300 persons gathered at the Bay View Rolling Mills Historical Marker Site on Milwaukee’s lakefront on Sunday, May 5, 2013 to commemorate and honor the seven persons who were killed by the State Militia 127 years ago as they marched in an eight-hour-day rally.

For the third straight year, this year’s event featured the popular re-enactment of the Bay View Tragedy performed by the Milwaukee Public Theatre with the Milwaukee Puppet and Mask Theatre.   Michael Gordon, professor emeritus of history from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, spoke at the program that has been celebrated since 1986.

The program has become a popular event that calls attention to the struggles of workers to achieve a greater quality of life through a humane working day.  Up until the 1886 tragedy, workers had been campaigning through rallies, marches and other efforts to establish the principle of the eight-hour day.

The Milwaukee rally for the cause ended with the State Militia firing into a crowd of about 1500 workers marching toward the old Bay View Rolling Mills (Milwaukee’s largest employer) and killing seven. The event was sponsored by the Wisconsin Labor History Society in cooperation with the Bay View Historical Society, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee Area Labor Council.

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Resources: The Bay View Tragedy and Its Impact

A Study Guide full of background information and questions that will lead to interesting discussions.  Click here.  

View two video supplements to study guide:  Overview of event.  Remarks of John Gurda.

Remarks of Stephanie Bloomingdale at 2012 event

For a bibliography, click here.

The front page of Wisconsin State Journal, May 6, 1886.

Readable version of the Bay View Tragedy report from Wisconsin State Journal, May 6, 1886.

Suggested Readings

Workers and Unions in Wisconsin History: A Labor History Anthology. By Darryl Holter. State Historical Society of Wisconsin. 1999. (See Pages 34-46 “The Bay View Tragedy,” by Robert Nesbit, an excerpt from The History of Wisconsin, Volume III, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1985.)

Development of the Labor Movement in Milwaukee. By Thomas W. Gavett. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, Wis., 1965. (See Pages 50-71: Chapter 5 – RIOT!) NOTE: This book is out of print, but may be available in major Wisconsin libraries. The Labor Movement in Wisconsin: A History. By Robert W. Ozanne, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Madison, Wis. 1984. (Chapter One: “The First Unions”)

Additional Readings Labor’s Untold Story. By Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais. United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), 1965 (Second Edition). (See Pages 65-104: Chapter III – The Iron Heel).

The Badger State: A Documentary History of Wisconsin. By Barbara and Justus Paul. October 1979. (See Pages 341-351.

May Day: A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday 1886-1986. By Philip S. Foner. International Publishers. New York. 1986.

The American: A Middle Western Legend. By Howard Fast. Duell, Sloan & Pearce. 1946. This novel was a best seller when published more than 50 years ago. It tells the story of John Peter Altgeld, an Illinois governor who showed surprising political courage in the aftermath of the Haymarket Tragedy.

Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. By J. Anthony Lukas. Simon % Schuster. 1997. Although this concerns an 1890s labor struggle in the Idaho mines, the author traces much labor history in the late 19th Century, including mentions of Wisconsin incidents. A large book, but worth it for interested readers. For an extensive Labor History reference list please visit the Wisconsin Labor History Society Reference Page.

Suggested web sites

A good start into the web is through the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO site, www.wisaflcio.org. Click on “labor history” and find other links, plus a good bibliography. And, there’s our sister society, the Illinois Labor History website at www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/.

Reports from previous Commemorations:

View video of the 2012 celebration

Read Excerpts: Remarks of Amy Stear at Bay View Tragedy event, May 3, 2009 (Amy  Stear, Wisconsin director of 9to5, spoke at 123rd Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy, May 3,  2009, in Milwaukee.  Read the remarks here.)

Read Report of Rep. Gwen Moore’s remarks to 122nd Anniversary Commemoration on May 4, 2008.

For report on event in May, 2007, click at may 07 BV.pdf and for the May 2006 event, click at may 06 BV.pdf .



A BRIEF HISTORY:

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sunday, April 30, 1995

When Bay View strike turned to bloodshed

Troops opened fire on workers demanding eight-hour day

by John Gurda

We gather each year to re­member a tragedy. The date, May 5, is always the same, and the place is always the site of a vanished steel mill in Bay View. Even the people are generally the same, a motley bunch that includes union activists, college professors, Bay View residents, and former mayor Frank Zeidler, the group’s godfather.

The tragedy we remember took place in the first week of May, 1886. For a few days in that long-ago spring, Milwaukee was practically unhinged. A general strike, affecting ev­eryone from bakers to brewers, began on May 1 and soon brought the city to a grinding halt. On May 2, nearly 15,000 striking workers massed for the largest parade in Milwaukee’s history to that time. By May 4, after a series of less orderly demonstrations, Gov. Jeremiah Rusk had called out the militia.

One day later, horrified specta­tors witnessed the bloodiest la­bor disturbance in Wisconsin’s history.

What issue could have aroused such passions? Nothing more or less than the eight-hour day. Milwaukee was a stronghold of the Eight-Hour League agita­tion that swept the nation in 1886. Here and elsewhere, most workers routinely put in 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, for only a dollar or two a day. As the industrial work force grew from a disorganized mass to a well-defined movement, the eight-hour day, without a cut in pay, became its “password and battle cry.” A celebrated slogan summed up the movement’s core demand: “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will.”

The springtime campaign produced a number of victories. Milwaukee’s Common Council passed an eight-hour ordinance for municipal workers before labor’s May 1 deadline, and more than 20 private em­ployers fol­lowed suit.

The general strike of early May was a di­rect response to companies that refused to adopt the new system. Using both persua­sion and in­timidation, the strikers soon shut down ev­ery major em­ployer in the city, with a lone exception: the North Chi­cago Rolling Mills, a mas­sive steel plant in suburban Bay View. On May 4, a group of labor­ers, many of them Polish immi­grants, resolved to bring the mill’s leaders to heel. Nearly 700 of them gathered at St. Stanis­laus Church, on the corner of 5th and Mitchell Sts., for a brisk morning walk to Bay View. When a conference with mill ex­ecutives there proved fruitless, the laborers served notice that they would return.

“Uncle Jerry” Rusk called out the militia in the meantime, and the troops spent an uneasy night inside the plant gates. On the morning of May 5, they faced a phalanx of marching workers that had swelled to at least 1,500. As the crowd surged down Bay St.toward the mill, the mili­tia commander ordered them to disperse. At a distance of 200 yards, it is doubtful that the marchers heard him above their own noise.

When they contin­ued to advance, the commander ordered his troops to open fire. At least seven people fell dead or dying, including a 12-year-old schoolboy and a retired mill worker who was watching the commotion from his back­yard. The rest of the crowd beat a hasty retreat to the city.

Reactions to the incident var­ied wildly. Most Milwaukeeans were appalled by the carnage, but many considered the mili­tia’s actions justified. “I seen my duty and 1 done it,” crowed Gov. Rusk, staking his position as a champion of law and order. Others took the shootings as chilling evidence that industrial property was val­ued more highly than industrial workers.

The Bay View incident end­ed, for the time being, all efforts to institute the eight-hour day, but it also galvanized Milwau­kee’s workers. In the fall elec­tions of 1886, the labor-oriented People’s Party elected a con­gressman, several state legisla­tors and an entire slate of coun­ty officials. Although their tri­umph was only temporary, it was the first tremor in a political upheaval that carried a socialist, Emil Seidel, into the mayor’s of­fice in 1910. John Gurda is a Milwaukee writer and historian.