History of the BLET, Part 2

Wisconsin Central locomotives and cres, from the BLET Archives.

Part 2 of a Series

(Continued from the June/July 2007 issue)

At this time two engineers, S.J. McCurdy and Orville Baker, went before the Michigan Central management in Detroit, demanding better working conditions. A.S. Sweet occupied the post of superintendent of machinery, and it is said that he had been given the place on the pledge that he would cut costs. The committee waited on Sweet, and he agreed to advance the wages of engineers $10 per month. This encouraged them to such an extent that a little later a second committee was sent to Sweet, and the pay for first-class engineers was increased to $85 per month; which restored the wage scale to approximately what it had been prior to the reductions the men had been forced to take some time before.

But these increases proved to be of short duration. Presently, regular runs were so changed that there resulted reductions in pay rather than increases. Locomotive engineers and their firemen of every class were affected by this action; and the men felt so outraged by the treatment accorded them that agitation for some form of organization again became rampant up and down the lines of the Michigan Central. The men met in groups and discussed the situation. The machinists in Detroit used strong language in connection with the treatment they were receiving. They carried a pointed protest to Sweet, who in view of the agitation had had the railroad offices barricaded with iron bars. Sweet declared to the protesting committee that, "He considered half a loaf preferable to no bread at all." But that was not the end of it. He proceeded at once to discharge the superintendent of machinists because he had attended a protest meeting. He endeavored to have all those men let out who had put in an appearance at the conference, much in keeping with the tactics of the employer.

J.C. Thompson, one of the original organizers of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, declared that Sweet became so incensed at having been challenged in the matter of discharging the leaders, he laid off a number of firemen who had been longest in the service, and gave their places to unskilled men who knew nothing of the work required of them. This brought an immediate clash, for the engineers refused to go out on their runs where regular firemen had been dismissed. And this attitude was an initial open display of the desire of locomotive engineers to protect firemen.

To add to the difficulties of the situation, there were some who, while professing friendship for the strikers, nevertheless did not hesitate when the opportunity presented itself to advance their standing with the road officials. These men not only informed Sweet of what was going on, but they added a great deal to it, which made the officers difficult to deal with.

It is rather singular that the movement to organize engineers started in the East but came to a head west of the Allegheny Mountains, which were at that time the dividing line between East and West. Doubtless this was because the Eastern roads treated their engineers somewhat better than did the Western. During the fall and winter of 1862, managements of the western roads slashed rates of pay and extended working hours until the men could scarcely live. They were driven like cattle. These conditions were endured through the winter. However, a flare-up of engineers took place in the month of April, 1863. This took place on the Michigan Central.

The men all over the system were discouraged, and on a Sunday morning in April, 1863, at Marshall, Mich., a number of engineers gathered to discuss conditions and to map out a plan of action. The most important of all these meetings was that of a group which came together in the shade of an old flat car, which had done service with the sand house for many years. Among those in this party were W.D. Robinson, Sam McCurdy, John Brown, Thomas Nixon, Henry Hall, Sam Hill, Henry Lathrop, George Q. Adams and Alfred (Sam) Keith. They were animated by a sincere desire to effect a protective organization that would enable the men to exert some influence on the management, and in the end, rebound to their own advantage. They were discussing their grievances when somebody discovered the division master mechanic watching them. So they went to Mr. Robinson's house where they carried on their discussions.

There were 13 in this company which met under the flat car. They agreed that if any one of them was discharged by Sweet, the rest would quit on the spot. A circular was prepared and they all signed it. Then they carried further their plan, which they called a Protective Association. If other engineers affiliated with the group they, too, would be required to take upon themselves the obligation to quit the service if any member was dismissed.

Copies of the circular containing the prescribed oath were circulated over the Michigan Central; and certain engineers, known to be of the right kind, were given the opportunity to obligate themselves, as had the 13 in the original compact. The prime movers in the group were surprised at their success in getting signatures. This brought them to think they would soon be able to put up a formidable front. Whereupon, a committee of five was selected, composed of John McCurdy, Orville Baker, Sam Hill, Gil Havin and Alfred (Sam) Keith, to go to Detroit to interview Sweet, and to insist on an advance in wages equal to what other first-class roads were paying.

The committee met in Detroit, called at Sweet's office, only to find him absent - engaged with the master car builder. They sent one of the committee to see him and requested him to come to his office, but Sweet ignored the committeeman. He did not so much as speak to him. Then another committeeman went and returned. Finally, Alfred Keith took upon himself the job of interviewing Sweet. Keith, after he had explained his mission, induced Sweet to accompany him to his office. When Keith and Sweet approached the other members of the committee, Sweet called out, "Well, boys, what do you propose to do, shut up the road?"

Sam Hill replied, "We are here as gentlemen, representing gentlemen and the desire to be treated as such." Hill went on to say that the committee was acting as a unit and that they were speaking for all the engineers from Detroit to Chicago - that they had grievances that they wished to adjust. The schedule for engineers now called for $80 per month of 2,500 miles. The committee discussed all of the points at issue very thoroughly and it ended by Sweet granting the whole of their requests.

When the success of this conference became known, it gave a tremendous impetus to the Protective Association, and it was now decided that the membership should not be limited to the Michigan Central Railroad. The movement gained such headway that it was agreed at once that a communication be sent to engineers on every road running out of Detroit, Indianapolis, and Chicago, inviting them to send representatives to Marshall to confer on the advisability of forming a permanent association. May 5, 1863, was the date fixed for the meeting; Detroit the place. Thus the grounds were laid for the advent of the Brotherhood of the Footboard, which soon thereafter was to become the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

(To be continued...)

The original, hand-signed charter of Division 1 (Detroit) of the Brotherhood of the Footboard hangs in the office of the BLET National President. It has hung in the President's office for countless decades.



© 2007 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen