Times of Turbulence: Lexington's Streetcar Strikes Transylvania Library Special Collections

While today’s Lexingtonians associate public transportation with the city’s fleet of LexTran buses, the city actually has a long history with mass transit.

Electric streetcars criss-crossed Central Kentucky from 1890 and were retired in Lexington by 1938. Throughout this era, the workers that operated the cars often protested long hours, dangerous work conditions, and low pay.

Transylvania University's images of one of these streetcar strikes are part of a larger collection of photographs from The J. Winston Coleman, Jr. Collection, which is housed in the library's Special Collections.

As with many labor disputes throughout history, Lexington’s streetcar protests rarely went the way of the worker, and they often turned violent. The work was dangerous (crashes and grisly injuries were common,) and the workdays were long. One of the earlier strikes occurred in October 1890, when workers for the Lexington Street Railway Company walked off the job to demand shorter hours. These men were quickly replaced and service on Company lines resumed after just two days.

Streetcar #56 crashed into a baggage car on Water Street after a brake failure descending North Broadway - May 9, 1907

In 1899, the Lexington Railway Company increased its wages for streetcar conductors from 85 cents to $1 a day. The motormen, who operated the cars, saw their pay rise from $1 to $1.40 a day. At this time and for years afterward, the typical workday was 12 hours.

On August 5, 1901, the company locked out members of the Motormen and Conductors Union after they pushed for a further wage increase. By this time, an experienced motorman was earning $1.47 a day with the daily rate for conductors at $1.31. The strikers’ demand was an increase of one cent an hour. The union had made a secret plan to strike the following week, at the time of a large city fair.

Almost immediately, the company began to resume operations with strikebreakers. With labor laws nearly nonexistent, the use of strikebreakers was common in this era. Men like New York’s James A. Farley were known to employ tens of thousands of these replacement workers, who could be deployed anywhere in the country on short notice.

On August 7th, the lockout turned violent when a motorman on Chestnut Street was shot in the arm. The city also saw several acts of property damage, and sabotage on this day. By August 9th, the strike had failed as all workers affiliated with the union were replaced.

An early 1907 effort by workers to join the Carmen’s Union failed and more destruction followed: In February 1910, the Lexington & Interurban Railway Company lost one of its car barns to a fire. The damage destroyed six cars, seven trailers, and a snow removal car. It wasn’t proven, but the cause of the fire was believed to be arson, probably set by a worker during the ongoing wage and labor disputes.

A photo of one of the old Loudon Avenue car barns, which had been converted to house motor cars and buses by the time this photo was taken in 1947

One of Lexington’s most violent streetcar strikes began on July 1, 1913. 21 linemen working for the Kentucky Traction & Terminal Company went on strike for higher wages. At the time, the workers had a shorter workday - - ten hours instead of twelve - - but they were only earning 27 ½ cents an hour. The men were demanding 30 cents and a nine hour workday.

As the traction companies had done so many times before, they quickly hired strikebreakers to replace the linemen. The strikebreakers came in from Chicago and were given housing at the Broadway Hotel. The strikers mobilized and surrounded the hotel, preventing their replacements from working.

Transylvania University’s photos of Lexington’s third streetcar strike show a few of the dramatic scenes, including protesters brawling with police and a large mob standing in front of one of the trolleys, impeding its forward progression.
Looking West on Short Street, near Cheapside, as protesters jam the street
A large crowd surrounds a streetcar near Main and Limestone Streets

On Monday, July 13th after the company brought in one hundred strikebreakers from New York and Chicago, the streets became violent with seven streetcars burned and several strikers injured. Two deputy sheriffs were seriously injured and a dozen strikers were arrested. Police were called out to restore order.

This photo shows Lexington's Police Commissioner and several of his officers driving through a crowd of men.

Later in the week, Acting Kentucky Governor Edward J. McDermott negotiated with the company to recognize the Carmen’s Union. The workers did not receive their demand for a closed union shop, but they agreed to return to work just days after the violence. Other strikes hit American cities in 1913, including in Indianapolis and Buffalo, New York. Our city would see more protests in the years ahead but for now, the conflict was over in Lexington.

The Great Depression, coupled with increased use of cabs and motor buses, contributed to the decline of the street car system. Lexington’s transit system changed hands several times after the streetcar era. In 1972, the company was bought by the city and established as the Transit Authority of Lexington Fayette County (LexTran.) The city’s bus system still has some of its facilities at the site of the old Loudon car barn.

Most of this information was adapted from Traction in the Bluegrass: The Trolley and Interurban Traction Lines of Lexington and Central Kentucky, by William M. Ambrose

The images used in this presentation are part of a larger collection of photographs from The J. Winston Coleman, Jr. Collection, which is housed in the library's Special Collections.

Text and Layout by: Jason Cooper; Technical Services Librarian

Technical Assistance by: Kevin Johnson; Digitization & Metadata Specialist