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Our Rich History: Misplaced priorities and missed opportunities, Newport’s Long Depression, 1873-1896

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to KyForward

Part 73 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

Have you ever found yourself feeling powerless? Surrounded by technology that seems to be pushing you aside? Led by unethical people with no backbone? Smack in the middle of a situation where all the least sustainable solutions to problems suffocated all of the really good ideas? If so, you can understand the world of the late 1800s.

In the late 1800s, the United States was changing rapidly. The Second Industrial Revolution brought new chemical and technological capabilities. Mass migrations of people left rural areas for jobs in the teeming cities. Millions more left Europe for the United States.

Factories belched forth coal-fired pollution that enveloped cities in soot. The working class labored long hours (sometimes 10-to-12 hour workdays, 6 days per week) in dimly lit, poorly ventilated, unsafe factories and workshops. Industrial accidents could, in a single moment, end workers’ abilities to sustain their families. With no health insurance, no workmen’s compensation, no Social Security, and no Medicare, the working-class literally worked itself to death. To make matters worse, children joined the workforce early to supplement their family’s income, depriving themselves—and society at large—of the opportunity to learn and to contribute to complex solutions to national problems.

Housing conditions could be deplorable. Many working-class people were renters. Small, poorly ventilated and severely overcrowded apartments—with foul-smelling outhouses—dotted cities like Newport, Kentucky. The working class moved often, seeking slightly better accommodations or more affordable rents with each move. In Newport’s low-lying West End, the housing was susceptible to flooding from the Ohio and Licking Rivers. Nevertheless, population density was high, as residents of the West End were within walking distance of neighborhood factories and steel mills, as well as to jobs in Cincinnati across the Ohio River.

Rev. Patrick Guilfoyle. (Photo from Golden Jubilee of the Rev. James McNerney, Rector of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Newport, Ky., printed by the church, 1915).

A few compassionate individuals worked assiduously to improve housing conditions and to increase homeownership. One such person was Rev. Patrick Guilfoyle (1817–1892). From 1857 until 1874, Guilfoyle was the pastor of Newport’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on West Fifth Street in the city’s West End. The parish mainly served working-class Irish immigrants.

Rev. Guilfoyle, like many Catholic pastors of his day, accepted deposits of money from parishioners for reinvestment in parish building projects. In turn, these church “banks” kept track of parishioners’ deposits and paid interest on their accounts. The financial arrangements, while sounding rather strange today, worked efficiently for poor immigrant churches. After all, banks of the time period generally served only middle and upper-class customers. Poor working-class laborers needed a dependable place to save a little money, and to earn some interest. On the other hand, the deposits provided the churches with available funds from which to borrow to build their parish campuses, from churches to schools to rectories and convents. Regular income from pew rents, donations, and other sources assured the necessary receipts to pay back the loans and to provide interest payments to the depositors.

The energetic Rev. Guilfoyle saw further opportunities, however. As the child of poor Irish immigrants, he believed that every laboring family man should own a home. So Guilfoyle set out to make that dream come to fruition for hundreds of families. He functioned as a modern-day home construction firm, purchasing lots in Newport subdivisions, hiring laborers, and building affordable houses for sale, for rent, and/or for rent with the option to buy. In addition, he financed the sale of houses to hardworking laborers. At first, the returns on this investment in better housing proved profitable to the church’s depositors. The exact numbers of houses he constructed are not known, however, it is likely that it included as many as 500 houses in Newport, a figure easily substantiated by examination of available court records.

Everyone benefited from Guilfoyle’s enterprise until the beginning of the Long Depression in 1873. Then, the economic bubble burst, and the inevitable occurred. Parishioners began demanding the return of their deposits. As much of the money was already invested in the housing enterprise, the pastor did not have sufficient funds available to meet the demand for withdrawals. The parish faced bankruptcy. Only the generosity of wealthy parishioners, whiskey distillers Peter O’Shaughnessy and James Walsh, brought solvency to the parish. The extraordinary amount of property involved took the Master Commissioner of Campbell County ten years to disentangle (Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, KY.).

The Long Depression that ended Guilfoyle’s well-intentioned dream of a house for each laboring family man was difficult for the working class in America. Economists, like historians, have vastly different opinions concerning historic events. Some view the period from 1873 until 1896 in the United States as consisting of two distinct economic “panics,” or “depressions.” The first lasted from 1873 until 1878, and the second from 1893 until 1896. Other scholars simply call the entire period, “The Long Depression.”

Whatever you call it, the timing of the depression was terrible for Newport. In 1873, the city had completed its new waterworks. Costing more than $600,000, nearly $175,000 higher than the original estimate of $425,000, the cleanest water supply in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region had its drawbacks. It placed a huge burden on Newport’s finances, just at the time a national panic struck. (See: Our Rich History, NKyTribune, April 5, 2021)

As early as February 1874, city leaders met to request that the Kentucky General Assembly pass legislation allowing the city to issue an additional $100,000 in bonds over three years “to pay interest on present Water Works bonds for those same three years.” In other words, Newport needed to issue bonds to cover the interest on bonds already issued for the waterworks. On February 12th, the bill was passed by the Kentucky Senate (“Suburban News. Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, February 11, 1874, p. 3; “Newport. The Charter Meeting,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, February 4, 1874, p. 8; “Kentucky Legislature,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, February 13, 1874, p. 1).

As the national economy spiraled downward, sales of manufactured goods dropped. Employers began cutting wages. The working class, unable to meet its living expenses, fought back. In the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, working men and women began to organize into labor unions to seek equitable wages, better working conditions, and eventually, the eight-hour workday. It was an uphill battle, as giant corporations fought back, hiring “scabs” to replace the striking workers, and fighting the labor unions in the courts.

Swift’s Iron and Steel Works in the Licking Bottoms of Newport’s West End featured a blast furnace and rolling mills. (Image from 1886 Sanborn Insurance Maps, Newport, Kentucky, Image 11, Library of Congress) (Click for larger image)

Labor problems in Newport ensued in December 1873. As of December 1st, Swift’s Rolling Mill in the “Licking Bottom” of the city’s West End initiated a reduction in wages for an estimated 100 skilled workmen, including roll-man, heaters, and puddlers. The pay cut did not apply, however, to the vast majority of the unskilled workers, who numbered another 600.

When the skilled workers began a strike on December 1st, the rolling mill had no choice but to terminate operations temporarily. Meanwhile, it trained other workers for the skilled positions and reopened on January 5, 1874. Eventually, the mill also hired out-of-town replacements, called “scabs,” or as the Newport workers preferred to call them, “black sheep.” In addition, Swift hired thirteen security guards of its own, while the city swore in five additional policemen to protect the mill and its employees (“Riot and Murder,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, February 25, 1874, p. 4).

Nevertheless, the strike persisted and worsened, erupting into violence. On Sunday morning, February 22, 1874, twenty-four “scabs” from Pittsburgh arrived via boat to work as rollers at Swift’s Rolling Mill. One of them, unidentified, was beaten by a large crowd “numbering fifty or seventy-five.” Supposedly, twenty of the Pittsburgh men decided to return to their hometown (Suburban News. Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, February 24, 1874, p. 3).

On Tuesday, February 24th, the violence became deadly. At about 1:30 PM, Newport police were escorting some “scabs” to the mill. About 200 strikers and onlookers followed close behind, throwing stones and other objects, and yelling “baaa …” at the “black sheep” workmen. At the corner of Brighton and Madison (now Fifth) Streets, one of the “scabs” “turned to the mob at their heels, and flourishing a pistol said, ‘Step back or I’ll kill you!’ and directly fired twice,” Frederick Boss was struck by one of the bullets (“Riot and Murder,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, February 25, 1874, p. 4).

The victim, Frederick Boss, was nineteen years old and worked in the butcher shop of his brother-in-law, Frank Ridley. Carried back to Ridley’s home at Elm and Brighton Streets, Boss was cared for by two doctors, who administered “stimulants and sedatives.” He died “a little after six o’clock” that same evening (“Riot and Murder,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, February 25, 1874, p. 4).

Striking workers contended that Alexander Swift, the owner of the mill, had purchased an entire case of Sharpe’s pistols, as well as ammunition, for the use of the scabs. The strikers further claimed that Swift had presumably told his workers to “shoot the G—d d—d sons of b—s” (“Riot and Murder,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, February 25, 1874, p. 4).

The Cincinnati Daily Gazette blamed city officials of Newport for failing to maintain peace and order. Claimed the newspaper, “Newport may afford some advantages over Cincinnati to manufacturers in the way of cheaper sites, but all the advantages she can possibly offer are neutralized by such lawlessness as her authorities have permitted to exist for more than a month . . . ” (“The Reign of Violence at Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, February 26, 1874, p. 4).

The Cleveland Leader joined in the chorus, blaming the skilled workers of Swift’s Mill for fomenting the strike. It supported the owner of the mill, claiming that he had no choice but to reduce the wages of “bosses” in light of the national economic panic and that the wages were competitive “for similar work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Cleveland and Detroit” (“The Anarchy at Newport,” Cleveland Leader, February 26, 1874, p. 4).

On Thursday, February 26, 1874, hundreds of strikers attended the funeral of Frederick Boss at Ridley’s home on the corner of Elm and Brighton Streets in the city’s West End. The Newport Barracks Band played on the sidewalk across the street from the home, and a procession of “twenty-five or thirty carriages” followed the hearse to St. John Lutheran Church in Newport. Mayor R. D. Hayman, meanwhile, issued a proclamation prohibiting “all unusual and unnecessary assemblages of persons upon the public streets,” as well as closing all saloons on March 1st and 2nd (“The Newport Strikers. Funeral of Fred Boss Yesterday,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, February 27, 1874, p. 7).

Alexander Swift, meanwhile, blamed Mayor Hayman for failing to enforce order. Swift “telegraphed Governor [Preston] Leslie for protection.” He also “sent a telegram to the Secretary of War asking that a detachment of Newport Barracks soldiers be put as a guard on the Government snag boats he was constructing. The boats had $100,000 worth of work done on them and were in danger” (“The Newport Trouble,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, February 28, 1874, p. 7).

By March 1874, the strike affected 8,000 workers and about eighteen mills in the Ohio Valley region—including mills in Ironton, Portsmouth and Cincinnati, Ohio; New Albany, Indiana; and Louisville, Kentucky). Still, Alexander Swift insisted that it was not a strike, but rather “a refusal to go to work at the Pittsburgh scale of prices, which we have been compelled to offer, and which we will hereafter work upon, or stop our mills” (“The Iron Stand-Off. Eighteen Iron Mills and Eight Thousand Men Affected by It in the Ohio Valley,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, March 1, 1874, p. 5).

On Monday, March 2, 1874, Newport city elections drew “a larger vote than was ever polled” in the city. A vast majority of voters, 1,326 to 442, voted for assuming additional bonded indebtedness for the waterworks. The citizens also voted overwhelmingly for a new city charter (“Newport,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, March 6, 1874, p. 2).

On March 5th, in response to a request by Mayor Hayman for aid in maintaining peace, Governor Leslie agreed to send twenty-five volunteer militia to Newport. Commanded by Captain C. M. Hendricks of Lexington, they arrived on the evening of March 7th. The governor also sent fifty rifles and ammunition. It was the city’s responsibility to quarter the soldiers, which they did in a boardinghouse on Goodman Street in the West End.

In addition, the governor very carefully recommended that “As the use of the military in time of peace is always to be resorted to with great caution, I enjoin upon you the observance of great care lest the evil you seek to avert be aggravated rather than lessened by their use. Let your action be made apparent to all as prompted by the intention and purpose of preserving the peace and maintaining the supremacy of the civil authority” (“Newport. The Swift Mills Troubles—Troops Coming,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, March 7, 1874, p. 3).

Negotiations between strikers and Alexander Swift failed to produce a compromise. Nevertheless, after another short interruption of the rolling mill operation, it reopened with a small workforce in early March. The state militia spent less than a week in Newport, departing for Lexington on March 12th.

Unable to survive without work, strikers slowly succumbed to economic pressures and returned to work at Swift’s or at other places. The strike was over. Swift and a handful of like-minded steel mill owners in the Ohio River Valley had banded together to defeat workers’ rights to earn a just and living wage (“Newport. The Rolling Mill Troubles,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, March 9, 1874, p. 4; “Covington,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, March 13, 1874, p. 4).

A cunning businessman, Swift knew how to play his cards and to win. By July 1874, his company was entertaining a visitor from Charleston, West Virginia, who was trying to woo Swift to move to that city. By August, it appeared that Swift might be relocating his mill to a nine-acre site in Charleston, where area leaders had offered him a $50,000 incentive. The news was premature, however. The deal did not come to fruition. The fear of losing Swift’s mill, however, might have awakened Newport city officials. In 1876, for instance, they granted his mill a $1,200 city tax exemption (Wheeling Intelligencer, July 25, 1874, p. 3; “Letter from West Virginia,” Frostburg [MD] Mining Journal, August 8, 1874, p. 3; “Newport News,” Cincinnati Daily Times, September 1, 1876, p. 4).

Continued next week…

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, Ph.D. is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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