Thursday, July 6, 2017

July 6, 1892 Excerpt "The Battle Begins"

125 years ago. In the middle of the night, the pickets downriver have alerted the workers in Homestead that two covered barges are coming up the river from Pittsburgh, and that could mean only one thing--the company was bringing in scabs or guards, or both. Townspeople rush down to the riverbank, carrying whatever they had that could be used as a weapon. A little after 4 a.m. the barges arrive in Homestead and make for the landing inside the works, now enclosed by a high fence. The workers break through the fence and run to the landing.

JULY 6, 1892  4:15 a.m. At the river landing below the Pump House for the mill.
EXCERPT from Darkness Visible. Note: The actions and words of O'Donnell and the other historical figures are taken directly from eyewitness reports.

     The crack of rifle shots came at random intervals. People on the bank cursed and hurled threats at the men arriving on the barges. More shots were fired.

     In the half-light Emlyn made out the shapes of two enormous covered barges being towed into position at the landing by a tugboat. Union leader Hugh O'Donnell was moving along the landing, speaking to the crowd, urging restraint. His words, however, seemed to have little effect on the incensed mob. More people, many carrying guns, were spreading out along the bank and taking up positions on the Pemikey railroad bridge overlooking the landing. It was apparent the situation was far beyond anyone's control.

     "Duw, there must be thousands of people on the bank," said Gwyn. "Whoever they are, how could they dare come ashore?"

     "We'll soon see," said Smith.

     The first light of dawn was glinting on the eastern horizon as the tug with Little Bill painted on its bow grounded the barge Iron Mountain on the bank. The men who had led the charge into the mill rushed up. As a man in a slouch hat came onto the deck, someone threw a stone at the barge. From the landing people were yelling, warning those on the barges not to land. As the minutes tickets away, the threats escalated.

     Tensions were reaching a fever pitch as Hugh O'Donnell made his way to the front of the crowd. He was shouting something...but Emlyn couldn't hear what he was saying. To Emlyn's surprise, the crowd quieted.

     O'Donnell came to the water and called out to the men on the barges. "On behalf of five thousand men, I beg you to leave here at once. I don't know who you are or where you came from, but I do know that you have no business here." He went on, entreating them not to risk violence by trying to come ashore. "Don't attempt to enter these works by force."

     At that, a man in a blue military coat with brass buttons stepped on the deck of the Iron Mountain. "We were sent to take possession of this property and guard it for this company," he said.

     "Damned if it ain't Pinkertons," said Duncan. "Look at them blue uniforms."

     "Ssh!" said Smith.

     "If you don't withdraw," continued the man on the barge, "we will mow every one of you down and enter in spite of you."

     "They will, will they? I don't think so," growled Duncan.

     "Hush, dammit," said Smith.

     O'Donnell was talking. "What you do here is at the risk of many lives. Before you enter those mills, you will trample over the dead bodies of three thousand honest workmen."

     For a moment, the crowd on the bank watched in silence.

     A group of men on the Iron Mountain brought out a gangplank and pushed it into the landing. The man who had spoken came to the top of the plank. Simultaneously, the leader of the militant strikers took a stand at the other end of the plank, the others behind him.

     "Who's the striker at the bottom of the plank?" whispered Gwyn.

     "It looks like Billy Foy, the feller from the Salvation Army," said Smith." And behind him, Martin Murray, the heater--he's Welsh," he added as an aside to Emlyn. "And next to him is Sotak, leader of them Slovaks."

        Emlyn watched in disbelief at the scene unfolding below. Men on the bank shouted warnings to the men in the barges. The Pinkertons hesitated. The officer at the front shouted out, "There are three hundred men behind me, and you can't stop us." Foy yelled something in reply.

     Emlyn strained forward to see what was going on, but fog blurred the details. It looked like the officer came forward and tried to hit Foy with something.

     In rapid succession, two gunshots rang out. The officer and Foy went down. Hugh O'Donnell threw up his hands and shouted something at the strikers.

     From the barge, someone shouted, "Fire!" and a volley of gunfire roared from the portholes. As if in slow motion, Emlyn saw several men on the riverbank crumple to the ground.

     Women started screaming. The people around Emlyn began jostling each other, shifting away from the exposed position on the bank. From the riverbank came more shots.

     "Take cover," Duncan yelled. Return fire from the strikers thudded into the sides of the barges as the Pinkertons continued firing.

     His heart in his throat, Emlyn sprinted toward the mill building behind them. He caught sight of a dinky engine and ran behind it. Gwyn, running behind him, tripped and went sprawling onto the tracks thirty feet away. His rifle flew out of his hands and clattered onto the tracks.

     Emlyn stood at the front of the engine, trying to decided if he should run out to help Gwyn. A bullet pinged sharply against metal, and a chip flew out of a pile of bricks beside the locomotive.

     "Ricochets!" yelled Gwyn, lowering his head. "Stay where you are."

     The firing continued unabated, punctuated by screams and shouts.

     "Are you hurt?" yelled Emlyn over the racket.

     "I don't think so. I'm going to make a run for it."

     "Stay there!" Emlyn shouted. "It's not safe."

     Another bullet slammed into the locomotive steam chamber with a reverberating thonk. Gwyn raised his head and glanced at Emlyn, measuring the distance. Swiftly, Gwyn pushed himself into a crouching position and dashed toward Emlyn. Ten feet short of his goal, Gwyn tucked his head down and rolled the rest of the way, coming to a rest against the wheels of the engine.

   "Bloody hell!" said Gwyn, taking in great gulps of air. "I thought I was going to get hit for sure."

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