Overworked and underpaid: The Sawdust War and its legacy

Williamsport already was a lumber capital in 1872 when a dispute over pay and hours for the men whose work made Williamsport a leader in the lumber industry escalated into the “sawdust war.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that the 1860’s saw a boom in the lumber industry for the region, in which a handful of men made millions while those who actually worked on the river struggled to provide for their families on the wages they were paid by “Lumber Barons.” The affluent elite had accumulated so much wealth that in many respects they did in fact resemble barons, creating families of royalty that ensured the sustained wealth of their descended kin.

It was this wealth inequality coupled with hazardous working conditions and long hours which ultimately led to an angry halt for the lumber industry. The Sawdust War of 1872 was first and foremost a labor dispute between the interests of the wealthy few and the many of the working class. Documents from the Lycoming County Genealogy Project estimate some 3,000 men felt they had not received a fair share of profits made the previous summer.

According to other documents found at the James V Brown Library, Pennsylvania had passed a law in 1868 ensuring a shorter work day for those on the river. However, there was no enforcement or oversight in its application, which allowed Lumber Barons to conveniently ignore the legislation. What followed was not a “strike” but a “seeking of the rights due” to labor, leaders said.

The strike was formed by the same group of labor organizers that in 1871, created the State Labor Reform Convention. It was at this convention the following year that workers agreed upon a resolution to demand a decrease from their current 12-plus hour work day to a 10-hour work day for the same pay, a demand which the law already favored. The workers went on a 22-day strike beginning July 1st of 1872. First assembling in front of the Lycoming County Courthouse, the group marched to each sawmill to gather more sympathizers and shut down production across the board. As they marched, with banners and drums beating, their slogan rang clear: “Ten Hours or No Sawdust.”

Though that first strike remained peaceful, the second was not as calm, being met with police force who were ordered to prevent the mills from being shut down, to protect the interests of the wealthy elite. It should be noted that many of the mill workers did in fact express ample worry that they would not be able to feed their families if they did not earn their wages through working. Yet still, they threw stones at the police and the mill and the whole system, picking up clubs as they went, and so the riot of July 20 began.

Strikers were eventually forced to disperse at the tip of about 500 bayonets in the arms of troops who were sent to the unrestful scene. These troops, formed by two Williamsport militias were called in to protect the interests of the sawmill owners.

Documents obtained from Williamsport Arts state that Judge James Gamble presided over the controversial “Sawdust War” trial that followed. Twenty-seven men were arrested. Twenty-one men were convicted to time served in county jail. Four men were convicted to one-year terms in federal prison. It was in response to a petition signed by more than 2000 community members, including Lumber Baron Peter Herdic, that the governor pardoned the men two days later with no time served. It has been speculated that the governor’s decision was made as a political favor to Herdic, independent of the petition signed by community members. It was critical to Herdic and other lumber bosses that they retain their workers, and that no future strikes assemble in response to any perceived injustice as the strike significantly impacted their profit.

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