KanColl: The Kansas Historical Quarterlies

Labor Organizations in Kansas
in the Early Eighties

by Edith Walker and Dorothy Leibengood

August, 1935 (Vol. 4, No. 3), pages 283 to 290
Transcribed by lhn; digitized with permission of
the Kansas State Historical Society.

THE labor union movement in the United States, in the modern sense, began in the decade of the eighteen sixties. This movement did not become important in Kansas, however, until the early eighties. The most of the unions appealed only to the skilled workers, but the real story of the great labor conflict after the depression period of the seventies was associated more largely with the Knights of Labor, a union which included all types of workers.


The Order of the Knights of Labor was established in 1869, at Philadelphia, under the leadership of Uriah Stephens and gradually developed into a highly centralized organization with its local, district, state and national assemblies.In 1879 Stephens was succeeded by Terence V. Powderly as grandmaster workman, who held that position until 1893.

The deliberately planned policy of the Knights was to emphasize and rely upon arbitration, cooperation and education. Although strikes and boycotts no doubt eventually proved to be the chief recruiting agencies of the Order, officially strikes were discouraged and violence was at all times condemned.

Membership in the organization fluctuated from time to time. Initiation fees were low and many assemblies after organizing and holding a few meetings dropped out of existence because there was nothing for them to do. Organizers were paid a certain per cent of the charter fee for each new assembly formed and this made for an unhealthy growth of the organization. The successful Gould strike of 1885 caused many who had once belonged to the Knights of Labor and dropped out to come back into the Order and a great many new assemblies were formed. By 1886 the organization was at its height with a membership of over 700,000. More locals were formed in that year than in the sixteen years of its previous existence.

Powderly and other leaders favored thorough organization, cooperation and political action and opposed strikes. On the other hand a large part of the new membership was attracted by the



success of the strikes of 1885, and placed implicit confidence in strikes and boycotts. The leaders found it impossible to educate these radical elements in the older ideals, and the authority of the general executive board proved insufficient to control their action.


Many of the numerous labor organizations were represented in Kansas in the eighties, and in their struggle to improve their condition hundreds of Kansas wage earners joined the ranks of the growing army of organized workmen. Among the craft unions represented in Kansas were ten local divisions of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers with a membership of five hundred and seven; eight lodges of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, located at Parsons, Atchison, Ellis, Emporia, Fort Scott, Ottawa, Topeka and Nickerson; two organized divisions of the Order of Railway Conductors; four lodges of the International Typographical Union located at Lawrence, Leavenworth, Atchison and Topeka; and five lodges of the Cigar makers International Union of America located at Topeka, Leavenworth, Marysville, Fort Scott and Humboldt. [1]

Foremost among the labor organizations, however, in point of numbers and influence, stood the Knights of Labor. Introduced into the state in 1879, the Order grew slowly until 1881 and was confined to the coal regions, consisting of only three or four local assemblies. But from 1881 it increased rapidly in membership and never more rapidly than it did during the latter half of the year 1885 and the first half of the year 1886. This growth was especially noticeable following the strikes on the Missouri Pacific railway which occurred in March, 1885. [2] While the strike was in progress the Kansas City strikers took steps toward joining the ranks of the Knights of Labor. On March 15, the railway men involved in the difficulty with the Missouri Pacific company held a meeting at Armourdale, in which they banded together in a more permanent organization, and established a branch of the Order. Mr. Joseph R. Buchanan, editor of the Labor Enquirer of Denver, Colo., and a representative of the Knights of Labor, was present at the meeting and conducted the ceremonies of initiation. Later, in an interview with a reporter of the Kansas City Journal, Mr. Buchanan stated:

The Knights of Labor are a tremendous organization and have a vast and constantly increasing influence. They already run the Union Pacific railway.


Now you see we have lots of money and lots of experience. These Missouri Pacific strikers haven't a great deal of money and no experience to speak of. By becoming members of our organization they have made themselves ten times stronger for they have the whole body of the Knights with all of their resources to back them. The Kansas City strikers have acted very wisely in joining our ranks. [3]

The assemblies of the Union Pacific employees had commissioned Mr. Buchanan to assist the Gould strikers and had appropriated $30,000 to their support. [4]

Throughout the year assemblies sprang up along the Missouri Pacific line in Kansas. With a strong assembly of railroad men at Armourdale, [5] five other thriving assemblies in Wyandotte county, [6] and a Knights of Labor organizer stationed at Lenora, the western terminus of the Missouri Pacific line in Kansas, the Knights felt confident of a successful crusade in the northwestern part of the state. [7] In the fall an assembly was organized at Stockton on the South Solomon branch of the Missouri Pacific, and arrangements were under way for the institution of assemblies at other towns in that region. The workers at Muscotah, Greenleaf and Downs were already organized. [8]

In Atchison, the center of four radiating railway lines, the Order was well represented by three local assemblies. The first group was established there by seventeen workmen about 1883, and two years later their numbers had increased to more than four hundred. A short time after the Gould strike of 1885, a second assembly was organized and soon boasted a membership of almost two hundred wage earners. In October a group of young mechanics organized a third assembly, and Atchison Knights felt that the real work of organization had just begun. [9] In December they were suggesting that steps should be taken toward the formation of a state assembly with headquarters in their city, and frankly stated that their three groups had the material necessary to carry out the project [10] They were looking forward to a vigorous winter campaign when they hoped to see many local assemblies established throughout the state, and for that purpose Atchison was furnished with an additional organizer. [11]


That the Knights had not worked in vain is clearly shown by the statement of Terence V. Powderly on his visit to Kansas City in the winter of 1885, when he wrote:

The Knights of Labor are firmly intrenched here. Twenty-two assemblies of that Order transact their business and take a hand at shaping the future of the city.The Missouri Pacific Railway System with its 6,046 miles of railway is now manned from end to end by the Knights of Labor. . . [12]

Both strikes and boycotts served as recruiting agencies for the Order. In April, 1885, a boycott was declared against The Daily Commonwealth of Topeka, by the Knights there, [13] and apparently the use of this weapon gave new life to the Order. [14] In June local assembly No. 1800 of the Knights of Labor announced enthusiastically that its group was growing rapidly. [15] The same month it was stated that within two weeks nearly 500 Topeka wage earners were initiated into the various local groups of the Order. [16] Labor organizations there were growing as never before and reports of continued progress were made throughout the summer and fall. [17] By December of that year the membership had grown from about 500 to almost three times that number. [18]

However, the Order was not confined to the larger cities in Kansas where the industrial workers were found. Assemblies were located in smaller towns and scores of Kansas farmers found their way into the organization. An assembly composed chiefly of farmers was active at Lenora. [19] A labor leader reported that the farmers near Independence were becoming interested in the organization,and he thought that before spring three or four farmers' assemblies would be organized there. At Muscotah the Knights proposed to hold meetings in the surrounding territory in order to interest the farmers in their organization. They felt that if these producers were united with the wage earners the power of the organization would be vastly increased. They earnestly desired to see every assembly in the land make it a special object to bring this great wealth-producing class into the fold. [20] Many of the farmers of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas joined the Knights with the


hope that organization would render them more competent to cope with the railroads and other corporations. [21]

The labor papers in Kansas urged every worker to rally to the cause of labor and join a labor organization. Organization was the watchword. It was every man's duty thus to use his influence to firing about the salvation of the working classes. In fact, labor organs pointed out that this was the only means by which the toiler could hope to be saved from greater degradation. Laws, bureaus of labor, and boards of arbitration were valuable only when directed by the forces of organized labor. If the working men failed to control these agencies, when once won, they would simply become additional tools in the hands of the enemy. [22]

It is not surprising, then, with this lively interest in labor organizations and resultant increase in numbers, that the various assemblies reached out into their communities and took an active part in their economic and political life. In a few instances, at least, the Knights ventured into or promoted cooperative schemes in industry. At Muscotah they formed a cooperative mining company. They intended to prove to the people of their city and to the assemblies throughout the state that they were Knights of Labor in every sense of the word. [23]

The Atchison Knights were discussing similar plans. A scheme to establish a cooperative foundry and stove works originated in their senior lodge. As the project developed, however, it eventually included not only members of the various assemblies, but also citizens who were outside of the Order. When directors were chosen from the stockholders the only rule followed was the selection of capable men who had sufficient time to devote to the management of the business. [24] An office was opened, [25] stock in the enterprise sold, and work started on the erection of the foundry by December, 1885.28 If this venture proved successful, other cooperative industries would surely follow, it was believed. [27] Hope assembly, not to be outstripped by a sister group, made plans to organize a company to establish a planing mill. Undoubtedly many schemes were entertained by these workers and no little discussion given to their


adoption. That they did not always agree on such issues was shown by a speech made by their master workman, when he cautioned his fellow members not to engage in unreasonable or impractical business enterprises. He maintained that he would oppose to the last an investment by the Order in railroad building, insurance, or loan and trust companies. If the assembly possessed more money than was necessary for the ordinary expenses he advised the founding of a library for the use of the Knights of Labor. He believed, however, that there were many manufacturing industries in which members of the assembly might invest, and considered the plan of having a planing mill a wise one. If judiciously and honestly managed the enterprise would not only pay dividends to its owners, but also furnish work for the Knights. He warned them, however, that the majority of cooperative schemes failed. [28]

The Trades-Union, published at Atchison, which exhibited such a lively interest in these schemes, was itself a cooperative newspaper published by working men. [29] This paper was convinced that once this plan of cooperation was in motion in Atchison and its value and wisdom demonstrated to the people, "the city would fairly bustle with all kinds of cooperative industry." [30] Cooperation, it pointed out, was advocated by the Knights of Labor as the solution of the labor problem. [31]

Workingmen everywhere were urged to unite, cast aside their party prejudices and support those candidates for public offices who were willing to serve labor. [32] In 1885 The Trades-Union urged the Knight to cast his vote for the candidate who favored the interest of labor, whether he was of his party or not, [33] and announced that seven out of the twelve candidates for Atchison county offices were members of the Order. [34]

This significance of labor gaining possession of political offices was pointed out to the Shawnee county workingmen in a letter, signed by Gracchus Colltar, which appeared in The Daily Citizen August 10. The writer stressed the importance of the office of sheriff in case of a strike, and urged that the matter be looked after before


the strike developed and before the click of the rifles of the militia was heard. While, in his estimation, some of the county offices required no especial qualifications, he believed that in order to choose a man for an office something besides competency should be kept in mind. He maintained that if laborers voted some man a fine salary they should get something in return to aid their cause. Inclosing, he suggested that the laboring men of Topeka get together and nominate and elect officers in the fall election. [35]

Such a course was adopted and, under the leadership of the Topeka Knights, [36] a general labor meeting was held September 12 at the district court room, where the ticket recommended earlier was endorsed. [37] With representatives of the industrial worker, farmer and negro included among the candidates, an effort was made to unite these groups in support of the newly formed party. [38] Particular emphasis was placed upon the right of the negro to representation, and it was pointed out that the Workingmen's ticket was the only one which recognized this right. [39] In Topeka party managers worked diligently to capture the vote of the negroes. [40]

Plans for a successful campaign were carefully mapped out. Leaders were appointed to take charge of the advertising, and arrangements were made for regular meetings of the central committee of the party. [41] In order to arouse interest in the new ticket it was planned to hold rallies throughout the county.

The party leaders were eager to win, but doubt must have existed in the minds of some concerning victory in November. [42] Mr. G. C. Clemens, an earnest advocate of the rights of labor, [43] explained during the campaign that labor did not expect to elect its ticket in 1885, but would use the ballot this time. However,if the workers' petitions were not heeded and their wrongs redressed, he asserted that they would "make their demands felt in another way next time." [44] On the eve of the election The Daily Citizen sold a column to the central committee of the Democratic party in which the merits


of the Democratic candidates were set forth, and in the same issue reported that the Republican party was "badly scared." [45]

In these elections of 1885, of course, there were no contests for state offices, and the labor leaders had to content themselves with more or less isolated attempts to capture local offices for their candidates. The campaign in Topeka was an example of this effort. As was anticipated, all the candidates of the Workingmen's party in the Shawnee county election of November 3 were defeated. The next day The Daily Citizen, asserted that the vote on this ticket was extremely gratifying, and pointed out that the results had proved more surprising to the managers of the major parties than to the laborers. [46] On the second day after the election, however, when returns from local elections over the state and nation indicated that the labor candidates had been pretty generally neglected, the Citizen said "Let the workingmen turn their attention to the country and see that it is as well organized as the city. When that is done they will stand some show at elections and it cannot be done too soon for the election for members of the legislature next fall. [47]


1. Kansas Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, First Annual Report, 1885, pp. 90-91.
2. Ibid., p. 88.
3. Kansas City (Mo.) Daily Journal, March 15, 1885.
4. Ware, Norman J., The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1896; A Study is Democracy (New York, D. Appleton and Co., 1929), p. 369.
5. The Labor Journal, Scammonville and Rosedale, May 9, 1885.
6. Kansas Sun and Globe, Kansas City, April 2, 1885.
7. The Trades-Union, Atchison, October 24,1886.
8. Ibid., November 28, 1885.
9. Ibid., October 31, 1885.
10. Ibid., December 12, 1885.
11. Ibid., December 28, 1885.
12. Ibid., January 2, 1886.
13. Kansas Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, Second Annual Report, 1886, pp. 80-81.
14. Editorial in The Daily Citizen, Topeka, December 29, 1885.
15. Topeka Daily Journal, June 24, 1885.
16. The Daily Citizen, Topeka, June 18, 1885.
17. Ibid., June 24, 1885; August 17, 1885; September 21, 1885.
18. Editorial in The Daily Citizen, Topeka, December 29, 1885.
19. The Trades-Union, Atchison, October 24, 1885.
20. Ibid., December 12, 1885.
21. Ibid., October 24, 1885.
22. Ibid.; Kansas Sun and Globe, Kansas City, June 11, 1885; The Monitor, Lenora, December 25, 1885.
23. The Trades-Union, Atchison, December 12, 1885, a reprint of a special communication to the St. Joseph (Mo.) Leader.
24. Editorial in The Trades-Union, Atchison, November 14, 1885.
25. The Trades-Union, Atchison, November 28, 1885.
28. Ibid., December 12, 1885.
27. Editorial in The Trades-Union, Atchison, November 14, 1885.
28. The Trades-Union, Atchison, November 28, 1885.
29. The Trades-Union, Atchison, passim, April-December, 1885.
30. Editorial in The Trades-Union, Atchison, November 14, 1885.
31. The Trades-Union, Atchison, December 12, 1885.
32. Editorial in The Daily Citizen, Topeka, July 24, 1885.
33. Editorial in The Trades-Union, Atchison, October 31, 1885.
34. The Trades-Union, Atchison, October 24, 1885. Until 1902 the sheriff, coroner, county commissioners, county clerk, county treasurer, register of deeds, county surveyor, and county assessor were elected biennially in the odd-numbered years. The remaining county officers were chosen in the even-numbered years. General Statutes, Kansas, 1901, sess. 2677, 2678; p. 568.
35. Letter signed Gracchus Colltar written to the editor, The Daily Citizen, Topeka, August 10, 1885.
36. Editorial in The Daily Citizen, Topeka, August 18, 1885.
37. Ibid., September 14, 1885.
38. The Daily Citizen, Topeka, September 14, 1885.
39. Ibid., September 15, 1885.
40. The Daily Commonwealth, Topeka, October 24, 1885.
41. Ibid., October 14, 1885.
42. The Daily Citizen, Topeka, October 12, 1885.
43. Ibid., October 30, 1885.
44. Editorial in the Topeka Daily Journal, October 17, 1885.
45. The Daily Citizen, Topeka, November 2, 1885.
46. Editorial in The Daily Citizen, Topeka, November 4, 1885.
47. Ibid., November 5, 1885.

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