The Great Train Gunslingers
Two train agents shot and killed would-be looter Robert Williams aboard an east-bound freight train on this date in 1917; Williams, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, jumped the train at Dilworth. Strongly anti-war, I-W-W members, or ‘Wobblies’ as they became known, engaged in various acts of sabotage against the nation during the First World War. Composed largely of unskilled and migratory workers, they were very active in North and South Dakota, as well as Minnesota, during the 1910s, often in league with the rising Non-Partisan League.
The Wobblies were formed in Chicago in 1905 by members of the Western Federation of Miners workers’ union and Socialist political leaders opposed to the American Federation of Labor union. William Haywood, leader of the Western miners, had already launched several labor strikes and stoppages in opposition to the AFL union’s agreements with management and the upper class. Haywood and prominent socialist Eugene Debs saw the AFL’s compromises as “class collaboration” against the common man, and sought an alternative in the I-W-W. Soon, unskilled labor from eastern factories, Midwest farms, and western mines had joined together seeking shorter hours, higher pay, and safer work environments. Although the aims of the Wobblies were reasonable, their methods were not always so. Many believed class warfare was necessary to overthrow the ‘yoke of the upper classes,’ and they often participated in acts of sabotage and violence.
Believing war to be a form of capitalist domination in which the wealthy settled their disputes through the deaths of the common man, I-W-W members evaded the draft and led factory strikes in opposition. One aim of the Wobblies was to disrupt the nation’s supply chains by crippling infrastructure and efficiency, including the railroad and the nation’s food supply lines.
In North Dakota, the harvest seasons of 1916 and 1917 were especially violent, as police and residents clashed with Wobblies in Lechter and Minot, eventually ejecting the migrant workers from town. By September of 1917, the Northern Pacific was a frequent target of sabotage, and posted special agents aboard each train. During the late night hours of September 6th, two Jamestown agents engaged in a pistol fight aboard a moving train near Fargo with Wobblie member Robert Williams. Although they bested Williams, a bullet hole through the cuff of one agent’s jacket attested to the close call.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Arnesen, Eric (ed.). 2007 Encyclopedia of United States Labor and Working-Class History: pp. 34-35. Routledge: New York.
Dill, Joseph (ed.). 1988 North Dakota: 100 Years: p. 21. The Forum Publishing Company: Fargo, ND.
Higbie, Frank Tobias. 2003 Indespensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930: p. 160. The University of Illinois Press: Champaign, IL.
The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. Friday (Evening ed.), September 7, 1917; XXXIX(250): p. 1.