A Century Since the Battle of the Barn

10 pm. On a Monday. In Dilworth.

It was the summer of 1919, and North Charlotte (now NoDa) teenager Clem Wilson had started his day by attending a baseball game and getting drunk.

He ended it as the catalyst of the Battle of the Barn, a clash that plunged Charlotte’s business community, municipal government, and downtown citizens in fear.

Here’s how:

A century ago, streetcars were the main mode of crosstown transportation in Charlotte. Routes connected center city with dozens of neighborhoods including North Charlotte, where it roughly followed current-day North Davidson Street, turned at 36th and culminated near The Plaza. The North Charlotte run had a reputation among some city leaders as a dangerous route with drunken fights and “cutting” on the weekends. To make matters worse, Walter B. Orr was the newly-promoted police chief and had a history of strong-arming North Charlotte millworkers.

With so many Charlotte citizens relying on streetcar transportation, it was a big deal on August 10, 1919, when service ground to a halt. More than 200 streetcar conductors walked off the job because their boss, Southern Public Utilities (SPU), would not recognize their union. SPU chief Zebulon Taylor had increased workers’ wages to 37-42 cents an hour (up from an average of 10 cents in 1913), but workers were asking for a 9-hour workday, guaranteed overtime, and 41-45 cents an hour.

North Charlotte millworkers sympathized with the striking carmen as fellow working class citizens. Perhaps they thought the carmen would return the favor when the millworkers were ready to unionize. Their overzealousness came with a price.

On August 25, Taylor broke a promise by employing armed replacement workers to restore limited streetcar service. North Charlotte (as punishment?) was denied service altogether. The scabs returned to the Dilworth trolley barn that night to face about 2,000 protesters, including numerous North Charlotte ruffians. Police put up a rope in front of the barn.

About 10 pm, several men tried to cross the rope, including Clem and his friends returning from the baseball game. In the confusion, patrolman Thomas Merritt struck Clem with the butt of his gun and knocked him unconscious. Merritt claimed that Clem was grabbing for Merritt’s holstered pistol, but other witnesses said the officer kicked Clem repeatedly while fellow officers held back the horrified crowd.

Clem Wilson was taken to St. Peter’s Hospital where he was diagnosed with a mild concussion “complicated by inebriation.” Even though he was a teenager drunk on a Monday during prohibition, he was later released according to The Charlotte Observer. (Fun fact: Federal Prohibition began in January 1920, but North Carolina state-wide prohibition was implemented in 1909. Despite this, local taverns flourished around Charlotte.)

False rumors spread throughout the crowd that Clem was dead. Protesters called for the lynching of officer Merritt. “Bring him out. Here is the rope, and here is the limb. Bring on the dynamite,” they chanted.

Meanwhile, North Charlotte police told Clem’s older brother John about the boy’s injuries. John hopped on his horse-drawn buggy and arrived at the Dilworth barn at 12:45 am, where Chief Orr and his officers, strikebreakers, and about 50 protesters remained.

How the following scene went down is a matter of debate, but regardless, the early morning battle accelerated the violence surrounding the streetcar strike.

Chief Orr first testified that John Wilson arrived angry with a posse of 100. According to Orr, Wilson had a bad reputation of being a fighting man, and others described him as a “rough type of guy.” Wilson accused Orr of hitting his brother, but Orr denied it and said he didn’t know who did. Then, Orr claimed a tall fellow flashed a pistol in his face and shot over his head. Orr said he raised his own gun and accidentally discharged it into the air.

Next, all hell broke loose.

Police fired more than 100 rounds. Some witnesses reported shots fired from the strikebreakers and protesters as well. All told, five men were killed and at least 12 others were treated for bullet wounds. Several North Charlotte millworkers were among the dead and injured. Orr and his city officers reportedly stood silent and did not help those who were injured. John Wilson was charged with inciting the riot and jailed.

Streetcar operations resumed August 27 except for in North Charlotte, to spite the miscreants. Tensions continued over the following days, with strike sympathizers pelting streetcars with bricks and other projectiles. Predictably, the only supporter we found charged with a crime was a North Charlotte boy for shooting a slingshot at a streetcar window.

Strikebreakers sometimes retaliated; a crew passing through Myers Park opened fire on a group of mocking carpenters. Mayor Frank McNinch called in the National Guard; 600 guardsmen patrolled every street corner in downtown Charlotte that week. By this time, sympathy had waned for the strikers, even though they were most often not the “troublemakers.”

Given the unrest, Charlotte labor groups canceled their Labor Day parade scheduled for September 1. Troops pulled out by that day, and by September 5, streetcar workers had settled with Zebulon Taylor, who had honored their overtime request and increased their pay to 43 cents. Though Taylor had initially petitioned the state to abandon the North Charlotte line, service was fully restored to all lines, including North Charlotte, by the next day.

During a state investigation that November, which charged Chief Orr, 31 police officers, and 15 strikebreakers of murder in connection with the riot, Orr admitted his thumb slipped on his revolver first, effectively launching the “Battle of the Barn.” He was not charged with perjury for his earlier testimony, and the entire case was dismissed.

The fate of the Wilson men is unknown.

This would not be the last strike involving North Charlotte millworkers, but it would prove to be the most tragic. It was, however, the last streetcar strike in Charlotte. Streetcar service would continue until 1938 before giving way to bus service and other modes of transport.

It would also make a great episode for Drunk History.