1920 Firefighter Strike

Dateline: July 15 1920 

Several months prior to July 1920, Memphis Fire Fighters had become increasingly disgruntled regarding their pay and living conditions at the older fire stations. They had several reasons to be unhappy. The pay was below what was considered a minimum wage and firefighting equipment was in need of replacement. The beds were in deplorable condition and full of bugs and there were not enough chairs to allow the seven or more men at each station to sit at the same time.

It had been just two years earlier that firefighters had threatened to strike over work schedules. This strike was avoided with the implementation of the two-platoon work schedule. This provided 2 shifts, one 11 hours and one 13 hours, but this did not change the fact that all were considered always on call and time off the job was minimum.

In addressing the grievances, Memphis Mayor Rowlett Paine and Fire and Police Commissioner John B. Edgar told the rank and file they could purchase new furniture and equipment. However, the Firefighters Union did not believe that the money for the purchases would be given due to not keeping promises of the past which became true with this event.

Because the firefighters’ salaries had been set by the state legislature, Mayor Paine and Commissioner Edgar were adamant that there would not be an increase in pay. As a result there was a stalemate in negotiations with the union on how to fix the issues. The majority of the firefighters’ membership was at the breaking point.

On July 15, 263 of the 268 firefighters went on strike. Only five firefighters remained on the job, Leon Foltz, a 22-year veteran, Fire Chief Fitzmorris, and three Assistant Chiefs, Barney O’Neil, Julius Venturini, and John T. Moore. 

Well known Memphian, Colonel Roane Waring, organized more than 700 citizen-volunteers, who were paid a small compensation, to fill the vacancies. Many businessmen, lawyers and insurance brokers who joined as volunteers supported the firefighters’ situation and opted to give their pay to the Firemen’s Relief Fund. Not since 1860 had there been a citizen volunteer fire department.

Help to fill command and trained positions came from The Nashville Powder Plant who sent 14 trained firefighters and two experienced Nashville Fire Captains. Local industry provided their trained fire brigade personnel, and the National Guard was called to assist along with retired firefighters. Memphis Police Officers were posted at all fire stations to prevent violence against volunteers and those hired to replace the firemen.

The city directed the city’s engineering department to paint all of the fire hydrants orange so they could be easily found and the water department to increase the pressure on all hydrants. The Fire Insurance Patrol would be used by the department as needed since all of their members doubled as trained firefighters. However, Fire Marshall Joe Flynn refused to command a fire company of volunteers and was fired by Commissioner Edgar.

During the strike period, several large fires occurred. However, with the majority of the force being untrained, they were only able to protect exposures and let the buildings burn at most scenes. These fires included:

July 27 – Moore and McFerrin Sawmill, located at the dead end of Henry Ave on the banks of the Wolf River. The untrained volunteers protected exposures and the Mill was a Total loss $100,000.

September 7 – James and Graham Wagon Plant, 198 Jefferson, a loss totaling $150,000. Four civilian fire fighters were injured by falling timbers: Kennett Allison bruised body, Milton Robertson, bruised and cut, Carl Sanford bruises and Will Remus who wrenched his arm. The fire was of undetermined origin.  

November 8 – Saranac Company, the loss totaling $75,000

November 21 – Turney Day and Woolworth Handle Company. Loss totaling $100,000

In August, the city had hired replacement firefighters but unclear of the training they had, if any. After the November 8th fire, seven Memphis Fire Department firefighters were reinstated. These included Captain John Walsh and Captain Thomas O’Neil.

As the strike continued, the citizen volunteers were exhausted as most of them also worked their own jobs. Many pleaded with the striking firefighters to go back to work. What may have initially been fun and somewhat thrilling was now tiring, dirty, and dangerous work. Winter was approaching and the volunteers soon realized they would not only miss the holidays but would also have to deal with winter fires. 

Many of the volunteers were successful businessmen, lawyers, and insurance brokers, who were not accustomed to being hot and cold while fighting fires and who opted to give their pay to the Firemen’s Relief Fund, a noble act. Many of them supported the firefighters’ situation and the group never said anything bad against the striking firemen.

On November 22 the union voted to call off the strike when an agreement with the city allowed Commissioner Edgar to reinstate the firefighters, however, the union was called on to disband. The Commissioner went out of his way to be very unkind to the firefighters.

Firemen and other disillusioned city workers, including police officers, many of whom were from the same families as the firemen, and citizens showed their displeasure when Mayor Paine failed at his attempt at a third term in office and John B. Edgar was removed as Commissioner.

A year later the city under new leadership provided the Memphis Fire Department with raises and funds for improvements. This was due in part through the support of Memphis Firefighters by the citizens of Memphis. 

For the first time these businessmen, lawyers, doctors, and business owners learned just how tough and dangerous firefighting actually was. They all realized how important the job was and all came away with a little different respect for the men which would help the department in later years.

The Striking Fire Fighters:

Engine 1 A and B Shift:, Captain Bradford, Thomas J. Sisley, W.A. Crabtree, Alf Ravenall, Dan Floyd, Ed Doyle, Joseph H. Baker, Robert Boyd,  Captain T. H. Fitzsimmons, J.A. Camp, Julius Schmaltz, L.M. McGill, C.A. Rowell,  George Walsh, and Tom Collins

Engine 2 A and B Shift:, Captain Richard Bonner, Pat Silvers, Thomas Sauerman, A.J. Colton, Harry P. Kelly, J.E. Patton, John D. Strader, Charlie White, M. Kallaher, John Fravega, Charles Nagle, Jessie Collier, Claude Weaver and Pat Kyle

Engine 3 A and B Shifts: Captain Henry Brenner, E.A. Conser, Joe Miley, J.A. Burkes, A. Donohue, James E. Callahan, Captain Mike Highland, S.P. Baker, C.C. Columbus, Henry Kresenberg, Perry Hugging, and Carey A. Kennedy

Engine 4 A and B Shifts: Captain Irby Klinck, T.P. Foley, Oscar M. Patton, W.D. Meyers, Thomas McMahon, L.H. McDugle, Captain Al Smith, M. L. Sadler, H.H. Tucker, James S. White, and J.D. Quianthy

Engine 5 A and B Shift: Captain John Kehoe, John T. Smiddy, John T. Kelly, A.F. Arnoult, J.J. Larkin, Owen Patton, W.A. Tennison, Frank Covoro, Captain F. Williams, E. Cavagnaro, R.R. Bloodworth, Ross Nagle, John T. Foley, A.J. Schafer, and J.C. Small.

Engine 6 A and B Shift:  Captain Edward J. Kelly, Charles Bettis, Cleve Atwell, R.D. Hull, N.L. Thomas, Charles Romaine, Captain John Carroll, W.E. Cox, Thomas E. Ryan, James Doyle, Joseph J Giardina, and T. M McBroom

Engine 7  A and B Shifts: Captain Maurice Gibson, John Monaghan, C. B Lundy, John Butler, John Foley, Jr.,  Captain Edward Callahan, John Miskel, Vincent Ryan, Thomas Burk, Richard Kelly, Vincent Glass and W.H. Bailey

Engine 8 A and B Shifts: Captain J. G. Kitchen, J. W. Coleman, Ed McIlvain,  J.S. Collins, Steve Duffy, E. F. Armour,  R.T. Rice, O.V. Ayres, G.R. Vick, J. Lenow, F.F. Barrow, J.F. Gallagher, and H. H .Gibson

Engine 9 A and B Shifts: Captain R. T. Westbrook, F.R. Sturgen, Joe Smith, John J. Castelrecchi, James Lutrell, W. H. Lewis, Charles Hill, Captain Sterling “ Buc” Eilert , M.D. Oleary, John Doyle, Samuel Corey, J. Haggerty, Jerome Baker,  J.D. Bloodworth, and  L. Urbancic

Engine 10 A and B Shifts: Captain  John A. Sullivan, Louis Galo, Vic Reiser, T.H. Johnson, R.J. Beardeau, Frank Smith, Frank Keely, Captain John Walsh, H.A. Musgrove, D.C. Parkey, W.W. McKinny, Leo Funio and W.C. Harrell

Engine 11 and Truck 4  A and B Shifts: Captain John Curry, T.J. Larkin, T.M. Davidson, George O’Hearn, R.M.Camplin, H. Kahrfield, R.A. Sadler, C.E. Kaufman, W.H. McNett, Sam Fontain, R.J. Lernom, R.S. Vance, Captain Gabe Salles, W.R. Pfemfort, Joe Sullivan, J.C. Ferrell, R.F. Jowers, Angelo Bursi, U.N. King, Frank Lenti, A.V. Jones, and James J. Burke

Engine 12 A and B Shifts: Captain Lee Johnson, M.L. Gardner, J.J. Denny, D.P. Smith, J.R. Flynn, L.C. Day Captain A.V.Keech, Fred E. Merkt, W.L. Newton, J.W. Barnett, John Hackett, Charles W. Bell and  John A Snowden

Engine 14 and Truck 3 A and B shifts: Captain Charles Knapp, S.A. Harville, E.J. Farrell, W.L. Sumpter, C.E. McEwen, W.M. Brown, J.H. Powers, J.F. Baker, A.C. Richardson, J.E. Wilson, A. Kinnane, M.L. Collier, Captain J. Dugan, Charles Townsley, John Harris, L.K. Collier, W.B. Page, L.M. Beloate, P.J. Jennings, Peter B. Berry, E.C. Bryan, Otto Nelson, B.B. Palmer, and B. Linderman

Aerial Ladder Truck 1: Captain H. Dailey, R.A. Burrows, B.P. Radford, Leon Folz, C. O’Sullivan, D.H. Achard, Paul Cavner, Captain Dan Ryan, James Faucette, C. Eilert, Ed Neff, Henry Rider, E. Vanucci,  F. Schneller, C.Y. Styers

Aerial Ladder Truck 2  A and B Shifts: Captain James O’Neil, Sam R. Holt, Walter Reisser, Frank Milazzo, H.R. Kinney, P.L. Smith, J.S. Kyle, Captain Gus Wesche, C.F. LeClerc, E. Vanderford, W.H. Smith, Charles Cassotti and George Mc Ilvain

Chemical 1 A and B shift: Captain Louis Cuneo, Sylvester Haggerty, Andrew Hazen, Captain T.A. Haggerty, Thomas O’Neil, and Lawrence Kernell

Water Tower A and B Shifts: Captain Frank Wigal, F.S. Simmons, E.E. Hatley, William Loughney, and Bennie Rosenstein.

DISPATCHERS: M Schadel, Charles Nunnery, and Alex Lingua

Many of the volunteers were successful businessmen, lawyers, and insurance brokers, who were not accustomed to being hot and cold while fighting fires and who opted to give their pay to the Firemen’s Relief Fund, a noble act. Many of them supported the firefighters’ situation and the group never said anything bad against the striking firemen.

On Nov. 22, the firefighters union voted to call off the strike. The union was broken and the men went back to work. Commissioner Edgar, who was still bitter about what had occurred, said he would reinstate the firefighters. The members would try several times during history to unionize

** It is this Fire Historian’s opinion, based on all of the information collected. If the firefighters could have held out two more weeks, they would have won.  The civilian volunteers were totally exhausted. **

Special thanks to Dr. John Harkins and Carol Perel of the West Tennessee Historical Society, G Wayne Dowdy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the Memphis Public Library, Anne Swearingen of Service Master for their invaluable help in putting this together.

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