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1876 Strike in Brownstown (Marmet)

Charleston Gazette
March 9, 1924


D. C. Gallaher Recalls First Strike in History of Local District Some 48 Years Ago

Occurred in 1876 in Town of Brownstown, Now Marmet, Ten Miles East of Charleston; April 17, Was “Red Letter Day”; Laborers in Government Works Went on Strike

The first strike this section of the state ever experienced, occurring nearly half a century ago, was recalled yesterday by D. C. Gallaher, well known lawyer and one of the older citizens of Charleston, in the following words:

“A great many strikes, many of them bloodless and some more or less attended with shooting and killing, have occurred in the Kanawha Valley, but one of the earliest, if not the very first of any magnitude, within the recollection of our older citizens, was that at the town of Brownstown, now Marmet, some ten miles east of Charleston, in the spring of 1876, about 48 years ago.

“April 17, 1876, was a ‘red-letter day’ in our then smaller city. The startling news came to town early that morning that a strike was on among the laborers on the United States government works, the lock and dam at Brownstown, and that a riot had occurred there the night before and that an armed mob was terrorizing everyone and defying the peace officers of the vicinity.

“D. M. and C. P. Dull were the contractors having in charge the work of building the government dam and had declined to increase the wages of the men and amid much mob spirit and many dire threats the men went out, to use strike vernacular.

Meanwhile, undaunted and unyielding to threats of the strikers, numbering over a hundred, the contractors had sent agents to Virginia to secure other labors and they had returned with about a hundred negroes to take the place of the strikers, nearly all of whom were whites.

Worked One Day

“These new laborers went to work for one day and were apparently indifferent to threats or persuasion, but that very night the strikers shot up the whole neighborhood and beat up all the negroes they could find, when a general riot and panic broke out and soon the strikers were alone in possession. The colored ‘troops’ did not ‘fight nobly’ as they were said to have done in some of the battles during the war between the states, but all left the battle ground in a sort of stampede, fleeing to the tune of ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginia.’

“Many walked to the first station east and caught the first train for home and soon the place that once knew them knew them no more. This was the situation on the morning of April 17.

The contractor ___ town ___ and induce___ of P. W. Morgan, the then sheriff, and finally to the attention of the court of supervisors, or county court, that there was a riot and a mob was breaking up the business of the contractors and asked the court to send the sheriff and a posse comitatus to Brownstown to arrest the leaders and prevent further rioting.

Took 100 Deputies

“W. A. Quarrier, the legal council and advisor of the sheriff, told the court that there was no use or wisdom in the sheriff going up there with an ordinary force, perhaps to be butchered by a mob, and demanded that the sheriff summon about a hundred men and seize a steamboat and arrest the ringleaders and bring them to town and place them in jail.

“To this request the court acceded and in a short time the sheriff, with his deputies, John W. Sentz and J. E. Lloyd, had seized a steamboat lying at the wharf (the ‘Lookout,’ probably) and with about a hundred men left for the scene of the riot and strike. Volunteers crowded the steamboat, there was no fear of torpedoes or submarines, and every one seemed to enjoy it as a lark. Nearly all went armed.

“Upon arriving at Browntown the party found, not an angry, defiant, shouting, frenzied mob, but all quiet on a Sunday morning, and scores of men lying around and no work going on. The leaders were pointed out as Philip O’Riley, John W. McKinney, George Coon and William Cotton, all of whom were quietly, and without resistance, arrested and brought back to town and placed in Jail. Within a few days the men returned to work at the wages and places resigned and thus ended the bloodless riot and bloodless naval engagement on the Kanawha under Commodore Phil Morgan, who incidentally was one of the best officers and most popular citizens of Kanawha county.

Suits Resulted

“The arrested leaders manifested their greatest appreciation of the leniency of the contractors, who asked that they be released from jail without trial or prosecution, by at once, in the circuit court, instituting suits for false imprisonment against D. M. Dull, the contractor, each claiming $5,000 damages. These four cases were transferred from the circuit court of the United States upon the grounds that the cause of action arose upon the property of the United States government and this gave the United States court jurisdiction.

“November 14, 1877, a test case that of Philip O’Riley, was tried in the court before a jury, who in a few minutes, returned a verdict for Mr. Dull with costs against Mr. O’Riley. And thereupon all the other suits for damages were at once dismissed. This was the finale of the riot, mob violence and suits.

“Judge Jackson, before whom the trial was held, told the jury that had they found any other verdict he would have promptly set it aside and, in a scathing lecture, - told the strikers that if they ever came before him in a similar case they would suffer.

“Incidentally, D. M. Dull, the contractor (whose name was a misnomer) was a brusque, shrewd, hard-headed fighter from Pennsylvania fearing nothing and no man and withal, as scientific a ‘cusser’ as this writer ever met. Once when a flood in the Kanawha had disastrously washed out his coffer-dam at Brownstown, he came to town angrily discouraged and went up a mile or two on Elk river to visit his quarry where he got stone for his dam.

“To his amazement he found that the back-water was flowing up Elk and flooding his quarry! His bitter remark was, “This is the damnedest country I ever saw. If they can’t break you up any other way the rivers actually run up hill on you!”


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