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Working on the docks in early Escanaba

September 5, 2011
By Charles Lindquist , Daily Press

ESCANABA - Ever since the first Labor Day celebration was held in 1882, the United States has chosen on one day a year to remember and to honor the workers of America - especially those involved in the American labor movement.

That seems like a particularly appropriate thing for us to do in Delta County with our long history of men and women working in the mills, on the docks and on our waters, and in the shops, factories and offices of our communities. In the case of Escanaba, for instance, hundreds of its workers labored for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad from the very beginning of the town, and often this work not only involved long hours and low pay, but it could be quite dangerous as well.

Here are a few examples drawn from the era of the early 1880s when Labor Day was first proposed and celebrated. In early November 1880 H.S. Bell, a C. & N.W. worker on the docks, fell 22 feet into the hatch of an ore barge from the dock he was working on. Bell was knocked unconscious by the fall, but, happily, he recovered his senses the next morning after being carried home after his fall.

Much the same thing happened to Oscar Nelson in January 1881. He was on a dock unloading iron ore when he missed his footing and fell from the top of one of the docks into a pocket in the dock. Luckily for him, not much ore fell into the pocket on top of him, and so while he was "badly thumped" (as the newspaper report put it), he only had an arm broken.

Peter Robarge was not so lucky. In December 1881 the C.&N.W. began rebuilding Number I Dock and the approach to this dock. In late December Robarge was working on the trestle approach to this dock. While throwing some timber to the ground 30 feet below, part of his clothing got entangled with the timber. As a result, Robarge fell along with the timber onto a pile of lumber and timber below. At first it seemed he only suffered compound fractures of an arm and a leg, but a week later he was dead.

Working in the railroad yard could be dangerous, too, with hundreds of cars going in all directions throughout the day. Thomas Cahill discovered this in August 1880 when he was injured in the yards. Within a week he was dead after gangrene set in to the injury to his leg.

As early as 1880 railroad workers and others in the community began efforts to either improve the pay of the workers or to help them with expenses if something terrible should happen to occur. In the case of Peter Robarge, for instance, who fell from a railroad trestle in 1881 and died a week later, he had just joined a newly-organized local mutual benefit society. This society, called the Canada Mutual Society, arranged to take care of his burial.

Also in 1880 a number of railroad workers on the docks took a more confrontational approach by calling for an increase of pay.

Wages on the docks were 15 cents an hour for day workers and 20 cents an hour for the night men. The workers said they wanted an increase to $2 per day for day and night men alike. When railroad management refused to bargain with the men, they went out on strike. This strike did not last long when the strikers saw the railroad replace them with men from the track and wood train gangs.

In the fall of 1882 the men on the ore docks tried again. They said they wanted their pay increased from $1.50 to $1.75 per day. Again they struck when this demand was not accepted. This time the railroad conceded and said that it would increase the pay of the men to the rate demanded.

Before concluding this story of Escanaba workers in the early 1880s, I would like to mention a young girl who found in a tragic way just how dangerous it could be to pursue any kind of work, even that of selling berries, up on those monumental ore docks. The name of this girl was Mary Sullivan. She was 13 years old in late July 1880 when she went onto the docks to sell berries she had picked earlier in the day. She hoped to sell these berries to men on board the vessels at the docks. We have no idea how successful she was at this job, but we do know a search was mounted for her after she turned up missing later that day. The next day a search of the docks led to someone spotting her bucket standing at the end of Number 3 Dock.

Looking over the edge of the dock into the protective crib around the end of the dock, searchers found her body floating in the waters of the crib 39 feet below.

According to the newspaper report, the best guess that people had as to what had happened was that Mary was moving around the edge of the crib on the timbers just as an engine on Number 2 Dock began pushing ore cars back off that dock. The loud noise of all those cars suddenly lurching into motion would have been startling to anyone not accustomed to such a thing. In the case of Mary Sullivan, it seemed likely that, being startled in that way, she could easily have made a misstep and fallen into the crib and drowned.

You can imagine how her parents, the Peter Sullivans, and really the entire community, must have felt on the death of this girl. But no one could say that this was a unique occurrence - not in a town with those great docks, the busy rail yards and the railroad shops with their heavy, moving machinery.

Working for the railroad made for an always-dangerous atmosphere in this town even if the C.&N.W. also did provide steady work at reasonable pay most of the time.

In celebrating Labor Day this year, it would not hurt at all to think a bit of all those who have worked hard down through the years at our docks, on our waters, and to our shops, milts and offices to make the lives of their families just a bit better.

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Charles Lindquist is president of the Delta County Historical Society



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