The Story of Charlotte, Part 8: Like the Wild, Wild West

During the early 1900s, Charlotte becomes the largest city in the state. Skyscrapers, some as tall as 11 stories, form the first skyline. But growth also brings disease, class wars, and gunfire on city streets


Published:

KIM ROSEN

Last year, Mecklenburg County celebrated its 250th anniversary. This year, Charlotte magazine is looking back at life in the region through the years. From Charlotte’s beginnings as a rural crossroads to its current status as a major U.S. city, this 12-part series traces the city’s growth and highlights some of the turning points that made the city what it became. 

February 1900 —The doctors carry knives. Beside them, policemen hold their hands closer to their billy clubs. They walk together toward the front doors of the Gingham Mill. The officers swing open the doors to the noisy and lint-filled mill room. When the workers look up from their looms and weaving machines and realize what’s happening, they scatter for the windows and back doors or hide behind machines. They’ve heard the doctors were coming. The cops collar the workers they can catch and hold them down as the doctors use knives to scratch workers’ arms and then apply smallpox vaccine. Then, the officers head to the mill houses and arrest a handful of those who ran away. 

Each day in Charlotte brings new reports of smallpox cases from cities throughout the state. The “pest house,” a small quarantine shack on the outskirts of town, is nearly full with patients, one of whom is described by The Charlotte Observer as “a mass of frightful sores.” More than 1,500 have been infected and 100 have died in the past two years. The city declares “… every citizen that has not been vaccinated will be vaccinated free by the city. This is compulsory.” The doctors and policemen begin in the city schools, then move to the mills, arresting those who refuse the vaccine. 

Uptown, businessmen and politicians say the resistance to vaccination is just another example of the ignorance of the “lintheads” who have been streaming into town from impoverished mountain farms the past 20 years. For the millworkers, though, opposition to the vaccine is a matter of respect. A woman objects to the vaccine for her four-year-old son because, she says, her family is already sick and she doesn’t think they’ll survive even the watered-down version of smallpox that comes with vaccination. Policemen arrest her, and the “lintheads” speak out. 

“What officer or set of officers would dare to enter the homes of any of Charlotte’s leading men or bankers and drag their wives to prison?” one millworker writes to the Charlotte News. “There are numbers of people up town who have not been vaccinated and say they are not going to be. Clerks, bookkeepers, agents of various kinds, and other business men and professional men. … If the officers will commence at the square and vaccinate everybody engaged in public service within the limits of the town, then I think I can say with surety that when they get to the mills there will be no need of pistols or dogs.”

It’s not the first time millhands and factory workers have lashed out at the city’s bankers and businessmen. And although the smallpox outbreak subsides by 1901, the mill workers’ memory and suspicion of the Charlotte police live on.

***

UPTOWN AND THE MILL VILLAGES are worlds apart. Mill villages have muddy paths lit only by the glow from the windows at the mill; uptown has paved streets and sidewalks and electric streetlights. Everyone comes together at the square at Trade and Tryon. A thousand or more trolley cars, hundreds of horses, and now a handful of automobiles pass by each day. Off East Trade Street, fish markets and fruit stands sit side-by-side. During the day, farmers pull their wagons up to the curb with produce to sell to anyone passing by. At night, millworkers and country farmhands take the trolleys or new electric train from Gastonia into Charlotte for shopping excursions. They might visit East Trade Street for clothes at Belk Brothers’ “Cheapest in the World” department store. And they might take a look at the new moving pictures at the Star Nickelodeon around the corner. Up the block, shoppers gawk at the new “gasoline machines” on display at Osmond Barringer’s hardware store and Oldsmobile dealership.

Well-dressed young couples stroll from their fancy new apartments with electric kitchens now lining North Tryon Street. They pass the store windows where women try on the shoes at Rose Marie Slipper Shoppe or get their hair done at Lucille Permanent Wave Shoppe. Across Trade Street on South Tryon, the couples try on jewelry at the Garibaldi and Bruns store. A few blocks north at Sixth and Church, doctors’ offices crowd around the North Carolina Medical College. The police keep a close eye on the campus and Elmwood Cemetery after the college moves nearby. The medical students, a bit too eager to learn surgical techniques, will “scarcely allow the flowers to wilt” before digging up bodies to use as cadavers.

But the biggest changes are on South Tryon Street, where bankers manage the money of the area’s textile mill owners. With 300 mills within 100 miles of Charlotte now, there’s plenty of money to manage. In 1905, these bankers and other businessmen form the Greater Charlotte Club. They paint their slogan—“Watch Charlotte Grow”—on banners and buttons and parade drums.  And Charlotte is growing. From their perch on the seventh floor of the new Trust Building—the tallest in town when it opens in 1903—the bankers can see all the growth through a haze of smoke rising from mill and factory chimneys that ring the city. Lines of mansions sprout along The Boulevard that wraps around Dilworth, and small bungalows pop up along Davidson Street to the new North Charlotte mill village. Where the trolleys turn around at 36th Street, a “millhand main street” grows around the new Highland Park and Mecklenburg mills. It includes a grocery, pharmacy, and barbershop.

***

AS THE CITY GROWS outward, the racial divide hardens. To the west now, a new trolley line extends past Biddle University to a field where crews build a park and pavilion. Edward Latta built the new line and pavilion, he says, so that local blacks can have a park similar to Latta Park in Dilworth. When the Biddleville Park is built, though, Latta Park will become whites-only. “It would have been unpleasant, to say the least, for the white people of the community to mingle with, even to the slightest extent, the negroes at Latta Park another summer,” the Observer writes approvingly of the 1903 decision. After a reservoir off 7th Street in the new Elizabeth neighborhood is drained to create Independence Park in 1905, the city announces that the park will be off limits to blacks “except as nurses to white children.” The streetcars, too, become segregated in 1907 in the aftermath of the 1906 race riot in Atlanta. Some defy the order: Joe Robertson is arrested after he “swore fluently” at a driver who told him to “go back and sit.”

Local black churches organize a boycott of the new segregation policies, but it ends quickly. Other blacks choose to leave the South altogether. By 1920, Charlotte’s population falls from 40 percent black to 31 percent. As the Star of Zion newspaper puts it, “The world is wide; trains are running in every direction, and there are places where the honest and industrious Negro can and will go to be a man.”

Back on South Tryon, the growth continues. After a brief fight in 1907 with Dilworth residents who aspire to form their own town to avoid Charlotte’s “wastefulness” and want “Dilworth taxes for Dilworth improvements,” the city annexes large swaths of land on all sides of town. The annexation includes everything within two miles of the Square—everything, that is, except the North Charlotte mill villages, where owners want to avoid city taxes and city politicians want to avoid “insolent” mill voters who caused so much trouble as Fusionists back in 1896.

Bringing Dilworth into the city allows Charlotte to pass Wilmington as the largest city in North Carolina. Charlotteans can’t stop bragging about it. When the Census Bureau releases its 1910 population figures, the Charlotte News runs a cartoon on the front page. In the cartoon, Charlotte is represented by a tall, slender, and dapper man with “Population 34,000” written on his pants.

He shouts “Say Shorty” through a telephone receiver to a stubby “Greensboro” character dressed in an old-fashioned top hat and a tag reading “Population 15,000.” The bankers on Tryon seem obsessed with height. At the Square, the Independence Bank puts the finishing touches on a 10-story steel-framed office building in 1909. Two years later, the Commercial National Bank finishes a tower a block away, on Fourth Street. The Commercial Building is only 35 feet wide, so there’s not much room on each floor. But there are 11 floors, making the building the tallest in town. The skyscrapers will “stand as a monument to this city’s thrift and progress and which thousands will journey from afar to gaze upon and marvel at,” one resident writes to the Observer. “Let the citizens … beseech the [city] fathers to deed all of Trade, Tryon and the square to the builders.” 

By 1915, the streetcar tracks run in all directions—out East Fourth Street and under the stone gates to Myers Park, where bankers and Southern Power executives now live; northwest to Lakewood Park, an amusement park beside a lake created by a Southern Power cooling dam; and up Statesville Avenue to the new Ford manufacturing plant. Driving a streetcar is becoming an increasingly difficult job. The trolleys have always shared the road with a mix of horses and buggies and strolling pedestrians. But now, more and more Model Ts zip around the corners and weave across the tracks. The North Charlotte route up Davidson Street is the most difficult to navigate, the drivers say. 

The saloons are closed now after the county voted for Prohibition, which went into effect in 1905, but the millhands know where to find booze if they want it. Weekends on the North Charlotte line are full of drunken “cutting and fighting.” 

New passengers crowd streetcars, and new lines sprawl to the west as the United States enters the World War in 1917. The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce raises money and lobbies for the U.S. Army to set up one of its 32 base camps in town. The cigar and candy stores and hotels are especially enthusiastic donors. And the reason is clear: “Something like a million dollars in pay alone will be put in circulation during the months the troops are here,” one Chamber of Commerce pamphlet reads. When the Army picks a site just southwest of Charlotte for its new Camp Greene in July 1917, the Observer calls it “The Greatest Thing That Ever Came This Way.” Almost immediately, 8,000 workers dig and hammer around the clock to build the tent city on farmland off Tuckaseegee Road. By September, about 25,000 National Guard troops from Wyoming, Oregon, Montana, and Washington state arrive at Camp Greene. Soon, more come from Massachusetts and other New England states. They complain of the thick red mud and the hot weather. They especially don’t like the chiggers, “another feature of this God-forsaken country that they don’t boast about,” one private from Massachusetts writes home. Other soldiers explore town on streetcars, which they take to baseball games and welcome dinners and uptown speakeasies. 

Meanwhile, young soldiers from Charlotte write letters on Army/Navy YMCA stationery from faraway bases in France or out at sea. Sebran Whitsett writes to his mother’s house on Thomas Avenue from a ship somewhere in the Atlantic between Newport News and Normandy. “I know just as much about where I am as you do. As far as I can tell we are just where we were a week ago.” When an influenza epidemic hits Charlotte in 1918, the Camp Greene troops are quarantined to the base and the city becomes much quieter. By November, the Germans surrender in a railroad car in the forest of northern France. Only a handful of troops remain at Camp Greene to help dismantle the tents. 

***

THE WAR IS OVER, but Charlotte isn’t in a peaceful frame of mind. The mill workers are restless. Without the Army contracts for uniforms and blankets, the demand for fabric is down. And now that the soldiers are back home, there’s no shortage of hands to work the looms. In February 1919, mill owners at Highland Park in North Charlotte slash wages by more than 50 percent. One worker tells the Observer his pay drops from $27 a week to $12. “I’ll live on bread and water before I’ll work for that amount,” the worker says as he and 150 other millhands walk off the job. The shutdown drags on for months as the United Textile Workers of American Union tries to negotiate with the owners for better pay. In May, company guards come to evict union members from their homes. The workers greet them with shotguns and chase the guards out of North Charlotte. They corner a mill manager in his loft office and fire warning shots. They even chase the president of the mill, Charles Johnston, out of the village. Governor Thomas Bickett intervenes. He sides with the strikers and helps force a deal. The workers will have 55-hour weeks, down from 60, and the management will recognize their union. In June, the union invites mill owners to a barbecue to show there are “no hard feelings.”

In August, there’s another strike in town: The streetcar drivers want nine-hour workdays and a wage increase from 41 cents an hour to 45 cents an hour. They also want their union—the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America—to be recognized by the streetcar company, Southern Public Utilities Company, a subsidiary of James B. Duke’s Southern Power Company. Southern Public Utilities President Zebulon Taylor refuses to negotiate with the union, referring to the organization as a “foreign influence” in an Observer article. He says entering into a contract with the union and its organizer from Ohio would “plant the seeds for trouble.” 

The strike makes it more difficult to get around town, but Charlotteans innovate. The few people with their own cars make extra money converting their Model Ts into “jitneys,” a nickname for cars with eight or nine people standing on the cars’ sideboards. Observer editor Wade Harris runs cartoons comparing the union organizers and strikers to “tousle-haired radicals” and the type of “Bolsheviks” who took power in Russia two years earlier. When two railway electricians cut off the town’s electric power for an hour on August 12 in a show of support for the strikers, tensions rise. Mayor Frank McNinch tries to broker a compromise between the union and company. On August 23, McNinch proposes recognizing the union for one year, as a trial of sorts. Taylor, the utilities president, balks and says his streetcar company will run the trains with replacement drivers starting August 25. 

When the new drivers, recruits from Georgia and other parts of the South, pull the streetcars into the Dilworth trolley barn on the night of the 25th, dozens of protestors are there to greet them with taunts of “scab.” Beside the barn, about 30 police officers and sheriff’s deputies stand guard. Many in the crowd are mill workers from North Charlotte, including 16-year-old Clem Wilson.

Around 10 p.m., Clem gets a little too close to the police line and an officer knocks him unconscious with a rifle butt. The crowd becomes angrier; some think Clem has been killed. A few hours later, Clem’s brother John arrives in his horse and buggy and confronts Police Chief Walter B. Orr. What happens next is unclear. Loy Cloninger, the foreman in the barn that night, says the police chief reached for his weapon as the crowd turned to run. Chief Orr says he saw the crowd advance.  

“Get back, every damn one of you!” Orr shouts. Then, a shot, and another, then a hundred more—most, if not all, fired by police. Teenager Claude Hinson and mill worker Walter Pope fall dead. Rescue workers rush William Hammond and J.D. Aldrich to the hospital, but they die from gunshot wounds. As the sun rises on August 26, about a block away from the trolley barn, the owner of Dilworth Laundry comes to work to find Southern Railway engineer Caldwell Houston’s body outside the shop. A trail of blood runs to the barn on Bland Street. At 8 a.m., National Guard troops arrive from Lexington. Fourteen mill workers and strikers fill beds at St. Peter’s Hospital in Fourth Ward. Not one police officer or strikebreaker is hurt. 

The National Guard patrols Dilworth and uptown for the next week, hoping to restore peace and break up any more riots. But things quiet down quickly, with the exception of an incident in Myers Park, where a group of replacement drivers use the guns they’ve been provided to shoot at a couple of carpenters who mock the drivers as scabs. Taylor fires the drivers but also chides the carpenters for their “provoking” behavior. 

That fall, 31 police officers are charged in the deaths. After a two-week trial, the judge dismisses the case and the newspapers don’t mention it again.

Charlotte is eager to forget. 

Chuck McShane is the author of A History of Lake Norman: Fish Camps to Ferraris and a frequent contributor to this magazine. He lives in Davidson. Reach him at chuckmcshane@gmail.com. On Twitter: @chuckmcshane 

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