In the summer of 1893 Grover Cleveland was President, farm crop prices were falling and the Sherman Silver Act of 1890 had just been repealed. Massive lay-offs were the order of the day, the Wall Street Panic of 1893 hit and a depression that would last four years had just begun.
Jacob S. Coxey, a well to do sandstone quarry owner from Massillion, Ohio and Carl Browne, a patent medicine fakir-sign painter from Calistoga, California, came upon the idea of the first populist crusade against unemployment. Coxey and Browne met at the Bimetallic League Convention (The Silver Congress) August of 1893 in Chicago. They advocated the unlimited minting of silver coinage (free silver). Coxey had also advocated that the federal government create a system of public work programs such as putting the unemployed to work building roads throughout the United States (The Good Roads Bill) and building of irrigation canals to bring life-giving water to the arid west. Coxey would fund these projects through the selling of non-interest bearing bonds.
Coxey and Browne believed that the only way to bring home their point to the federal government was gather the unemployed of the country and march to the foot of the Capitol. Congress and the President would have to listen if a "Petition in Boots" was at their doorstep. Browne, a longtime huckster, was a devout believer of reincarnation and the power of a higher being, named the band of men the "Commonweal of Christ". Thus the Commonwealers scheduled their march to commence on Easter Sunday 1894 from Massillion, Ohio to arrive in Washington, D.C. on International Labor Day, May 1st.
This idea took hold with the unemployed in other parts of the country. Men banded together, the largest groups being from the west. The press began calling the men "armies of unemployed" and their leaders "generals". Even though they shunned the titles, Coxey was elevated to general and Browne to marshal.
The nation-wide economic bust was dramatically felt in the four year old state of Montana. The federal government's mandatory purchase of silver was gone with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act - the mining industry was shut down. Montana's other industry, Agriculture, was in dire straits. Grain and cattle prices had dropped drastically. By January 1st, 1894 nearly 25% of all Montanans were out of work. To make matters worse, the Northern Pacific and Union Pacific Rail Roads were in federal receivership and the Great Northern was on strike.
The focal point for the unemployed of Montana became Butte, with the idled members of the Western Federation of Miners its core. William Hogan, an out of work teamster, was elected to be their leader.
Coxey and the Commonwealers faced a march of less than 500 miles. “General” Hogan and his men faced traveling over 2,500 miles. Hogan went to the county commissioners of Silverbow and the mayor of Butte to obtain their help in getting transportation east for his army. The request didn't go anywhere and the restless "Hoganites" were numbering about 500 men.
On April 19th, the Hoganites tried to capture a Northern Pacific freight but failed in the attempt. That same day the Northern Pacific petitioned U.S. District Judge Hiram Knowles in Helena and received an injunction barring anyone from trying to seize assets (trains) of a corporation under control of the court. U.S. Marshal William McDermott went to Butte to serve Hogan with the injunction but failed in his attempt.
Hogan's Army had a good deal of support in the Butte community. Local businessmen offered to pay for the army's transportation but the Northern Pacific refused to carry the men at any price as the railroad would be liable for the army actions outside of the state.
On April 23rd, while Hogan and his men were camped near the Northern Pacific roundhouse, Marshal McDermott and his deputy M.J. Hailey were having a tough go of recruiting special deputies to enforce the injunction. Referring to the men who joined the federal posse as "Rounders","Bloodsuckers","Pimps" and "Shifty-eyed dregs of Butte", the local Butte citizenry demonstrated their contempt for the federal deputies.
Shortly after midnight on April 24th, eighteen Hoganites slipped into the Northern Pacific roundhouse and rolled out with Engine 512. To the engine they attached six empty coal cars and a box car. 300 Hoganites loaded themselves into the cars and steamed their way east up Homestake Pass.
By six a.m., the marshal's special deputies awoke to find themselves four hours behind the wild train which was pulling into Bozeman, a sympathetic populace and breakfast waiting. The coal cars were switched for ten box cars a fresh engine and three tons of supplies were loaded compliments of supporters from the Gallatin Valley. Deputy Hailey and sixty-five men climbed aboard an eastbound engine and two cabooses at Butte.
A hard rain on the 23rd had greased up the rocks on Bozeman Hill and a mudslide now blocked the east entrance of the Bozeman tunnel. The Hoganite train headed up the hill and into the tunnel. Upon inspecting the muck, rocks and trees; fifteen shovels and two axes from a section gang were found and work was started to clear the rail. After two hours of work and the bank giving away for the third time the engineer backed the train up into the tunnel and steamed forward through the debris blocking the way. At 4:45 pm the army pulled into friendly Livingston, where a speech was delivered and a new locomotive and four more box cars were obtained.
By night fall the Hoganites passed through Big Timber. They were briefly slowed when rocks blasted by Northern Pacific crews were blocking the way.
Deputy Hailey and his men were quickly making up for lost time with the assistance of the railroad. They were met at the tunnel and way was cleared for them. NP Superintendent J.D. Finn ordered crews at Billings to spike switches, drain water tanks and blow out switch lamps.
Near Columbus at 1 am on the 25th, the hot running Hoganite train ran out of water, the locomotive came to a stop. A bucket brigade was formed and small swamp was quickly drained. The Hoganite express again chugged slowly east towards Billings. As they neared a bridge crossing Yellowstone river, the marshal's train closed in. The Hoganite train eased on to the bridge and readied for attack by waving Old Glory and Butte Miner's Union flag. Hogan's men dared the deputies to shoot but they backed off.
At 10:45 am, a jubilant Billings crowd greeted the Commonwealers with a banquet in their honor hosted by the mayor of the town. The marshals, who had been closely following, quietly slipped into Billings. The special deputies went into action, mingling with the local citizenry, two of the lawmen jumped into the cab of the engine and drew down on Hogan. In the confusion that followed, two Billingsites died and several others were wounded. The locals responded swiftly by throwing bricks, rocks and pieces of metal at the deputies, and then disarming them. The deputies ran for their lives, seeking refuge at Northern Pacific roundhouse, the sheriff arresting ten of them. The roundhouse was surrounded for nearly an hour by the enflamed mob, this gave Hogan and his men time to get a fresh train and head east.
Camp was made by the Hoganites in Forseyth for the evening, while federal troops from Fort Keogh closed in from the west. Taken completely by surprise, the Hoganites were peacefully captured by five hundred armed soldiers at 10 pm.
The prisoners were transferred to Helena to stand trial for the complaint charging them with seizure of property without warrant. Attorneys for the Hoganites stressed the failure of Marshal McDermott to serve Hogan with the injunction. Judge Knowles concluded that this omission implied permission to take the train. In the end, the judge still found against the Hoganites. He sentenced Hogan and forty-two others lightly, freeing all the others on the promise of not stealing other trains.
A good share of the freed army were provided passage to Fort Benton by the citizens of Helena. At Fort Benton, flatboats were constructed and they floated as far as Missouri.
Other Coxeite armies crossed into Montana, one from the west coast got as far as Arlee and another went through Great Falls and Havre on the Great Northern.
1) Coxey's Army: An American Odessey, Carlos A. Schwantes 331.0973 s398c, University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
2) Coxey’s Army in Montana, Thomas A. Clinch, Montana the Magazine of Western History