During the railroad strike of 1886, the Missouri Pacific railroad in Fort Worth decided to test the blockade of trains by striking railroad workers, who were members of the Knights of Labor, the country’s biggest labor organization (see Part 1). On April 3 the Missouri Pacific prepared a special train to make the short run from Fort Worth north to Hodge Junction (north of today’s Mount Olivet Cemetery) to pick up some coal cars and then head back south through Fort Worth to deliver the coal to Alvarado.
Riding shotgun in the engine and caboose of that strikebreaker express were former City Marshal Jim Courtright (photo from Tarrant County College NE), seven other special deputies, and five railroad guards. The train left the Missouri Pacific yard and proceeded—unmolested by strikers—north. Just out of town the train stopped, and the peace officers got off. The train continued on to Hodge Junction—again, unmolested—where it turned around. A string of coal cars was coupled to the engine, and the train headed south back toward Fort Worth. North of town the train again stopped, and Courtright and company reboarded. Courtright stationed a lawman on each coal car. Courtright and the rest of his men rode in the cab of the engine with engineer Ed Smith and fireman C. E. Nicewarner. The train continued into Fort Worth—still unmolested by strikers.
The train proceeded south through town. The railroad switches in town had been “spiked” to prevent strikers from tampering with them. The train passed Union Depot (near today’s Tower 55), where people stood and watched but did nothing. By then the men on the train had to be wondering if the strikers were ever going to make their move.
Then, as the train was two miles south of the depot, approaching a railroad switch called “Buttermilk Junction,” engineer Smith saw two groups of men near the tracks, watching the train. Smith also saw that this switch had been tampered with. He would have to stop the train.
The strikers had made their move.
As the train stopped, Courtright jumped down, approached the group of men nearer the switch, who were unarmed, and placed the four of them under arrest for tampering with the switch. Then Courtright approached the second group, which was five in number and was armed. With Winchester rifles. Courtright told the men to put down their weapons. (Courtright would later testify that he had not yet drawn his pistol when he gave this order.) The gunmen, instead of putting down their weapons, dropped to their knees and raised their rifles.
Courtright, the Fort Worth Gazette reported, shouted at the gunmen: “For God’s sake, don’t shoot.”
The gunmen then split into two groups and took cover—one behind a pile of railroad ties, the other in tall grass—and began to crossfire at the peace officers as Courtright and his men sought cover. The lawmen had only pistols, which could not match the range of the ambushers’ rifles. The Gazette said one of the ambushers, peanut vendor Frank Pierce, had only one arm but “loaded and emptied his Winchester with nonchalance and dispatch.” One-armed Pierce, the Dallas Morning News said, “did more shooting than any one of the attacking party.”
At least one hundred shots were fired during twelve to fifteen minutes. Deputy Richard Townsend was shot in the back. Fort Worth police officer Charles Sneed was shot in the head, and Fort Worth police officer John J. Fulford was shot in the legs and abdomen, but both Sneed and Fulford continued to return fire. (The Morning News reported that, ironically, both men were members of the Knights of Labor.) Two ambushers—Pierce and railroad switchman Tom Nace—were wounded before the ambushers fled into a nearby thicket. Courtright, witnesses said, spent most of those twelve to fifteen minutes flattened between the rails of the track, keeping his head down.
When the shooting stopped, the injured men were loaded onto the train, and engineer Smith backed the train home to Fort Worth. Fulford was taken to his home and would recover. Sneed and Townsend were taken to Missouri Pacific Infirmary (later renamed “St. Joseph Hospital”). (Among the doctors who treated Sneed and Townsend was Dr. Julian Theodore Feild, who in 1875 had treated Courtright in another shooting.)
Police officer Charles Sneed recovered; deputy Richard Townsend died.
Richard William Townsend, thirty-two, lived on 6th Street with his widowed mother and brother James. Richard also was a member of the volunteer fire department.
On April 4 the Gazette published this diagram showing the location of the ambushed train relative to Buttermilk Junction, the railroad infirmary, and Union Depot.
The blue dot shows where Buttermilk Junction was. That was not a populated area in 1886.
These are the headlines of April 4 in the Dallas Morning News (top) and Gazette.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on April 17 printed this illustration of a “citizens’ committee at Fort Worth, Texas arresting a turbulent striker after the riot.” (Illustration courtesy of Pete Charlton.)
Mayor Smith also asked for and received—delivered by special train—Texas Rangers and state militia. Dallas, Sherman, and Decatur also sent local militia units to Fort Worth.
Texas Rangers in town to keep the peace posed at the rear of the Union Depot. (Photo from East Texas Research Center.)
Other cities put their local militias on alert in case the violence spread from Fort Worth. While Fort Worth law enforcement officers were off searching for the Buttermilk Junction ambushers, Mayor Smith’s special police force and state militia and Texas Rangers patrolled the town—effectively martial law. Oliver Knight, author of Fort Worth, Outpost on the Trinity, wrote that local gun stores sold out of Winchester rifles. A wagonload of Winchesters had been smuggled to the strikers, the Morning News reported, and nine men out of ten in the city were armed.
“The city,” the Morning News wrote, “can be said to be resting over a volcano that is liable to break out at any moment.”
But the peacekeepers managed to keep the peace in the following few days, and calm soon returned.
But the public was fed up with the strike and outraged by the ambush. This editorial is from the April 4 Gazette.
A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee even came to Fort Worth in May to conduct a hearing and take testimony. Some of that panel’s findings (with a few errors) were included in a report printed in 1887.
Public opinion blamed Courtright for letting himself and his men be ambushed and for hugging the ground between the rails as bullets whizzed overhead. People blamed Governor John Ireland for not sending troops to Fort Worth before the ambush occurred. People were mad at the railroads but madder at the strikers, who were now seen as thugs. As the Knights of Labor began to back away from the strikers, workers began to back away from the Knights of Labor: The rail strike and the Haymarket Riot in Chicago on May 4 dealt the Knights a double blow: Membership fell from eight hundred thousand to one hundred thousand by 1890. Meanwhile, Jay Gould refused to negotiate. By May 3, one month after the Battle of Buttermilk Junction, the regional strike ended. The workers had lost the strike and $15 million in wages ($377 million today). (Amazingly, I can find no estimate of the total economic loss from the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886.)
The Missouri Pacific railroad offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of each Buttermilk Junction ambusher. Lawmen had some names and faces to go on. For example, police officer John J. Fulford said he was shot by John R. Hardin, who had seemed to be the leader of the ambushers. Hardin was a carpenter who shortly before the ambush had been seen carrying a gun near the T&P freight depot. Hardin, the Morning News wrote, “is regarded as an out and out Communist.”
Of the seven men accused of the ambush, three would be acquitted; three would avoid capture. Only one would be convicted. A few weeks after the ambush Henry Henning was captured and charged with the murder of deputy Townsend. In June 1887 Henning would be sentenced to life in prison. But before Henning’s conviction came, the names of Jim Courtright, Luke Short, and John J. Fulford would again be in the news: On February 8, 1887 Short would shoot Courtright outside the White Elephant Saloon, and Courtright would speak his dying words to police officer Fulford, his comrade-in-arms at the Battle of Buttermilk Junction: “Ful, they’ve got me.”