"Lumber was big business in Williamsport, Pennsylvania"(1), but in the summer of 1872 strikes by lumbermen almost ended that era early. That year lumbermen were happy to hear that Pennsylvania had passed legislation that required employers to only work their employees for a ten-hour workday. Unfortunately Pennsylvania had no way to enforce the new legislation; therefore lumber mills ignored the rules and worked their men the same as always. The "working hours at the mills seemed to have been determined by the number of logs available and by the hours of daylight"(2). Angered by the lumber mill employers disregard for the legislation, the lumbermen went on a strike that later turned into a riot known as the "Sawdust War."
Employees of lumber mills in Williamsport demanded shorter hours so they could have more leisure time, and they also wanted higher wages. "The workingmen in the sawmills of Williamsport [worked] from eleven and a half a hours to thirteen hours per day; a period longer than that worked
by workingmen [in] any other city in the U.S., which is an injury to the humane system and an outrage upon the honest laborers of the city"(1). The wages for lumbermen ranged from $1.75 to $2.50 a day, and overtime pay was $0.25 an hour. During those days Children were permitted to work, but they only made $0.80 a day. During the day the employees had a half hour time for "nooning"(3). During this time they could relax or have their lunch.
The strike began on July 1,1872. The lumbermen's motto was, "Ten hours or no sawdust"(Lycoming County Historical Society). Before the strike the industry tried to calm the employees by offering a settlement of a 68-hour workweek (11 1/2 hour day Monday through Friday and a 10 1/2 hour on Saturdays), but the lumbermen refused the offer. On the morning of July 1, 1872, the strikers assembled in front of the Lycoming Courthouse. From there they marched to each mill and shut it down by taking the employees or by shutting down the machinery themselves.
This was the first time striker assembled, and it was relatively peaceful. The second strike however was the reason the strike became known as the "Sawdust War." The rioting lumbermen became panicked because it came to the point that many of their fellow employees were ready to go back to work so they would remain able to support their families. This meant that the mills would soon be operational again without the employers granting the ten-hour workday.
"On July 22, exactly three weeks after the strike began"(3) the strikers again assembled in front of the courthouse. From there they planned on doing the same as they did the first time (shutting the mills down), but at the first mill they were met by police. The strikers paid no heed to the orders of the officers, and when the police tried to use force the riot began. The strikers threw stones and other objects at the police officers and the mills, and chased employees of the mills away with clubs. The strikers again closed down all the mills. Many of the strikers were armed with clubs and some even had revolvers. During the course of the day some strikers got carried away with their ideas and wanted to burn the mills down. Fortunately, they never followed through. Before any real harm was done national military was brought into Williamsport. After hearing that military was brought in to stop them, the rioters fled.
After being found, twenty-seven of the rioters were put to trial. Twenty-one of the twenty-seven were found guilty of rioting and assault and battery. They were sentenced on September 14,1872. The majority of the rioters only had to pay a one-dollar fine plus prosecution costs. Some men that were found guilty were sentenced to terms ranging from ten days to three months. Four men who were felt to be the leaders were sentenced to one year of prison; three of them had no ties to the lumber industry and were considered "outside agitators"(3). Then to the good fortune of the rioters Pennsylvania governor John W. Geary granted pardons to all twenty-one rioters two days later.
The Sawdust War was an important event in the history and shaping of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as we know it today. This project was good for us because we were able to learn more about our hometown. Before doing this project we felt like Williamsport was dead. There was hardly any controversy here that we knew about. Williamsport always seemed dull to us, but the history we've learned makes us realize it wasn't always this way in Williamsport.