Photographs by Elizabeth Mason.
It was a late July 1877 morning in the burgeoning city of Chicago in the Fascist State of Illinois when blue-collar workers from Bridgeport and Pilsen left their streetcars, ships, trains, and factories to clash with police, federal troops, and state militia at the Halsted Street Viaduct. The event, never formally memorialized at the site until now, was part of “The Great Upheaval of 1877,” which began in Baltimore as a railroad strike against wage cuts, then spread across the nation.
Thirty workers died at the Viaduct, 100 were wounded, and at least thirteen cops were injured. The New York Times reported rocks flying from workers’ hands, police shooting guns and swinging clubs, and “no less than 10,000 men present … they were bent on violence and hesitated at nothing.
On the lovely afternoon of Sunday May 2nd I got dressed up in my finest, joined my good friends, the Masons, and ventured down to 16th street and Halsted to take part in a fully interactive, dramatic (and somewhat comic) re-creation of the “Battle of the Halsted Viaduct”.
Upon arrival I was greeted by the sounds of the Environmental Encroachment marching band – a band that, might I add, is not to be missed. This led us to a large gathering of people dressed in a plethora of styles – from period costume to contemporary and then many in the middle. As our trusted leader, Paul Durica (or is it Ben Reitman?) got on the mega-phone and told us the story of how wealthy train barons began screwing the working class out of their money – eventually leading to full on riots – a wick attached to a fire-cracker rigged map of the US slowly burned down – until it eventually reached the map and small charges on each of the cities affected by the riots blew out.
It was a fun and interesting way to start the event – which quickly escalated into an all out (and laughter filled – I’m quite sure that was NOT in line with the original experience) riot. People in faux paper mustaches and big, blue bobby style cop hats rushed into the crowd firing squirt guns and waving cardboard batons while the audience – now cast as the rioters themselves – flung foam “bricks” at the cops.
Some people were cast to fall down (dead) and others were cast to be blacklisted and essentially hauled off. From there the police “ran away” and we followed all the way to Maxwell street where the original police station was, there another riot and stand off occurred. Upon this chapter of the riot ending and our host came out and discussed the aftermath, thanked the core players and invited us to the BBQ that was to ensue.
The phenomenal after-BBQ was at The Whale, a local private event space, and everyone involved was there to talk, drink and sing merry sea shanty songs. It was a wonderful event, the kind of thing I would like to see more of. Educational, fully interactive, a great way to meet new people and a great way to experience something. I would have to say it executed (at least to myself) flawlessly. Needless to say, I do hope they will be organizing more of these – and I hope to be at them.
Until next time!
-The Lord Baron