A photograph of the old depot at Meeker Junction, east of town, shows a large group of armed men and bears an ink caption “Vigilantes 1893.”
A short entry in the May 4, 1894 Minutes of the City Council reads, “Puyallup City Council meeting was held for the purpose of responding to a proposal by E. Meeker and others to furnish unemployed men labor on city streets sufficient to pay for meals. Ezra Meeker and others to pay for meals. City to supply foremen and tools. Accepted.”
These two seemingly unconnected items tell an interesting story. Dennis Larsen connects the dots for us. National events, such as the movement of vast numbers of unemployed toward Washington, D.C., and regional rivalries between Tacoma and Seattle, all played out in a few weeks in the spring of 1894 in tiny Puyallup. It all had to do with location. Puyallup was a rail hub for two nationwide rail lines and happened to have an almost finished but vacant hotel available.
As background, the Panic of 1893 left thousands of men unemployed. They organized themselves as the Army of the Unemployed, or Commonwealers, and schemed to make their way to the nation’s capital. Two bands of these, one from Tacoma under Jumbo Cantwell and one from Seattle, under “General” Shepard, planned to gather in Puyallup to find a way east.
The very real possibility of having 1,000 unemployed men descend upon their small city worried the citizens of Puyallup. The prospect for violence was palpable.
The Commonwealers wanted a train ride, and the Northern Pacific wasn’t about to give them one. On April 25, Mayor Charles E. Hallenbeck called a city council meeting “to consider and take such action as is necessary regarding the coming of the Commonweal army to the city.” The council gave him the power to appoint special police “for the preservation of public order.” It also asked the governor to send state troops if needed. Two responsible men were hired to guard Meeker Junction.
Ezra Meeker also held a meeting of several of Puyallup’s prominent citizens, with the purpose of developing a plan of action. He proposed that the citizens form a counter organization to protect the city, and wrote a letter to the governor outlining his proposal.
On April 28, The Tacoma News informed its readers that the Seattle brigade of the Commonwealers, 650 in number, arrived in Puyallup and went into camp at the Park Hotel. The men were reported to be in good spirits, and there was no dissension in the ranks.
An immediate confrontation was avoided. A posse of deputies was waiting for the Seattleites at Meeker Junction, expecting them to come down the railroad tracks.
They had blocked the route into town from that direction, but the Seattleites took the county road from Sumner and were in town before the marshals became aware of their presence. Meeker’s vacant restaurant at the Park Hotel was commandeered and became the kitchen for the Seattle brigade.
Contributions of meat and flour came from the town’s citizens and helped fill the larder. The contributions were “voluntary” in a sense, but some business owners, such as the town butcher, Louis Zimmerman of the Pacific Meat Company, set forth the ground rules as he later reported: “An advance guard of the Seattle army came to the packing house this morning to see what we could do for them. I told the advanced guard I would give just one day’s meat for the army — 1,000 pounds — on condition that they promise to keep off our premises. They readily accepted the conditions. We gave them the meat.”
Puyallup now had a number of unemployed men almost equal to its population living in two camps. Next month I will continue the story.