The Politics of Pollution in “The Region”

The Times (Munster), August 13, 1970, accessed

* See Part I to learn about the origins of Federated Metals’ Indiana plant and community protest to its pollutants.

Carl Weigand, acting chief of air pollution control, reported in 1969 that Federated Metals’s Hammond-Whiting smelting plant “has a hell of [a] stink problem” (Munster Times). He worked untiringly to combat air pollution generated by “The Region‘s” industries. Weigand’s description of his professional obstacles mirrored the conflicting financial and environmental interests enmeshed in the plant: “Sometimes all a company has to do is call up a councilman or city hall to mention, ‘we could move this operation'” and pollution policies would go unenforced. “But,” Weigand countered, “‘I’m a stubborn German.'”

That year, the Munster Times noted that the Calumet Region was 11th in air pollution in the U.S. When including the Chicago area, it was the second or third highest. Nationally, Americans turned their attention to the impact of industry on the environment, especially following the Santa Barbara oil spill. In 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson created the first Earth Day, and throughout Indiana Hoosiers acted to raise awareness about the imminent pollution crisis. In addition to general clean up campaigns, panel discussions, and seminars, students built monuments made of trash and participated in marches. The constituent support for Earth Day encouraged Congress to enact a swell of landmark environmental legislation, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, and the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Christy Miller, a student at Northwestern High School in Kokomo, stands among trash picked up around the school and asks other students to sign a petition against pollution, Kokomo Tribune, April 23, 1970, accessed

In this framework, Federated Metals found itself on the periphery of a heated public debate about the fate of Lake George in the late 1970s. The Times reported in 1979 that silt containing toxic metals, like arsenic and mercury, was found at the bottom of the “‘decaying lake,'” potentially making fish dangerous to eat. This complicated Calumet College‘s proposal to deepen the lake, and resulted in a “turbulent hearing involving debates over private vs. public rights, hazardous waste and legislative intent.” The college owned the title to the lake, except for the section belonging to Federated Metals. College president Rev. James F. McCabe petitioned to drain the lake and remove sand, which would then be sold, generating approximately $1.5 million for the struggling school.

Rev. McCabe contended “If you force us to preserve a decaying lake, it will be an infringement on the rights of private ownership.” But the U.S. Corps of Engineers advised against dredging because it could stir up pollutants. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources, however, thought the petition should be approved, with conditions, because “The proposed project would increase the recreational potential and desirability of the lake, and would preserve the existing wildlife habitat.”

In 1981, “emotional tension” arose when senators debated a bill allowing Calumet College to sandmine Lake George, despite the city having an ordinance against sand-mining. The Times reported on a skirmish on the Senate floor between bill sponsor Senator Ralph Potesta (R) and opponent Senator Frank Mrvan (D). The legislators argued over ownership of the lake, control of which would be taken from the DNR with passage of the bill. Senator Mrvan opposed this, as well as the potential for property damage caused by sand-mining. He was accompanied by women from the Robertsdale neighborhood, who protested “the most lobbyed [sic] bill to be considered this session” in the Senate chambers. State policemen manned the chambers after one woman reportedly threatened to shoot Senator Potesta if the bill passed. When it did, the Times noted “tiny pieces of a printed copy of the bill flurried to the floor of the Senate from where the women were seated. One began to cry.” The project was expected to generate $38 million ($2-$3 million allocated to the college) and some of the sand would be used to fill the Cline Avenue extension. The debate about dredging the lake was for naught. Calumet College scrapped the idea in 1989, stating “Calumet College has no interest—long-term—in being in the lake business, the park business, the sand business, the real estate business or any related business” (Times).

Senator Mrvan had earlier opposed Federated Metal’s 1977 expansion, which involved building a “sludge treatment plant designed to extract nickel compounds used for nickel-plating steel.” He exclaimed, in response to the City Council’s approval of municipal-rate bonding for the plant, “‘I don’t believe this. Here are nine councilmen just coming in and we’re expected to pass this thing in one night when we’ve never seen it before.'” Mrvan also took issue with the unannounced caucuses that took place prior to the vote and influenced councilmen.

Although it had closed its Indiana plant in 1983, Federated Metals found itself in hot water in 1985, when it had to pay civil penalties to the Indiana Environmental Management Special Fund for permit violations. The Times stated that the company “failed to provide groundwater monitoring equipment on its property where hazardous waste was treated and stored.” In December of that year, HBR Partners, Inc. purchased the former plant.

“Appeal Goes Out to Study Dumps, The Times (Munster), February 21, 1988, 1, accessed

Federated’s troubles deepened in 1986, when Councilman Gerald Bobos requested an investigation into possible contamination of Lake George by dump sites owned by Federated and the former Amoco facility. Preliminary studies conducted in 1984 indicated that “‘at one time there were 50,000 cubic yards of persistent toxic substances—picking liquors, degreasers and fine heavy metal powders—on the site that could be filtered into the lake'” (Times, March 1986). The study also noted that a child sustained third-degree burns while playing at the dump in 1978.

“Innuendos” and “allegations” is how Councilman Edward Repay described Bobos’s presentation of the surveys, which he used to convince the council of the need for an official investigation. Repay, who sponsored the lake dredging, contended that “we’ve got studies from last year from the Robertsdale Foundation that show the sand is clean. I’ll go along with those studies.” Ultimately, Repay voted to investigate the dump sites, but not before accusing opponents of the dredging as guilty of “‘rotten, no-good, uncitizenlike behavior'” for presenting the studies.

Feeling the need to explain himself, Repay wrote to the Munster Times that his anger towards a Hammond councilman, presumably Bobos, was deserved. Repay leveled that his ire was not because the councilman and United Citizens Association (UCA) brought up the alleged toxic state of the Federated site, but “that they waited to use it as a ‘trump card’ against possible improvements to George Lake.” (Bobos had earlier mentioned that he requested the 1984 studies months prior, but the state board’s delay meant he was unable to use them in the decision to issue a dredging permit). Repay maintained “This is ‘one-upsmanship,’ not statesmanship or an act of a responsible civic organization.” Repay agreed that action should have been taken when the child was exposed in 1978, but the “inaction of a councilman and the leaders of the UCA is reprehensible and deserving of angry criticism.”

The Times (Munster), April 30, 1991, 12, accessed

Ultimately, the EPA  planned to investigate, which site inspection official Harry Atkinson considered crucial because there were over 800 alleged dump sites in the state, but Lake County has “‘tons’ of such alleged sites.” The Times reported that federal inspectors tried to examine the former site of Federated Metals in 1985, but the property owners denied access.

In 1990, the U.S. Justice Department sued Federated Metals, Inland Steel, and Bethlehem Steel, jewels in The Region’s industrial crown. According to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, the Justice Department sued for violation of pollution laws, which threatened Lake Michigan by “‘creating fish too contaminated to eat, forcing frequent beach closings, harming wildlife living along the shore, and depositing toxins in lake bottom sediment.'” The Northwest Indiana Times reported that at the time Indiana was one of seven U.S. states without air pollution control laws and relied on federal regulations that only limited small amount of emissions. Increased enforcement of pollution laws through heavy fines, a Justice Department official contended, “would teach industrial polluters that befouling the air and waterways can cost more than spending to control hazardous wastes.” The director of the Grand Cal Task Force, a citizens environmental group, approved of the “aggressive plan,” stating “In the past, smoke has meant jobs. . . . People were afraid to put pressure on the companies. Now there aren’t as many jobs and pollution is just as bad.”

The Tribune (Seymour), October 17, 1990, accessed

The following year, Federated Metals and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) came to an agreement to make the site safer. The Munster Times reported that within a year the smelting company would place a “sophisticated clay cap” over nineteen acres of contaminated slag in Lake George and install monitoring wells. Federated’s residual heavy metals had been linked with “mental retardation in children and high blood pressure in adults.” Preventing these health effects, an IDEM official said, “has been a thorn in our side for quite a long period of time.”

The Times credited citizens living in the Robertsdale neighborhood for the remediation. The paper stated that the group had worked for years to “get the site cleaned up and fenced off from unsuspecting children who enjoyed riding their bikes on the lead, zinc and copper dust piles because they were soft to land in.” Kids also scavenged for metal to sell at the former site. By 1991, Federated Metals, a subsidiary of Asarco Inc., installed a security guard and fence to prevent this from reoccurring.

Federated Metals
The Times (Munster), November 11, 2003, 9, accessed

But hazards posed by the former Federated Metals site endured into 21st century. The Times reported in 2003 that the “hazardous waste dump” had “never been closed or capped, allowing the release of toxins into the air and the contamination of water that runs into the lake [George].” That year, environmental consulting and remediation company ENACT began a “long-awaited cleanup” of the former Federated site.

To David Dabertin, a now retired EPA official and Hammond resident, history repeated itself in 2017. IDEM renewed Whiting Metals’s permit (which operates at the former Federated site), despite the EPA investigating off-site soil contamination in residential areas. This area included the St. Adalbert Catholic Church, which complained in 1939 that Federated’s noxious fumes kept students home. According to the Northwest Indiana Times, IDEM renewed the permit without a public hearing or meeting. Dabertin, one of the local children that had ridden his bike through the piles of metal dust, railed that issuing the permit in

an area where lead may be an issue without obtaining the test results is foolish and bordering on the negligent . . . The refusal to hold a public hearing is plain cowardice. And IDEM’s attempt to address my concerns about the prior ownership of the facility by relying on the unintelligible correspondence of its prior director is so nonresponsive it is insulting.

In April 2018, Dabertin introduced himself to Governor Eric Holcomb near the former Federated site and calmly informed him, “You are telling these people there is lead in their backyard, but [the state environmental agency] just permitted that facility to produce lead . . . That’s a disconnect.” Former U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt quietly accompanied Governor Holcomb on his visit to the EPA Superfund site and the following day authorized $1.7 million to remove contaminated soil. According to the Northwest Indiana Times, soil sampling detected the presence of lead above the EPA’s designated level. Removal of contaminated soil was slated to start the following week, beginning with properties inhabited by “sensitive populations,” such as pregnant women and children under the age of seven. But remediation costs at $50,000 per property, and the bankruptcy of Federated Metals, left no “responsible party” to replace the homeowner’s soil. It remains to be seen who will bear the financial burden of restoring the yards.

Will these efforts satisfy the community’s concerns about Federated Metal’s impact on their health? Or will they fall short, like Federated’s attempt to quell citizen protest in 1939 by replacing a problematic smokestack? That history is yet to be written.

Pride and Pollutants: Federated Metals

On April 19, 2018, over a chain link fence Hammond resident and former EPA attorney David Dabertin voiced his concerns about the former site of Federated Metals to Governor Eric Holcomb. East Chicago environmental activist Thomas Frank told Mother Jones weeks after the visit “’We’d known for quite some time that there was some contamination there,’” but the Indiana Department of Environmental Management allowed plants at the site to keep polluting. For decades, industry was the region’s bread and butter and often the corporation’s and community’s financial well-being was prioritized over health or environmental concerns. Frank noted that older generations viewed the plants with “a sense of pride as it provided jobs and stability” and do not “‘want to look at what they’re so proud of and see that it’s harming them.'”

The EPA’s 2018 investigation of Hammond’s soil lead levels, a response to the “national criticism of its slow reaction to polluted water in Flint, Mich., and lead-contaminated housing in East Chicago,” (Chicago Tribune) inspired us to take a look at Federated Metal’s origins. In 1937, the Chicago-based company announced it would establish a plant in the Whiting-Hammond area. By 1939, hundreds of workers produced non-ferrous metals used in automobile, housing, and oil drilling industries. Almost immediately after production began, the community voiced complaints about the effects on their health.

In the spring, a citizens committee decried the fumes and smoke being expelled by the new smelting and refining plant—so noxious that students at St. Adalbert Catholic parochial school had to miss class due to illness—and pressed city officials to intervene. That year, resident Frank Rydzewski wrote to the Munster Times that Federated Metals foisted upon the Hammond community a “generous sample of sickening odors which emit from its midget—partially concealed smoke stacks and which have already showed its ill-effects on pupils of a school situated not a block distant.”

Rydzewski’s next sentiment encompassed the conflicting priorities related to Federated Metals from the 1930s until its closing in 1983: “Certainly, the value of health impairment to residents in the vicinity far surpasses any questionable tax-able asset this company can create.” Although he bemoaned the fumes plaguing the city’s residents, he also noted that the plant could “boast of its colored personnel; its predominating out-of-state and outside employe[e]s; its labor policies.” Since the 1930s, Federated Metals has served as both the bane and pride of Hammond and Whiting residents. The plant experienced labor strikes, symbolized livelihood and industrial progress, helped the Allies win World War II, and was the site of accidental loss of life.

“Hammond Plant Makes Various Metal Alloys,” The Times (Munster), June 13, 1949, accessed

In April, the Munster Times reported that hundreds of residents in the area “revolted” against the plant’s operations at the city council meeting. They charged that “harmful gas discharges from the plant damaged roofs of residences, caused coughing and sneezing that punctuated school studies and prayers in the Whiting church and school and made it virtually impossible to open doors or windows of homes in the neighborhood.”

The paper noted that Mrs. Feliz Niziolkeiwicz wept as she addressed plant manager Max Robbins. She told him “You can live in my home for free rent if you think you can stand the smoke nuisance. The home I built for $10,000 is almost wasted because of the acid from the plant.” Her concerns were shared by Hammond Mayor Frank R. Martin, the city council, the city board of public works and safety, and the health department, whose secretary ordered Federated Metals one month prior to “abate the nuisance” within sixty days. In October, the company was tried in a Hammond city court hearing and found not guilty of criminal liability for the fumes, despite city health inspector Robert Prior testifying that Federated Metals “continued to operate and discharge gasses on the Whiting-Robertsdale community after repeated warnings to abate the alleged nuisance.”

By November, Federated Metals had constructed a $50,000 smoke stack much taller than the previous, offending one, so as to diffuse smoke farther above the Robertsdale neighborhood. In March 1940, Prior stated that citizen protests had ceased with the improvement. Following this remediation, the Munster Times published a smattering of articles throughout the 1940s about health complaints related to plant output. In October 1941, the Times published a short, but eyebrow-raising article regarding allegations that Federated Metals tried to pay Whiting residents in the area as a settlement for property damaged by fumes. Councilman Stanley Shebish shouted “When the people of this community suffer bad health and many can’t go to sleep at night because of this smoke and particles of waste, it is time to stop an underhanded thing like this!” Health officials maintained that the sulphur dioxide fumes were “not a menace to health,” but may be “detrimental to flowers and shrubs.” Whiting’s St. Adalbert’s Church filed a similar complaint about the health of students, teachers, and parishioners in 1944.

Cpl. Glen Kirkman transporting war material from Federated Metals Whiting location on Indianapolis Blvd. to the company’s Chicago headquarters, The Times (Munster), June 19, 1945, accessed

While citizens lamented pollutants, the plant churned out “vital war materials” for World War II operations. (The Air Force also awarded the company contracts in the 1950s.) In accordance with the national post-war trend, 1946 ushered in labor strikes at the Hammond-Whiting plant. The Times reported that in January CIO United Steelworkers of America closed down the “Calumet Region’s steel and metal plants,” like Inland Steel Co., Pullman-Stan. Car & Mfg. Co., and Federated Metals. On February 17, Federated Metals agreed to increase the wages of its 350 employees to $32 per month. Labor strikes, such as that which “deprived workers of a living and dampened Calumet Region business,” took place at Federated Metals until at least 1978. This last strike lasted nearly five months and required the service of a federal mediator.

On January 5, 1949, one of the grimmest events in the plant’s history took place at the receiving department. While unloading a shipment from National Lead Co., Federated workers were suddenly overcome by arsenic seeping from rain-sodden drums. The gas, which can also cause paralysis, memory loss, and kidney damage, took the lives of four men and hospitalized eleven. The Times noted that “only the caprice of weather saved scores of Hammond and Whiting residents” from dying while the open freight cars transported the drums from Granite City, Illinois to the Federated Metals plant. The cities’ residents narrowly avoided catastrophe, since rain causes metal dross to generate deadly arsine gas.

Drums at Federated Metals’s Whiting-Hammond plant, The Times (Munster), January 9, 1949, accessed

Dr. Richard H. Callahan, East Chicago deputy coroner, probed the deaths and placed the blame primarily on the state board of health. He lamented “‘It is inconceivable that the chemists in the state board did not know that dross used by Federated Metals would poison workmen with arsine. Federated Metals was in the possession of a dangerous toy.” He noted that safeguards against arsenic poisoning had existed for thirty years, ranging from gas masks to the use of caged birds, who fell ill at lower concentrations of gas than humans. The Times noted that Dr. Callahan’s investigation was expected to “foster national and international safeguards against arsine poisoning.”

Deputy Coroner Dr. Richard H. Callahan, The Times (Munster), January 20, 1949, accessed

A.J. Kott wrote in the paper that Federated workers’ lives could have been saved had British Anti-Lewisite (BAL) been on hand, “a miracle drug, discovered during World War I in University of Chicago laboratories.” Instead, the drug had to be rushed to St. Catherine Hospital to treat affected workers. While Dr. Callahan identified the state board as the responsible party, questions regarding Federated’s culpability lingered, such as if they violated the state act requiring employees wear gas masks and if they should have had BAL on hand. Following the accident, the company promised to strengthen safety procedures, like employing gas detecting devices when material arrived.

Nearly twenty years later, Federated Metals found itself in the cross-hairs of the environmental movement, which had produced the first Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency. Learn about the U.S. Justice Department’s suit against Federated and the politics of pollution in Part II.

THH Episode 16: “Hello Girls” Fight Back

Transcript of “Hello Girls” Fight Back

Written by Lindsey Beckley from Research by Donald Edward Jones and Supplemented with original Research

Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins:

[Rotary Telephone being dialed]

[Phone ringing]

Lindsey Beckley: If you’re a young woman, between 17 and 26 years of age, with a grammar school education, who speaks unaccented English, is unmarried, has an arm stretch of at least 5 feet, a sitting height of 32 inches, good eyesight, unimpaired hearing, a pleasant voice, a patient and courteous disposition, a neat appearance, and can pass a blood test to clear you of any heart diseases, boy do I have a job for you. Then again, perhaps not. For once you pass this litmus test, the job you face requires you to work at a “pace which kills” – and that job is switchboard operating.

Woman’s Voice from Historic Footage: Perhaps you’re never seen an operating room. You’ll find it very interesting.

Beckley: On this episode, we’ll discuss the harsh conditions of switchboard operators in the 19 teens – and 13 women from Linton, Indiana who, along with their entire town, took on the Indiana militia in an effort to better those conditions.


Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley. And this is Talking Hoosier History.

A lot was expected of Telephone Switchboard operators in 1919. In a single hour, a “hello girl” was expected to transfer up to 600 calls – that’s 1 call every 6 seconds. During each of those calls the operator would see a small light glowing, indicating someone was on the line. She would plug into the jack associated with that line and answer “Number, Please?” Once the caller gave the number, the operator would repeat each digit back to the caller. She would then test the line of the receiving party before connecting the call by plugging into the appropriate jack. All in 6 seconds.

[Sounds of an operating room]

Beckley: And that 6 second average wasn’t just a guideline. Telephone switchboard operators were considered some of the most heavily supervised workers of the time. Stopwatches were used to ensure efficient operation. Supervisors were able to plug in to any operators’ calls to ensure the proper “phraseology” was being used. And, as if that wasn’t enough, most companies also employed “service testers,” which are kind of like secret shoppers in today’s retail stores. They’d call in, take detailed notes on any errors made by the operator, and compile a report for management to review.  One Boston operator said,

Voice actor reading from newspaper: Inside the central office an operator is supervised, tested, observed, disciplined, almost to the breaking point. It is scarcely possible for her to obey any natural impulse without breaking a rule. She must not move her head to the left or right; she must not indulge in social conversation…she must sit, even when not engaged in operating, if such a moment ever comes, with plug in hand ready to answer…

Beckley: This heavy oversight, restrictive work environment, and breakneck work pace, combined with low wages and limited opportunity for advancement, led to a series of telephone operators’ strikes throughout the United States between 1917 and 1919.


Beckley: By that time, there was a long history of women striking for better working conditions in America. One of the most notable of these was in 1910, when 20,000 garment factory workers in New York City struck for 13 weeks for improved working conditions and better pay. The strikes were largely successful – over 300 companies capitulated to the women’s demands. One of the few that resisted reform was the Triangle Waist Company. One year after the strike, a devastating fire ripped through the Triangle Waist Factory resulting in 146 deaths – overwhelmingly women. This tragedy highlighted the cost of the owner’s reluctance to reform and the resulting outrage sparked new strikes and labor laws.

Less than a decade later, in the wake of World War I, inflation had doubled the cost of food and tripled the cost of clothing. Wage increases weren’t even close to keeping up. In 1919, the same year as the Linton Strike, labor unrest was at an unprecedented height. That year, nearly one fifth of the nation’s workforce went on strike at some point. But for all that, what happened in Linton, Indiana was unique.


Beckley: On Thursday, April 24, 1919, 13 women took off their headsets and staged a walk out at the New Home Telephone Company in Linton, Greene County, Indiana. Strikes were a fairly regular occurrence in the small town where nearly every working person was a union member. And at first, this strike seemed no different than previous strikes.


Beckley: The demands were reasonable enough – the women wanted $8 a week minimum pay, an 8 hour work day, and, more importantly, they wanted the company to recognize their union. The next day, the company brought in 8 women from Indianapolis to work the lines and keep telephone service going. And this is where the strike turned from a typical labor stoppage to something quite different.

With the strikebreakers, telephone service in the town continued throughout the week, but tensions were mounting. As news spread of the strikebreakers being brought in to Linton, the union workers of the town rose in outrage.

Two men, who had recently returned from the WWI front, donned their military uniforms, climbed to the top of the building, lowered the American flag, and took it to a nearby house, saying that the American flag should not fly over such a place. While the men scaled the building, Verna Talbott fired two shots at them, thinking they were trying to force their way into the building. Fortunately, both shots missed their targets.

The crowd around the building grew more and more riotous as time passed and began throwing stones and rocks, breaking many of the windows and leaving the floors strewn with broken glass. Strikebreaker Ruby Stevens fled to the roof, where the Greene County sheriff, Isaac Wines, and Mayor Miller later found her and took her to a nearby hotel before returning to the site of the riot.

A so called “indignation meeting” was scheduled for Monday evening in support of the striking women. Both the Mayor and Sherriff of Linton attended the meeting, hoping to assess the situation and maintain the peace. While there, Mayor Andrew Miller made a speech advocating for law and order and advising the attendees against any “rash actions.”

Apparently his words had little effect on those in the crowd because directly after the meeting, the crowd spilled out to the streets and made their way to the telephone building, where two of the replacement operators, Verna Talbott and Ruby Stevens, along with the telephone company manager Harley Guthrie, were posted. The crowd, estimated to be between 500 and 1000, surrounded the building and demanded that the outside operators be removed and returned to Indianapolis.

The crowd wasn’t satisfied with the departure of Miss Stevens, though, and demanded that the one remaining operator leave the building before negotiations commenced. Talbott finally agreed to leave after being warned by the police chief that she may be killed if she stayed any longer. When she walked out of the building, the crowed parted and she walked among boos and jeers to the same nearby hotel where all the other strikebreakers were staying.

The striking Linton telephone operators had one more demand before they were willing to come to the table. New Home Telephone Company manager Harley Guthrie had to leave the building. This was a demand that Guthrie, Mayor Miller, and others inside the building were unwilling to meet. So, those remaining inside the telephone building, all of whom were armed, hunkered down and called for reinforcements.

The next day, April 29, newspaper headlines across the state declared:

Voice actor reading form newspaper: Linton Under Martial Law!

Beckley:  The ordeal made front page news as far away as Corpus Christi, Texas, Montpelier, Vermont, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, beating out coverage of soldiers returning from the war front.

You see, the night before, when Mayor Miller called for backup, he wasn’t calling in the local police, or even the sheriff’s office. No, he knew local law enforcement would be unable to deal with this situation. Instead, he called the Governor of Indiana, James Goodrich, and asked him to send in the Indiana militia. And he did.

Adjutant General of Indiana, Harry Smith, arrived in Linton at around 5:00 am on Tuesday, April 29 to assess the situation. At 8:10, Governor Goodrich officially declared Linton to be under Martial Law, saying

Voice Actor reading from proclamation: I, James P. Goodrich,…do  hereby proclaim and declare said city and its immediate environments to be in the state of riot and insurrection against the laws of the commonwealth and the peace and dignity of the state, and do hereby proclaim martial law throughout said city and throughout the territory adjacent thereto, and for a distance of five miles in all directions…and do hereby command all turbulent and disorderly persons immediately to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective homes …

Beckley: He also gave a statement to the Indianapolis News underlining his feelings on the subject:

Voice actor reading from newspaper: The riot at Linton last night is a disgrace to the citizenship of Linton and Greene county and a blot upon the fair name of Indiana. The mayor of Linton and the sheriff of Greene county have signed a statement admitting their inability to enforce the law and stating that they were unable to secure aid from citizens of the county to uphold the law. If these gentlemen tell the truth, their statement is a reflection upon the good name of Greene county and any citizen who was called upon to aid the officers and did not has himself become a violator of the law.

Beckley: So, in his estimation, not only were the protesters themselves a blot upon the fair name of Indiana, but everyone in Linton who hadn’t stepped up to help put down the protests was a criminal.


Beckley: Soon after martial law was declared, 2 companies of Indiana militia, one from Terre Haute and one from Sullivan, were deployed to the town. When they arrived, they met a crowd of over 2000 townspeople, many of them miners who had stayed out of the mines for the day in order to support the striking telephone operators.


Beckley: They weren’t the only ones rising in support. Shop owners all over town closed their doors. Women crowded the streets, children in tow. Restaurants refused to serve the militia men. People called the telephone company and demanded that their phones be removed from their home within 24 hours threatening to rip the phone from the wall. Linton was in the midst of a general strike.

As the militia advanced through the town, the crowd parted to allow them to pass, but quickly closed ranks behind them, totally surrounding the soldiers. The throng booed and hissed as the troops passed. In the business section of town, a large group of uniformed WWI veterans rallied around an American flag and marched to the telephone company, where the militiamen and General Smith were stationed.

When the vets their destination, Smith faced them and reprimanded them for having the audacity to take such action while in uniform. For an instant, it seemed that his words may quell the protesters. But then someone in the crowd shouted “slug him!” to which Smith replied that there “would be no such tactics” before hastily retreating to the safety of the telephone building.

[Rioting sounds]

Beckley: The assembled masses surged forward, throwing bricks and coal into the already shattered windows. Militiamen patrolling the streets were assaulted by the mob, their guns torn from their hands and thrown to the street and the men kicked to the side. Inside the building, three men, including General Smith, were struck by flying debris.

Realizing that they were close to losing any semblance of control, Smith ordered the militia to shoot into the crowd. When the soldiers raised their guns, they saw that the front of the crowd was composed mostly of women and children. Being reluctant to fire upon them, the militia lifted their weapons and fired over the heads of the mob. One protester was injured when a bullet grazed his forehead.

Through all of this, several of the telephone operators who had been brought in from Indianapolis were apparently attempting to work at the switchboards in the building. It was agreed that it was high time for them to get out of dodge and so a portion of the uniformed protesters formed two lines and allowed the women to pass through the crowd.

With that perceived victory, the crowd moved to their next demand – the militia needed to leave the town. One newspaper from a nearby town summed up the thoughts of Linton’s citizenry on having what was essentially a small army invade their town.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: The good name of the city of Linton and its many hundreds of good law abiding citizens has been smirched by the coming of armed soldiers to quell a little three-girl riot…The whole thing hinges on the fact that a bunch of officials who had at some time traded backbones with a set of Goose Pond fishing worms crawled shiningly into the telephone building and yelled lustily for the state troops to come quickly…we’ll wager two bits there were less than six culprits.

Beckley: Workers from Linton and surrounding areas refused to return to work while their town hosted these outsiders. All business in the town was at a standstill until the Linton telephone operators’ demands were met. Facing this community solidarity, Governor Goodrich agreed to get the troops out of the street and send committee to the city to investigate the situation and arbitrate an agreement.

The Governor’s agreement, as well as an agreement from the New Home Telephone management to address the concerns of the operators, was announced to the assemblage from the steps of city hall.

And with that, the throng dissipated and returned to their homes. The next day, when the Governor’s commission reached the city, a temporary agreement was reached.


Beckley: The operators agreed to return to their posts for at least the next two weeks and the New Home Telephone Company agreed to a 40% wage increase, an 8 hour work day as opposed to the 9 hour day they had previously mandated and the striking women received full back pay for the duration of the strike. Another demand made by the striking women was that Maude Sherb, the chief operator, be dismissed, as she had crossed the picket line and continued working throughout the strike. Consequently, she was fired and Thelma Anderson, the leader of the unofficial operators’ union, replaced her. While this sounds like the strikers got quite a lot out of the agreement, the telephone company still wouldn’t recognize the operators’ union.

After 2 weeks, when New Home still refused to recognize the union at the end of the temporary agreement, the operators went on strike again. This time, however, it was a much calmer affair. The company had learned their lesson and decided not to bring in outside workers to continue operations. Thus, the people of Linton didn’t rally as they had previously and there was no need to call in the militia.

This second strike lasted for 9 weeks, all the while the town of Linton had no telephone service. Although there were appeals from Linton businesses for the strike to end, the New Home Telephone Company didn’t feel the same pressure to capitulate as they did in the face of the violence of the first strike. So, the strike ended after 9 weeks with the Operator’s union still not recognized by the company.

While the second strike didn’t have any direct outcomes, the Linton Telephone Operators’ actions had a lasting effect on the community. Before the operator strike had even ended, another group of female workers in the area went on strike – this time, it was the teachers of Stockton Township, which is just outside of Linton. It’s impossible to think that the teacher’s strike was uninfluenced by that of the operator’s. Indeed, in a mass meeting much like the “indignation meeting” held in support of the operator’s strike, teachers called for another general strike to be carried out in support of the cause. However, the feat was not to be repeated and, while the strike did last for 3 months and even caused several schools to push back their start date, the teachers did not receive the same community support that had been shown for the operators.


Beckley: 1919 was the high point in labor activism for years to come. There wouldn’t be a year with as many strikes or as much union activity until the height of the Great Depression. At that point, union membership began to rise again and peaked in 1954 at nearly 30 percent of workers. Since then, union membership has declined dramatically. In 2017, less than 11 percent of American workers were in a union.

Today, while unions aren’t as mainstream as they once were they’re still very much a part of America, as we saw with the recent teacher’s strikes across the country. In addition, grassroots activity like the Occupy Movement of 2011 and, more recently, the fight for 15 movement, are using some of the same tactics used by unions in the past to accomplish similar objectives.

[Sounds of an operating room]

Beckley: Labor movements have a long, mixed history in America and the Linton Telephone Operator’s strike of 1919 is just one small, yet fascinating, part of it.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Newspaper excerpts read by Justin Clark. Visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and facebook at @talkhoosierhist and like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.