This coming Monday, the first Monday in September, Americans will celebrate Labor Day. For some, the holiday simply means a day off from work, and for others it marks the unofficial end of summer, but, as we all should remember, Labor Day signifies much more. It was designed as a day to recognize and honor American workers.
By the end of the 19th century, industry was starting to supersede agriculture as the principal means of employment in the United States and labor unions had grown in importance. Although some states were already celebrating Labor Day, it was not made a federal holiday until June 28, 1894, when President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation into law.
The year 1894 was significant in that employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, near Chicago, which manufactured luxury railroad sleeping cars, had initiated a strike. The American Railway Union then supported the strike by staging a boycott of trains using Pullman cars. The strike and boycott tied up rail traffic in 27 states. Federal troops were used to end the strike, resulting in deadly riots and millions of dollars in property damage. The official designation of Labor Day, in the midst of the turmoil, was seen as a peace offering to workers.
The city of Vincennes staged enormous Labor Day celebrations in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, the holiday turned into one of the biggest spectacles of the year, with a mammoth parade that drew thousands of onlookers.
In 1902, for instance, it was estimated that some 20,000 people jammed the streets, coming in by train from outlying communities. The population of Vincennes was only 10,249 in 1900. A train into the city from Mount Carmel, Illinois, was so jammed with passengers that some people actually climbed up and rode on the roofs of the coaches. A special train had to be taken to St. Francisville, Illinois, since the regular train could not accommodate all who wanted to travel to Vincennes.
People came into the city by other means as well. The Western Sun reported: “As early as 5 o’clock the rumbling of vehicles laden with farmers and their families, could be heard from every road.” Of course, people traveled by horse-drawn conveyance in those days, and stables, hitch lots, and the fairgrounds (now the location of Gregg Park) were filled with horses.
The city was bedecked in red, white, and blue. It was reported that the big City Hall building at Fourth and Main streets “displayed banners and flags and gayly hued bunting from every available corner from basement to dome.”
Saloons did a big business as did a beer stand that was set up at the fairgrounds.
There was a Labor Day baseball game, but the parade was the day’s major event, kicking off at midday. Described as a “monster affair,” it was made up of 65 floats, 300 horses, and more than 1,000 people, which didn’t even include those riding in buggies and carriages. The long list of parade participants was comprised chiefly of local businesses and labor unions. The latter included the United Mine Workers of America, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, The Brewers and Bottlers Union, the Barbers Union, the Cigar Makers’ International Union, and the International Typographical Union, among many others.
After the parade, people made their way to the fairgrounds, either walking, driving, or packing the streetcars, leaving downtown looking desolate. The streetcars, like the trains, were so full that some people rode on the roofs of the cars.
At the fairgrounds, the crowd was treated to a concert by the First Regiment Band and a series of speeches. Among the many speakers was former mayor George Greene (who would be elected to the office again in 1904), present mayor George W. H. Roush, and Sullivan attorney and future Indiana congressman John C. Chaney.
In the evening, there was band music, dancing, a cakewalk, and fireworks.
There were several accidents during that busy, hectic day. The most serious occurred when a keg of powder exploded on the United Mine Workers float at Seventh and Seminary streets. Several miners and a mule were injured.