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Friday, May 01, 2009

LOCAL HISTORY - THE NORTH ABINGTON RIOT

I live in Abington, Massachusetts, a "bedroom community" in the area south of Boston
called the South Shore. It's a pleasant town with a long history. William Lloyd Garrison
and other Abolitionists held rallies in Island Grove Park. Bare-knuckle boxing champ
John L. Sullivan spent his last days on a farm on the western end of town. And one
hot August day in 1893, it was the site of the North Abington Riot.

Previously, railroads had replaced horse drawn vehicles as the most used form of
transportation, but it faced competition in the late 19th century from the new
technology of electric streetcar trolleys. Today we tend to think of them as having
been used in the big cities, but some suburban areas had trolley systems as well. Such
was the case in the this area where residents of Abington, Whitman and Rockland
could travel about the towns using the trolleys of the Abington-Rockland Railroad
Company. However, there was a problem in North Abington Center where the
tracks of the Consolidated Railroad Company(also known as the "New York, New
Haven and Hartford Railroad")blocked the trolley tracks. Passengers heading in either
direction had to exit their trolley, cross the railroad tracks on foot, and board another
trolley to continue traveling to their destination.

The inconvenience of this situation eventually caused the town in 1889 to grant the
trolley line the right to lay its tracks across the railroad's tracks. The Consolidated
contested this in court, lost and exhausted all its appeals by 1893 and was notified
by the trolley line that the construction would begin on August 16th. The railroad
responded to this by sending out its own crew of 300 men, mostly Italian immigrants,
under the supervision of J.C. Sanborn. There was an uneasy truce for several hours
with both work gangs stood idle. Then at 1pm, Sanborn ordered his men out to tear
up the trolley line tracks closest to the railroad. By this time there was a crowd of
townspeople watching events unfold.

I've seen several versions of what happened next. The town Road Superintendent
warned Sanborn that he was breaking the law. Sanborn reportedly said he would
take the risk. Then three town police officers moved forward to begin arresting the
railroad workers and fighting broke out. According to one newspaper account some
of the onlookers became involved and stones were thrown. Workers chased after
citizens with picks and shovels and then the trolley workers joined in the fighting as
well. The situation was now so out of control that the fire alarm was rung and the fire department trained two water hoses on the railroad men, driving them back to the
railroad tracks for a time. A counterattack resulted in the hoses being destroyed by
the angry workers and windows being smashed in the shops along North Avenue.

At this point there came a lull in the fighting and a truce was called. By this time the
town officials had sent for help and a number of State Police arrived(ironically by train)
along with a court injunction ordering the railroad to desist from interfering with trolley
line construction. The North Abington Riot was over.

Believe it or not, while 16 people were hurt (two suffering bullet wounds) and several
thousand dollars worth of glass windows were shattered, nobody died. But Sanborn
and four other railroad officials were arrested and served time in prison for their
actions.

So the two sections of the trolley line were finally connected.

A few years later, the advent of the automobile heralded the eventual death of the
Abington-Rockland Railroad trolley line.

And several times over the years, the North Abington Riot has been reenacted...
with waterballons!

Written for the 71st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.

3 comments:

Greta Koehl said...

I'd love to see one of the reenactments!

Evelyn Yvonne Theriault said...

Fascinating story - and luckily it ended without deaths and hard feelings so that now it becomes something people are comfortable recreating.
Evelyn in Montreal

Sweetwater Sherry said...

I enjoyed your story as one who grew up in a "Railroad" community and having many Railroaders in the family. While different from a "trolley" line, I enjoyed your interesting account. Cheri Hopkins