Monday, September 5, 2016

Ambridge 1933 anti-union strike violence at Spang-Chalfant

On October 5, 1933, one of the country's most violent anti-union confrontations took place in Ambridge. Striking workers from several Ambridge industrial plants were attacked by a large squad of armed sheriff's deputies in front of Spang-Chalfant in the 2300 block of Duss Ave. The October 6, 1933, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the area as a "bloody battleground." The fight left one bystander dead, and a large number of picketers, bystanders, as well as some deputies, injured.

News accounts of the violent event vary in their details, some of it conflicting, but the story below provides the basics.

"One dead, fifteen wounded in strike clash"
armed deputy sheriffs attacking picketers
Spang-Chalfant plant
October 5, 1933
Library of Congress photo

The strike tension began days earlier on October 2, 1933, when workers at Ambridge's large National Electric plant voted to strike to demand recognition of their union, the Steel and Metal Workers' Industrial Union (SMWIU), and a wage increase.

At the same time, Ambridge's Central Tube Co. was closed for an "employer's' holiday,"--workers had been locked out after they had demanded that the company recognize the same union.

Beaver County Sheriff Charles O'Loughlin, formerly the head of the Aliquippa J & L's Coal and Iron Police, already had deputies at both plants by the evening of October 2.

On October 3, National Electric's workers marched to the plant, and the company asked for time to think about their demands. Workers decided against returning to work, and the mill remained closed.

By then, workers at other Ambridge area plants--Spang-Chalfant, Wycoff Drawn Steel, H. H. Robertson, and A. M. Byers--had joined the strike.

On the afternoon of October 3, a delegation of union members, led by Spang-Chalfant workers, went to the Spang-Chalfant plant, where they were met by company police armed with rifles, machine guns, and tear gas guns.

The October 4, 1933, Post-Gazette, reported, "There was only one slight outburst of disorder in the Ambridge picketing, but Sheriff Charles J. O'Loughlin of Beaver county prepared for possible trouble by detailing part of his squad of 200 deputies, armed with riot and machine guns and tear gas bombs, to strike duty in Ambridge."

Despite the picket line in front of the plant, Spang-Chalfant remained open. Some workers tried to cross the picket line to go to work, but were attacked by the picketers. In response, the picketers were attacked with gunshots and tear gas from within the mill; one picketer was wounded.

On October 5, a large number of the special deputies recruited by Sheriff O'Loughlin began to march, carrying their weapons, to the Spang-Chalfant plant. They were led by the sheriff and County Detective Robert Branyan, and accompanied by Ambridge Burgess P. J. Caul and county District Attorney, A. B. de Castrique.

The deputy sheriffs, identified by white handkerchief arm bands, first stopped in front of Wycoff, on Duss Ave. immediately to the south of Spang-Chalfant. After the deputies were ordered to break up the picket line, one of them hit a picketer with a club. Hundreds of spectators began to run, joined by some of the picketers, although many remained on the line and heckled the deputies. The deputies responded by shooting tear gas into the crowd, which ran from the area.

Having cleared Duss Ave. in front of Wycoff, the deputies continued their march to Spang-Chalfant. I don't need to described what happened once they got there, because there is a still-existing British Pathé newsreel of the deputies' confrontation with picketers, who, if armed at all, held clubs and rocks. Here's that newsreel:

When the deputies starting shooting into the crowd, they didn't discriminate between picketers, news reporters and photographers who had come to record the scene, or the spectators who had gathered to support the picketers or simply watch the action.

The Post-Gazette reporter described the scene as the deputies pushed into the crowd standing in front of Spang-Chalfant:
Townspeople, caught in the melee, as well as strikers and deputies were injured as bullets, sticks and stones, flew through the air in the several skirmishes of the drive. An undetermined number of combatants and spectators were overcome by fumes of tear-gas bombs as the hastily sworn-in deputies cut their way through the strikers.

It took almost half an hour to complete the drive through the mill district. Stubborn resistance was offered at many of the mill entrances where pickets had gathered in numbers.

But the relentless march pushed on.

Tear gas bombs and bullets whistled through the crowds of strikers, spectators, women and children who thronged the streets.

The various groups of pickets stood their ground but briefly and then ran for shelter. Bystanders, blinded by the tear gas and frightened by the rattle of gun-fire, rushed pell-mell from the scene, tripping over each other in their frantic dash to safety.

Women, many of them with babies tightly clasped in their arms, others clutching hands of young ones barely able to toddle, ran screaming from the fire-zone. 
A spectator, Adam Pietrusieski, who owned a confectionary store at 310 Fourteenth St. in Ambridge, was shot and killed, leaving a wife and three children. Published reports of where Pietrusieski was standing when he was shot and where he died, vary, as does the spelling of his last name.

Sheriff and deputies standing over body of Adam Pietrusieski
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 6, 1933

Post-Gazette caption:
Sheriff Charles O'Loughlin (center) and two of his deputies come too late to the aid of Adam Petesuski, 42, a spectator of the pitched battle, who was found dying in the street as the smoke and tear gas of yesterday's encounter before the Spang-Chalfant steel plant in Ambridge cleared away. He died soon after this picture was made before he could be taken to a doctor.
Others seriously hurt in the melee were taken to hospitals. One estimate says approximately 100 people were injured, many shot in the back.

The Ambridge Daily Citizen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Pittsburgh Press provided extensive coverage of the strike and ensuing violence, but the news spread nationally. Patty Parra found these photos in a Salem, Ohio newspaper:

photos of Spang-Chalfant strike battle
Salem News
October 9, 1933
courtesy Patty Garrity Parra

Salem News caption:
Graphic pictures from the strike front at Ambridge, Pa., where a clash between steel strikers of the Spang-Chalfant mill and 200 deputies resulted in the fatal shooting of one man and the wounding of 15 others. At top, heavily armed deputies and pickets face each other an instant before the deputies opened fire. Below, the battle in progress. Note man at right taking aim with a shotgun, while teargas routs strikers. In inset, a deputy bends over the buckshot riddled body of Adam Petesuski, slain strike picket.
The sheriff and Ambridge officials congratulated themselves for breaking the strike, a job well done, but an investigation of the violence by Pennsylvania Governor Pinchot's "Special Policing in Industry" committee that was created afterward, helped to end the use of "company deputies" like those involved in the Ambridge attack.

Update September 4, 2017, Labor Day:

I now own some vintage press photos of the armed sheriff's deputies--the strikebreakers--in action.

The photo below, shot facing the south, shows the tear gas shot by deputies billowing across the 2000 block of Duss Ave. Note the "School Slow" sign. The tear gas was blowing towards Anthony Wayne Elementary School, located behind the houses on the east side of Duss. October 5, 1933, was a Thursday, so a school day. The deputies obviously didn't care.

The back of the photo says: "Gas across Duss Ave. Ambridge to break up strikers as deputies charged."

Tear gas shot by strikebreaking deputies blows across the 2000 block of Duss Ave.
October 5, 1933

The photo below shows that same block today. The house on the east side of Duss with the second story porch and its neighbor on the corner are still there. The building on the far right of the 1933 photo, behind the deputy, is gone. But the homes beyond it remain.

2000 block of  Duss Ave. looking south
Google Street View

The next photo shows some armed deputies walking south in the 2100 block of Duss Ave., approaching a group of strikers. That would place them just north of the Wykoff Drawn Steel mill. Spang-Chalfant was three blocks further north. 

Accounts of the strike say that the deputies marched north on Duss., broke up a gathering of strikers at the Wykoff mill, then proceeded up Duss to the Spang-Chalfant mill. So did these strikebreakers turn around to scare-off the strikers a second time? Or did some of the strikebreakers initially march south on Duss, as well as north, to surround the strikers? I don't have the answer to that. The note on the back of the photo says only: "Armed deputies driving strikers ahead of them on Duss Ave."

The large white building on the right side of the photo is the original Anthony Wayne Elementary School. The house to its left is 2109 Duss Ave., and is still there, as is the smaller building on the left side of the photo.

Strikebreaking deputies approaching strikers
2100 block of Duss Ave.
October 5, 1933

Here's what that area looks like today, with the much altered Anthony Wayne building peeking from behind Vance's Auto Service:

2100 block of Duss Ave. looking south
Google Street View

I've wanted to write about the 1933 Spang-Chalfant strike violence for a long time, but I felt I couldn't do the story justice. As my stack of research grew, I realized that if I waited until I felt I could tell the entire story as well as I wanted to, I might never write it.

This article is but a part of what I've learned so far about the working and economic conditions in Ambridge leading up to the strike, the use of special "company deputies" to break strikes and intimidate union supporters, anti-union sentiments held by Ambridge and county officials, as well as the sometimes conflicting details of the attack and further anti-union action taken by Ambridge officials, borough police, the sheriff, and his deputies.

You can read more about the story of this strike in my Sept. 3, 2018, blog post "After the 1933 Spang-Chalfant strike violence, the immediate aftermath".

My interest in and research of this story continues.


  1. Thank you for this interesting write-up! My father was 5 at the time of this strike and living on Duss Ave. He has few memories of the clash other than seeing strikers getting hit in the head by the sheriff/police before his parents whisked him into the house.

  2. My great-grandfather was Charles O’Loughlin, the sheriff at the time, you spoke of. From what I understand at the time, worked for the “company” at the time. I’ve heard various stories about this growing up from my grandparents. The irony is my mother, my dads and myself have been Union workers and supporters of Unions all our lives. Thank you for sharing the history and importance of our Unions and the battles and struggles to get there.

  3. I would like to see a state historical marker erected at the site of the riots.
    Has any effort ever been made in the hopes that a marker might be approved?

    1. Several years ago I checked with the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation about the criteria required for commemorating the 1933 strike with one of the Beaver County historical markers. I found that even if the BCHRLF agreed that the strike was significant in the history of Beaver County, the event doesn't meet another requirement: it didn't happen over 100 years ago.

      But 2033 isn't all that far away any more. So maybe you, along with other interested individuals, could start working on the project.

      The PA State Marker program doesn't seem to have a similar 100 years ago criteria, but the bar for qualifying for a state marker is much higher--the nomination would have to show that the strike had "a significant impact on its times, and statewide and/or national, rather than local or regional, historical significance."