The dictionary defines a riot as a “violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.” Riots start for different reasons. Pittsburgh’s first riot occurred in 1794. Unfortunately, it was not the last riot to be seen in Southwest Pennsylvania.
After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States government was deeply in debt in 1791. At the urging of the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, President George Washington approved an excise tax on liquor to raise revenue for the new country. At that time, Pittsburgh was the whiskey distilling capital of the country with more than 4,000 stills in operation in the region. As one local distiller noted, Pittsburgh was Kentucky before Kentucky was.
Distillers were outraged by the tax and revolted. Farmer-distillers in Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania burned tax collectors in effigy, engaged in skirmishes, and launched attacks. The distillers in Pittsburgh were particularly outraged, and in the summer of 1794 nearly 400 rebels gathered and burned the Bower Hill mansion of tax collector John Neville, who had served as an officer in the Revolutionary War.
Knowing that the riots were a threat to his authority, Washington needed to quell the unrest immediately and called up a militia of 13,000 men to quash the rebellion. One hundred fifty rioters were arrested. Most of those charged were released; however, two men were convicted and sentenced to hang. One of them was Philip Wigle, who has recently had a distillery in the area named after him.
Washington eventually pardoned the pair, but not before The Whiskey Rebellion would change the country forever. Out of the protests grew our country’s two-party system as Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, repealed the tax when elected, in opposition to the Federalists, who asserted that the Federal government had overriding jurisdiction in all matters.
Railroad Strike Riots of 1877
During the Civil War, the railroads rose to prominence, but after the war, the nation went into an economic nosedive. Railroads across the nation tightened their belts and began to lay off workers, increase workloads, and cut wages. By the summer of 1877, nearly 25 percent of the nation’s workforce was unemployed. That summer, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut workers’ pay by 10 percent, the second such measure since the first cut in 1873. In July 1877, workers blocked the B&O trains in cities near Baltimore, and the protests quickly spread to the Pittsburgh area and the railroads here. Pennsylvania Railroad President Thomas A. Scott called for military protection for railroad property. President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered strikers to disperse within 24 hours, and when they refused, City of Pittsburgh police and local Pennsylvania National Guard units refused to move against the strikers.
When Pennsylvania Governor John Hartranft brought in units from the eastern part of the state, these National Guard units were met with angry mobs of men, women, and children who taunted them and tossed rocks and bottles. Several of the troops were caught in PRR’s Roundhouse, which the mob set on fire. To escape, the guardsmen shot their way out of the building and opened fire on the crowd, killing 20, including a woman and three children. Twenty-nine were also injured. Enraged at the carnage, more joined the rioters, who then went on a rampage setting fire to 39 buildings, 104 locomotives, 46 passenger cars, and 506 freight cars. Every building on Penn and Liberty Avenues, from the Union Depot to 28th Street, was burned. On July 26, U.S. Army troops along with more units of the National Guard were sent in to halt the destruction and violence. This was the first time ever that federal troops were used against union protesters.
Pittsburgh Riots of 1886
In September of 1886, Irish Americans and Italian Americans clashed. Since the mid-1880s, tension between the two groups had been escalating as Italians were moving into the Four Mile Run neighborhood (Greenfield). On a Saturday in mid-September, a gang of six Irish laborers attacked an Italian laborer, Joseph Vernard, near Daly Brothers. Although Vernard was severely beaten, he managed to escape to his home. On September 19, around noon, a band of 20 Irish laborers went to Vernard’s home and demanded to be let in. Italian boarders living in the house barricaded the doors. The Irish mob broke down the doors, forcing their way in, and a violent melee erupted. Italian laborer “Paddy” Rocco had his skull crushed when an Irish rioter hit him with a chair, while Irishman Patrick Constantine was fatally shot in the abdomen. Pittsburgh Police were called in. Five Italian laborers were arrested, while most of the Irish rioters escaped.
Homestead Steelworkers Strike
When the summer of 1892 arrived, Industrialist Andrew Carnegie left Pittsburgh for his annual vacation in the remote Scottish Highlands, leaving Henry Clay Frick in charge of operations at his steel plants, which were in the midst of some labor strife. Carnegie told Frick that if the workers didn’t accept Frick’s terms, then he should close the plant and wait the men out. Instead, Frick locked the workers out and announced that he would no longer negotiate with the union, but only with individual workers. The remaining workers who weren’t locked out went on strike on July 1. Frick countered by planning to reopen with a non-union workforce on July 6. Frick called in 300 armed Pinkerton guards to the Homestead plant. When the barges filled with the guards sailed up the Monongahela River, the striking workers on shore warned the guards not to disembark. No one knows for certain who fired the first shot, but what is known is that for 14 hours union workers and armed guards engaged in a gun battle. When the fighting ceased, three guards and nine workers were dead. The workers took over the plant, but the governor sent in the militia to reclaim it for Carnegie.
Martin Luther King Assassination Riots of 1968
On April 4, 1968, James Early Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. The shock and sadness of this horrific event soon transformed into anger, and riots broke out across the United States. Sadly, Pittsburgh was not spared in the violence. The day after the assassination, on April 5, riots erupted in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and other predominantly black neighborhoods in the area, and would continue for seven days. During that turbulent week of looting and vandalism, 505 fires were set and $620,000 worth of property damage was done. One person was killed, and 926 people were arrested. The National Guard was called in, and Mayor Joseph Barr imposed a curfew until order was restored.
Super Bowl XLIII Riot of 2006
Most riots are caused from a conflict between two or more groups. But that was not the case after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII in 206. In celebration, fans took to streets to destroy parts of the city. Signs and mailboxes were broken and thrown. People flipped cars and set them on fire, while others climbed statues and telephone poles. Luckily, most of the damage was contained to a small area of town, and rioters were brought under control.
It is clear to see that there are many reasons a riot can start. The one thing that all riots have in common is that they all come to an end, and at that point, everyone can analyze what percentage of the goals the rioters had have been met.
There is always a price to be paid both in lives and property.