Stephen F. Austin State University

The day Gregg County welcomed an army (March 2014)

The day Gregg County welcomed an army
By Van Craddock

It was a breezy March day in 1894 when the dusty travelers rolled into Gregg County, but this was no pleasure trip. No, far from it.

The 600 or so unemployed men were hot, tired, irritated and packed so tightly into the seven railroad cars that there wasn't even room to lie down. They were on their way to Washington, D.C., because Jacob Coxey wanted them there.

The Depression of 1893 had closed banks and factories and put hundreds of thousands out of work. But Coxey, a self-made businessman from Ohio, had a grand scheme. He thought the federal government should make available $500 million for a national road-building program that would put all those folks back to work.

And just so Congress would think more highly of his idea, Coxey announced he was raising an "army" of the unemployed to converge on the nation's capital to lobby for the legislation. When more than 20,000 disgruntled, unemployed men signed up for the march on Washington, it became apparent Coxey was a force with which to be reckoned.

Coxey's appeal drew response from as far away as California, where a group of unemployed workers left Los Angeles on March 16, 1894. They hopped aboard a Southern Pacific freight train that took them to El Paso, and that's where they ran into trouble.

It seems the Southern Pacific took a dim view of all these "bums" riding their rails. Railroad officials appealed to Texas Gov. James Stephen Hogg, the colorful East Texan who'd founded Longview's first newspaper back in 1871.

To the railroad's chagrin, Hogg said there was no Texas law making it a crime to bum a ride on a freight train. So when the train was 70 miles east of El Paso, the Southern Pacific simply unhooked the cars and left what was being called "Coxey's Army" stranded in the West Texas desert.

Hogg then ordered the railroad to pick the men back up, saying Texas "will not submit to such wholesale murder of human beings on her soil." After Hogg threatened legal action, the Southern Pacific sent another train to gather up the men.

The men reached San Antonio March 29, transferring to a high-speed International & Great Northern freight train and continuing on to Austin, Taylor, Hearne and Palestine. It was a tiring trip and it didn't help that 600 men were packed like sardines into five coaches and two baggage cars.

In the wee morning darkness of March 31, the bedraggled band arrived in Longview, the Gregg County seat. The men were met and fed by townspeople, but not everyone was happy to see them. The travelers started to walk off the train and stretch their weary legs, but that was quickly discouraged by several armed residents.

"One man with a shotgun told them Longview was not a healthy town at this season of the year and they had better stay inside," the Dallas Morning News reported.

Rumor had it the visitors were "tramps and thieves." In truth, the men were mostly honest, hard-working fellows who found themselves without jobs.

After a couple of hours, the men transferred to a Texas & Pacific train for the trip from Longview to Texarkana. Only a few miles out of town the T&P conductor "demanded of the men that they pay fare or get off. An indignant howl of refusal" and a threat to toss the conductor off the train was the men's response.

The Coxey army's march toward Washington eventually fizzled out. While 20,000 men had started the trip from various locales, only 500 or so actually made it all the way to the nation's capital.

Coxey himself reached Washington on May 1. He tried to stage a demonstration at the Capitol building, but was arrested for walking on the grass.