Laying track in Tennessee (18-08)


I’ve put 1898 into the rearview mirror and have begun work on 1899. This volume will close at the end of 1904, speaking tentatively, which means that I’ve got about 3 weeks to work on each year up to the soft deadline. Everything is on schedule. I’ve developed a pretty comfortable system of work with one big difference being that volumes 1 and 2 relied heavily upon the use of optical character recognition (OCR) of Google-scans from issues of Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, while volume 3 involves lots of hand typing and very little OCR work. I don’t mind the typing, I did it for years for my website.

Things do move slower typing everything up, however. I certainly won’t be racking up 625,000+ words this time around — I figure that if I get to 350,000 words I will be doing pretty well. Then again, that first year of effort ultimately generated two volumes and there is only one volume to fill this time around. Everything feels really right with this project in terms of pace of work and rate of output and I am learning something new every day.

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Debs seems to have taken most of January 1899 off from touring, concentrating instead on the launch of his new “magazine” — or more properly, series of pamphlets with a common name — Progressive Thought. These pamphlets, bearing the imprint of “E.V. Debs & Co.,” would initially begin to appear monthly in January 1899, moving to a quarterly frequency in 1900 and terminating in the third quarter of 1901. Included among them were the first pamphlet editions of the 1895 speech Liberty and the 1899 presentation to the New York elite at a special session of the 19th Century Club at Delmonico’s restaurant, Prison Labor.


List of available titles from Debs Publishing Co. in January 1899.

It is not known to what extent Debs delegated the editorial task of putting together these pamphlets. While it is not inconceivable that he could have done the job from the road, it seems far more likely that his brother, faithful assistant, and Executive Secretary of the Social Democratic Party Theodore was the uncredited reader of printers’ proofs and mailer of finished issues to those who subscribed for the magnificent sum of 50 cents a year.

Of particular interest is the list of books for sale published by others, touted as the “Progressive Thought Library.” Notably making the list were two small tracts by New Hampshire SDP activist F.S.R. Gordon, the beloved introduction to socialism Merrie England, which Charles H. Kerr & Co. put out for the Social Democracy of America, Gronlund’s classic The Cooperative Commonwealth, the two utopian socialist novels of Edward Bellamy, Henry Demarest Lloyd’s call to arms, Wealth Against Commonwealth, an academic history of the labor movement by Prof. Richard Ely — and volume one of Capital by Karl Marx.

One can’t quite say this list of core publications is eclectic, although taken as a whole it goes a long way to illustrating the “broad tent” nature of Debs’s socialism.

This publishing and bookselling effort was distinctly a secondary pursuit for Debs. He remained in the first instance a touring lecturer and party organizer.

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One can feel a real ebb in popular support for Debs and the Social Democratic Party in the coverage of his speaking tours of 1899. What was fresh and exciting in 1896 and 1897 had become passé by 1899.

EVD was nothing if not an inveterate road warrior, and he took his “Labor and Liberty” tour tested in December 1898 at twenty dates in Iowa on the road throughout the Midwest and South during the first half of 1899. Admissions were charged, crowds were apt to be small — 200 to 400 the common range — and the day after Debs spoke local newspapers typically no longer included vast swaths of text breathlessly transcribing the pronouncements of the leading labor leader made to those who bought tickets.

It appears that Debs set out on his first major speaking tour of 1899 during the last days of January, heading for a controversial date speaking to students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at the invitation of the “Good Government Club,” to lecture on the topic “The Laboring Man’s Interest in Good Government.” The administration at Michigan had done everything possible to short-circuit the trip, denying the student club access to University Hall for the Debs speech, ostensibly on the grounds that political speeches were prohibited — a decision appealed without success to the Michigan Board of Regents.


Newspaper ad for Debs’s April 12, 1899 speech at Elwood, Indiana. EVD’s heroic status is evident.

The lecture took place off campus at Christian Association Hall instead, with Debs receiving a retrospective nod from the worrying class for having been “temperate” in the delivery of his well-received remarks.

From Ann Arbor Debs seems to have spent the next 10 days in the state of Michigan, delivering his basic “Labor and Liberty” speech in the opera houses of mid-sized communities each evening. After a brief respite, Debs went on the road to Ohio and Indiana for a week to end the month of February.

March 21, 1899 was something of a red letter day — Debs’s long scheduled appearance at Delmonico’s steakhouse in New York City under the auspices of the tony 19th Century Club. About 300 people, members of New York city’s bourgeois elite, gathered to hear Debs and two other speakers deliver 40 minute presentations on the “problem” of prison labor. Observers writing about the event seem to have projected their own values about the response accorded Debs, with the assessments ranging from tepid to enthusiastic. It is clear that Debs did nothing to alienate the crowd, however — a verbal bomb-thrower he was not.

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Even though my seek-and-slay mission now involves material from the first half of 1899, I find my interest returning to 1897 — one of the pivotal years of the Debs story. There are story threads that remain to be untangled.

Speaking as a historian, the activities of the three member Colonization Commission of the Social Democracy of America still puzzles and intrigues me. Merely listing their crackpot schemes in sequence is complex and challenging; they were literally all over the map during 1897 and 1898 and things moved so quickly from one hare-brained fantasy to the next that concrete details quickly vanished into the wind.

The grandest of the grand schemes, a $300,000 railway to Nashville, seemingly came out of nowhere to be widely touted in the press, and then vanished into thin air without a trace just as rapidly. What was the backstory of that?

The Nashville railroad construction idea seems to have been the brainchild (some might prefer the rude slang term “brainfart”) of journalist Cyrus Field Willard (1858-1942) of Boston. Willard, the Secretary of the Colonization Commission, materialized in Nashville on Sept. 24, 1897, two days before the other key member of the Colonization Commission, construction engineer and Chairman Richard J. Hinton, arrived to met him there.

Even before Hinton’s train pulled into the station, Willard had already prepared an extremely detailed proposal for the Nashville City Council, a copy of which he shared with a reporter for the Nashville American. The plan — which, it should be remembered, had yet to be submitted to the council, but was only a draft — nonetheless became the seed for extensive national news coverage after it saw print in the Nashville press. It began with some extremely official language which blatantly name-dropped on Debs:

To the Mayor and City Council of Nashville:—

I am authorized to submit to you, the servants of the people, the following proposition by Eugene V. Debs, for and in behalf of the Social Democracy of America, namely:

That the said Social Democracy, for a consideration hereinafter named, will build and turn over to the city of Nashville a railroad from Nashville to Lebanon, there to connect with the Nashville & Knoxville Railroad, and from the other end of said Nashville & Knoxville Railroad at Monterrey to the connection with the Cincinnati Southern Railroad, which is now owned by the city of Cincinnati, as we propose that this road shall be owned by the city of Nashville.

This sort of specificity got me interested… What exactly was Willard and the SDA proposing? I don’t think that anyone has really investigated that question before.

A railway map from 1896 with the above information makes it pretty easy to pinpoint the location of the proposed new line, which I have drawn in red below:


The reporter indicates the proposal was for two sections totaling 75 miles, but the Nashville-to-Lebanon portion appears to already have been completed at this date. Moreover, the distance from Lebanon to Monterey is 64 miles, and from Nashville to Knoxville is 180 miles — meaning the two sections proposed to be built would actually be about 116 miles, not 75.   (180 – 64 = 116)

The distance from Monterey to Knoxville — the obviously uncompleted section of the Nashville & Knoxville RR in 1897 — is about 88 miles today via the sweeping route of Interstate I-40, which might be 75 miles via a direct rail line as simplistically drawn on the map above. Alternatively, it is certainly possible to draw a 75 mile section hitting the Cincinnati Southern line further south of Knoxville, which would have been a more likely route.

In short: I don’t think there actually existed a job to be done building the contiguous road from Nashville to Lebanon. What the SDA seems to actually been meaning to propose to the city of Nashville was that it go knee-deep in debt in order to hire the SDA to construct a distant Monterey-to-Knoxville section of railway that was actually adjacent to the latter city. It seems far fetched to think that any Nashville city official would have felt this a viable proposition after calculating risks and potential rewards.

Mailly-William-c1908In the abstract, a straight-shot rail line from Nashville to Knoxville may have seemed to be an obvious and potentially lucrative idea to anyone from the capital city. It seems a decent guess that the idea originated from the Nashville Local Branch of the Social Democracy, an enthusiastic and active group headed by William Mailly (1871-1912). [Digression: Mailly would be a delegate to the 1898 national convention of the Social Democracy and one of the 30 or so bolters who would establish the Social Democratic Party; he would still later serve as National Executive Secretary of the Socialist Party of America.]

Willard’s proposal on behalf of the Social Democracy to the city of Nashville was almost ludicrously detailed, spelling out minutely the financial mechanism for funding this construction — a matter which would ordinarily have been within the purview of the city, not the contractor:

We propose that the city shall issue $300,000 in bonds in two series, one for $100,000 to run for 20 years at 6 percent interest and the other for $200,000, to be issued in small denominations, say $5 and $10 each, to run 10 years at 6 percent interest.

As there is 75 miles to build, we propose that as fast as one-tenth of the road is completed, one-tenth of the bonds be turned over to the Social Democracy of America, or to some trustee designated by it. That is, when 7-1/2 miles of railroad are completed, the city shall turn over $30,000 in bonds, in proportion of $10,000 long term and $20,000 short term.

We also make the proposition that in return for turning over the road to the city, that the city shall pay to the Social Democracy of America for the term of 20 years 10 percent of the gross earnings of the road.

What does it all mean? Putting matters bluntly, there is no way in hell that Gene Debs — who was at the time in Chicago trying to organize and host a high-profile conference of labor leaders that he had been preparing for a month and which opened on Sept. 27 — was the father of this scheme, despite C.F. Willard’s intimation (repeated by the press) that he was. Debs was occupied throughout the year speaking to striking miners and attempting to build local branches of the SDA, not running around the country searching for investment opportunities and dreaming up financing schemes so that the monetarily poor and organizationally weak SDA could go into the labor contracting business.

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On October 1, Colonization Commission muckety mucks Hinton and Willard were again in the field in Tennessee, this time investigating the purchase of land on the Cumberland Plateau for a prospective colony of the Social Democracy. It bears remembering that the SDA targeting its resources on colony in conservative and relatively populous Tennessee would not fit in with the official strategy of the organization to take over the government from a small Western state through focused colonization.

A report in the press intimates that the SDA colony’s establishment was related to, but separate from, the proposal of railway construction at Nashville. As nearly as I can discern, the proposed area of development lay east of Knoxville, however — far away from the proposed construction location. The envisioned Tennessee cooperative colony was, in short, an altogether separate proposition.

It is worth noting that Hinton and Willard would then travel to New York City to meet with Debs there on Oct. 10, 1897 to discuss this Tennessee land proposal, so the nominal head of the SDA was not completely out of the loop.



The deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 3 is October 15, 2018. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 18 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “‘Morally I Mean to Pay Them’ : Interview with the Omaha World-Herald” — Dec. 21, 1898 — 866 words
  • “The March of Socialism” — Jan. 28, 1899 — 1,446 words
  • “Socialism or Capitalism? : Open Letter to R.S. Thompson, Chairman of the Union Reform Party” — Feb. 16, 1899 — 338 words
  • “Texas is Coming” — May 21, 1899 — 391 words
  • “A Year of Growth Presages Success” — June 16, 1899 — 1,714 words
  • “Tribute to Robert G. Ingersoll” — circa July 22, 1899 — 1,079 words
  • “The National Convention” — Aug. 5, 1899 — 580 words
  • “The Workers and the Trusts” — Aug. 31, 1899 — 561 words
  • “Falsity and the Future” — Sept. 2, 1899 — 1,546 words
  • “The Future is Bright” — Sept. 2, 1899 — 560 words
  • “The National Labor Party” — Sept. 9, 1899 — 933 words
  • “New York Fusion Movement a Mistake” — circa Oct. 13, 1899 — 730 words
  • “Trusts an Ultimate Blessing” — Nov. 1899 — 348 words

Word count: 83,925 in the can +  11,055  this week = 94,980 words total

I also located a 750 word letter from 1895 for insertion into Vol. 2 and converted a 5,800 word book chapter by Frederic Heath into editable text.


THE BIGGEST REPOSITORY OF DEBS MATERIAL ON THE INTERNET is located at Marxists Internet Archive, curated by David Walters. Here’s the link if you want to track down an article or explore the Debs body of work…



miners from battle of blair mt at the foot of blair mt giving up their guns★ I got a fair stack of books this week, but nothing directly relating to Volume 3 of the Debs. Robert Shogan’s The Battle for Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising (Westview Press, 2004) will actually be background for the final volume. This is the story of a 1920 coal mining strike in Mingo County, West Virginia.

Drama! There were strikebreakers and there was anti-scab violence and there were private detectives and there was a massive gun battle and there were federal troops sent in… Back of it all there was a sensational trial with 22 miners in the dock, charged with murder.

Debs had other things on his plate in 1920 as an involuntary resident of the Federal Penitentiary at Atlanta, but the 1920 West Virginia mine strike remains one of the big events of the decade in American labor history. It relates fairly directly to my next big project after Debs, involving the history of American radicalism from 1916 to 1924.



SelectedWorksOfDevbs_Vol1_Cover_1Volume 1 of the Debs is going through copyediting now. The Haymarket art department is also on the case — they’ve kicked a set of six cover mockups to David and me to take a look at. I pretty much love the graphic design that ties them all together, I think these things are gonna look slick when they’re finished.

The very first version of a cover for volume 1 had a graphic with Debs circa 1897 — which looks like “young Debs” to anyone who has only seen the really old bald pruney dude, but which was actually 40-something Debs and which really didn’t capture the idea that he was a young man once. This new image is actually a few years too early for the book — 1872 or something — but that’s way better in my view as the first volume is the story of an immature thinker finding his way.

Hopefully Haymarket won’t blow their stack at my sharing the art here. No reason they should. The dates aren’t quite right on the title, it should be 1877-1892, but you get the drift, for sure.

I’m pretty stoked.

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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