While thumbing through the archives a few weeks ago I stumbled upon an article from April 22, 1955 (The Irvine Times) that immediately caught my attention. “Injunction granted railroad at hearing – Court order follows acts of violence Thursday in Irvine and Ravenna.”
Acts of violence? Why would the railroad need a court order? So I did a little research and was amazed at what I found.
On Monday, March 15, 1955, at 6 a.m., there was a walk-out of non-operating personnel of the L&N Railroad in Ravenna. This walk-out, or strike, seems to have originated with ten non-operating union leaders, who were representing 15,000 persons for a health and welfare plan that was recommended by the presidential board.
The union charged that L&N and its affiliates hadn’t come through with a plan and railroad officials were denying the accusations.
The railroad strike affected the state of Kentucky to the point where the governor at the time, Lawrence Wetherby, declared a state of emergency in Kentucky and asked President Eisenhower, through a telegram, to recall the Presidential Emergency Board of 1953. He asked in his telegram to the President that the board investigate the railroad strike “for the purpose of finding the facts in the public interest.”
The walkout halted all passenger traffic on the L&N and all but stopped freight movements and closed down coal mines and affected almost a fourth of the South’s rail traffic. Locally, it affected about 135 shopmen, car repairers, carpenters, signalmen, agency clerks, yard crews, operators and clerks at the Ravenna terminal were pickets were placed at almost all entrances to the shops, yards and offices of the company.
Because of the hostility of those on strike, it was reported that 130 trainmen, or operating employees like engineers, brakemen, switchmen and operators, were reluctant to cross the picket lines. Many wouldn’t pass through those lines to board their trains causing the activity on the Eastern Kentucky Division of the L&N to come to almost a complete standstill.
It was estimated that at least 300 local employees were idled by the strike causing a loss in wages to be about $6,000 daily. The loss in freight revenue would be tremendous and would mount higher if the strike continued. I’m sure that tensions were running high.
In April of the same year, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad sought, and denied, a temporary injunction against nine men and their unions in the strike that had been going on for 40 days. The injunction was to get a court order to limit the activities of the strikers.
Circuit Judge S.H. Rice, who was holding court in Estill County, denied the L&N, but his order held that the writ (injunction) would be issued immediately if there should be any violence to L&N property or injury or intimidation of railroad employees.
That same week an article appeared in the Irvine Times, right below the article about the injunction, stating that several acts of violence had been reported in the twin cities since the strike started. According to the story an explosion occurred on the property of a Mr. Tracey Reed, an L&N employee who lived on Elm Street in Ravenna. His wife, Mrs. Ora Reed, identified Zeke Jett, and L&N striking employee as the one “who tossed the dynamite sticks” in her yard around 1:20 a.m., causing an explosion that was reportedly heard all over Ravenna. Jett was arrested on a warrant and placed under a $1,000 peach bond.
A few weeks later this article appeared:
Zeke Jett acquitted on dynamite charge
Witnesses say defendants in own home
at time of Reed explosion
Estill Circuit Court began the second week of its current term on Monday.
Zeke Jett, who was charged with throwing a dynamite at the house of Tracy Reed on Elm Street in Ravenna, was tried before a jury Monday and after a few minutes deliberation the jury returned a verdict of acquittal.
Mr. Jett, it was stated in the testimony, is a member of one of the non-operating railroad unions, now on strike, and Mr. Reed is a non-striking L&N Railroad employee.
The main testimony on behalf of the Commonwealth was offered by Mrs. Reed who said that about 1:15 a.m. Thursday, April 21, she saw Mr. Jett throw a missile from his front yard across the street from her residence in the direction of her house which resulted in an explosion a few moments later.
The defendant, his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Floyd, who said they were visiting in the Jett home at the time, all testified that Mr. Jett was present in the Jett home before and at the time of the explosion.
So, whatever came about of the strike? Well, after a few dead ends, I was able to find an article (April 23, 1955) from “The Mountain Eagle” a newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky, that stated, “Fully conscious of its public duty the Management of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad has now re-established through fast freight trains, said L&N President John E. Tilford today.”
The article went on to explain that Mr. Tilford and the L&N had made considerable efforts to settle the controversy and get the men and the railroad back to work.
“Mr. Tilford said the five separate offers listed were made seriously and with the earnest desire one or more of them would be acceptable. He announced that inasmuch as the union officials had declined all of them, he was now renewing them to show employes and shippers and patrons the offers were made in good faith. It was his sincere hope that the union leaders and employes would consider the matters carefully and thoughtfully, keeping in mind not only their responsibility to themselves and their families, but their responsibility and obligation to perform public transportation service as well.”
My guess, since I was unable to find any additional information, is that eventually the nine men who represented the strikers, some of them officials in our local union, were eventually able to come to an agreement.
The L&N Railroad has always been a large part of our local history, many of us having had or have family members who worked for the railroad. The trains aren’t as visible as much anymore, but there is a wonderful display in Ravenna that names those who have worked for the L&N or the “Gentleman’s Rail.”
The only name I was unable to find on the lists was a very interesting man named Zeke Jett. There is one Jett listed with the names however, W. J. H. Jett. Is this the infamous Zeke? He, in a single incident, brought to attention the whole town of Ravenna. Did he really throw that stick of dynamite because of the strike? If he didn’t throw it, who did and why? According to court records, not Zeke, but I guess we will never know because Jett’s story in the strike of ‘55 will remain his own.