Longshore Workers, Historians, and the Community Remember How Pier Park’s Trees Saved the Lives of Strikers from Police Bullets
PORTLAND — Pier Park in St. Johns is typically a destination for disc golfers on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but on July 11th seventy-five people turned out to the park for a guided historical walking tour commemorating Portland’s “Bloody Wednesday.” Eighty-one years ago on this day Portland police fired upon unarmed strikers during the 1934 Maritime Strike wounding four men, hitting several trees, and infuriating the general public.
The event was hosted by the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association (PNLHA) and received support from three International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) locals, Portland State University’s Department of History, Portland Jobs with Justice, and community groups of the St. Johns neighborhood. Portland State University master’s student of public history Ryan Wisnor organized the event based upon his research on how the labor community accredited the trees of Pier Park for shielding the workers during the shooting.
“Fortunately the trees saved them,” were the words chosen by 1934 strike organizer Matthew Meehan in an oral history conducted before his death in 1977. Current longshoreman Matt Tyson of ILWU Local 8 read a passage from Meehan’s history to an audience of union members, labor activists, and St. Johns residents at the believed scene of the shooting — at the northern edge of Pier Park where Swift Blvd. once intersected with the railroad tracks.
Labor educator and historian Norm Diamond detailed for the crowd of current longshore workers how their rank-and-file predecessors shut down every West Coast port for 82 days in the ‘34 strike. The union organized deep within the community achieving public support from not only the wider labor movement and radical Communists, but also farmers, students, small business owners, and the unemployed.
Ryan Wisnor detailed the hour-by-hour events of Bloody Wednesday plus the two previous attempts by the Portland police to break the picket lines that kept Terminal No. 4 closed to replacement workers and cargo. On the morning of July 11, Chief of Police Burton K. Lawson ordered one hundred policemen aboard a train to fire upon the unarmed workers. The bullets battered several of the trees that workers and their families dove behind, longshoreman Elmus “Buster” Beatty nearly died from a gunshot wound to the jaw. The picket line held firm and the union won their demands later on July 31.
Portlander Marvin Ricks was regarded as the last surviving “‘34 man” on the West Coast before his death in 2009. After reading from his oral history, retired Local 8 member Norm Parks emphasized to the crowd how Ricks and thousands of other longshore workers “put their lives on the line to give members of the ILWU what they have today.”
The strike’s complete victory not only improved the working conditions and lives of longshoremen, but inspired Portlanders including Julia Ruuttila to organize unions in other industries. Historian Sandy Polishuk published Ruuttila’s oral history and read an excerpt to a crowd viewing the park’s Douglas-Firs from a distance. Ruuttila, who became a labor, peace, and social justice activist for the rest of her life, recalled how Pier Park’s trees were “pockmarked” with bullets. “For years, you could go out there and dig lead out of the bark of those trees,” Polishuk read to the crowd at its last stop on the tour.
Speaking of the historic importance of Bloody Wednesday and the long memory of Pier Park’s trees, Wisnor reminded listeners, “The history, like those bullet holes, is just below the surface.” After the tour crossed a pedestrian bridge over the railroad into Chimney Park, Wisnor raised the topic of planning for a historical marker to commemorate Bloody Wednesday. He concluded by saying, “Just as the longshoremen claimed this space as theirs in 1934 and that nothing would get passed, we should also consider claiming it in history for the community as Portland’s history.”