Midwestern Workers at a Crossroads

Midwestern Workers at a Crossroads

 

By the latter years of the 19th century, workers were flocking to America’s cities, including those in the rapidly growing Midwest. They wanted to make a new life for themselves and their families. Advances in transportation and industry attracted America’s rural residents and recently arrived European immigrants with the promise of an escape from subsistence living down on the farm.

By the latter years of the 19th century, workers were flocking to America’s cities, including those in the rapidly growing Midwest. They wanted to make a new life for themselves and their families. Advances in transportation and industry attracted America’s rural residents and recently arrived European immigrants with the promise of an escape from subsistence living down on the farm.

From stockyard and railroad workers to those toiling on factory floors, however, the pursuit of the American Dream was running into a troubling reality. These workers could hardly earn enough to put aside much, if any, money week to week to rise from the ranks of the working poor and the available slum housing. The dream of homeownership seemed remote, and opportunistic loan sharks circled in the shadows, ready to fleece cash-strapped workers with loans bearing sky-high interest rates.
Basic banking services were scarce.

Indianapolis, the state capital that bills itself as the Crossroads of America, was at the crossroads of these societal trends. The number of railroads converging on Indianapolis during this period, including Indianapolis Union Railway Co.’s Belt Railroad that looped around the Mile Square historic town center, earned Indianapolis the nickname Railroad City.1 Thousands of workers arrived in Indianapolis in the decades following the Civil War to build and maintain the railroads and related businesses, including a sprawling stockyard built at the same time as the Belt Railroad in the 1870s.2

Meanwhile, a nascent cluster of automobile manufacturers emerged to challenge Detroit’s standing as America’s auto industry capital. Indianapolis, like Columbus, Ohio, was a stop on the original National Road, completed through Indiana by 1834, that aimed to promote interstate travel across the eastern United States.3 Indianapolis would lose the auto manufacturing contest to Detroit but would secure a permanent place in auto industry history with the inaugural Indianapolis 500-Mile Race in 1911.4

The state capital’s population more than doubled between 1880 and 1900, from 75,056 to 169,164.5 Page after page of the 1900 U.S. Census Bureau data for Marion County, which incorporates Indianapolis, lists Germany, Ireland and sometimes Russia as the birthplace of one or more parents of the person being counted, if not the birthplace of the individuals themselves.6 Not all of the increase in population in the late 1800s can be attributed to the working class, of course, but this group sparked much of the growth.

As urban working populations increased in Indianapolis and nationwide, so did inevitable tensions. Demands for better working conditions and pay led to attempts to organize labor and sporadic strikes and violence. Railroad workers were often at the center of such conflicts.

More forward-looking employers joined forces with workers to help them improve their lot. To help workers save money toward a home purchase, Indianapolis Union Railroad paymaster William Taylor Cannon had for several years set aside portions of many workers’ pay in his office drawer. In 1887, he reached out to his peers at other local railroads to jointly form the Railroadmen’s Building and Savings Association. The first loan to help a railroad worker buy a home was made in a matter of months.

The association, later renamed the Railroadmen’s Federal Savings and Loan Association, was merged into Huntington Bancshares in 1993. The association followed a charter, Our Faith, that captured the groups’ collectivist spirit and motivated savings and loans and cooperative ventures that helped so many workers achieve homeownership and financial security:

“Our Association is a fellowship of human beings for human beings. We exist for the common man, for those who work, economize, and save,” the charter said. “We are educators in habits of savings, trustees for savings, and merchandisers of homesteads in behalf of families without homes.”7

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Railroadmen’s Building and Savings Association, and later Huntington Bancshares, began serving the railroad workers of Indiana in 1887. Credit: Indiana Historical Society

 

Copy of 1988 Railroadmens territory map

Until 1993, Railroadmen’s Federal Savings and Loan Association helped workers save money for homeownership and financial security. Credit: Indiana Historical Society