Mossback’s Northwest: Tragedy and terror in 1919 Centralia

The deadly Centralia Tragedy saw conflict between the Wobblies and the American Legion — and left behind a debated legacy.

Knute Berger explores the 1919 Centralia Tragedy exhibit at the Lewis County Historical Museum. The southwestern Washington town of Centralia was the site of a violent clash between the American Legion and the IWW union on the first anniversary of the end of WWI.

A century ago, violence of a brutal nature broke out in southwest Washington when two ideologies clashed: the anti-Bolshevik American Legion and the radical organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW—better known as the Wobblies. The violence left its scars on the streets of Centralia in Lewis County in November 1919, and the legacy of that date is still debated.

The IWW was formed in the early 20th century. It sought to overturn the capitalist economic order and wanted the world’s workers to join in one big union. This was the era of massive manual labor in timber, mining, construction, shipbuilding and the like. World War I had caused some labor unrest in the Northwest. Wages were held down by the war effort, and union members of all kinds wanted better conditions and higher wages when the war ended. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 is an example of workers flexing their muscle. The strike was broken, giving a boost to conservative elements that wanted to suppress “the Reds.” Still, that “Reds” could shut down a whole city provoked fear.

The 1917 Russian Revolution had scared American industrialists and bosses. Fear of Bolshevism accelerated after the war, as did fears around immigration and foreign subversives. The Wobblies were well-organized in the lumber camps of Western Washington, and they sought to have a union headquarters in Centralia. They established one in 1918 but were driven out by locals. The union persisted and set up a second Wobbly hall on the main drag, Tower Avenue, in the Roderick Hotel building.

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There were threats of violence against them again. There had been violence before in the West — on both sides. The 1916 Everett Massacre was a shootout between union activists and citizens under the leadership of the local sheriff on a wharf in Everett. At least seven Wobblies and deputies were killed in the gunfire. Many states passed laws against people espousing socialist or syndicalist ideologies. A Wobbly organizer in Montana was lynched. The Wobblies were known to use sabotage and tough tactics along with strikes and labor stoppages. Locals in Centralia had threatened to attack the Wobblies and boot them from town again if necessary. Some of the Wobblies armed themselves in case of attack.

Nov. 11, 1919, was the first anniversary of the end of World War I — Armistice Day. American Legionnaires and war veterans, including some IWW war veterans, paraded in their military uniforms through downtown Centralia.  As the marchers turned at the edge of town and headed back down Tower Avenue, one contingent of Centralia Legionnaires stopped in front of the IWW headquarters. Accounts differ, but it appears that some Legionnaires broke ranks and attacked the Wobblies, and Wobblies fired into the crowd, either from the hall or a roof and ridge across the street. Later, the Legionnaires claimed it was an ambush, but the Wobblies claimed they fired in self-defense.

Their headquarters was overrun, and every Wobbly the crowd could get its hands on was arrested. One, a young IWW member named Wesley Everest, a WWI veteran himself, fled out the back of the headquarters and shot and killed one of his pursuers. When he was caught, he was beaten and taken to jail. That night, the lights in town went out and a mob kidnapped Everest from the jail. He was lynched at a nearby bridge over the Chehalis River, his battered body mutilated and dumped back in the jail cell with his fellow Wobblies. The Wobblies claimed he had been castrated, but that has never been proved. Still, it was an ugly death. It is believed to be one of the last known lynchings of its kind in Washington state, according to history professor Michael J. Pfeifer of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Pfeifer has extensively researched the history of lynchings in the U.S., including Washington State.

No one was ever called to account for the murder of Everest, but Wobblies were hunted down and put on trial for the murder. The trial was held in nearby Montesano and is now widely regarded as a farce. Witnesses who might have helped the Wobbly defense were intimidated by Legionnaires, and many of the jurors were afraid of their presence. Seven Wobblies were convicted of second degree murder and received long 25- to 40-year sentences in the state penitentiary.

A monument to the four fallen Legionnaires was erected in the center of Centralia, where it stands outside the town library. For decades, the event for decades was known as the Centralia Massacre. Today, however, it’s more commonly called the Centralia Tragedy, which draws attention to victims on both sides. Wesley Everest was buried in a pauper’s grave on the edge of town. Though he is buried in obscurity, pro-Union wreaths and stickers are placed there on Labor Day and he is regarded as a Union martyr.

Many of the sites of the tragedy have been torn down, but you can get a map that will take you on a walking tour of Centralia to places where events unfolded in 1919. There is talk of creating a new joint memorial to the tragedy. But just as people can’t agree on what happened that day, there is little agreement on how to remember it. Even today, not far from Centralia — in Portland, for example — activists and demonstrators on the right and left clash from time to time, reflecting some of the political divides of 1919. The echoes of Centralia live on.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.