Ohio History Journal

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The Downfall of a Progressive: Mayor

Tom L. Johnson and The Cleveland

Streetcar Strike of 1908




On November 6, 1907, Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson awoke to head-

lines announcing his landslide triumph in the previous day's municipal elec-

tion. Democrat Johnson, the champion of progressive urban reform and pub-

lic control of utilities, had solidified his position as the city's most powerful

politician by crushing the best candidate the Republican Party could offer.

The vote was a referendum on the mayor's six-year crusade for low streetcar

fares, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that"the victory of Mayor Tom

and 3-cent fare was complete."1 Johnson immediately declared his intention

to run for a fifth term two years hence, and appeared to desire nothing more

than leadership of the Ohio Democratic Party. But the mayor's impressive

reelection had attracted national attention, and some party luminaries, notably

House Democratic leader Champ Clark, began to eye Johnson as a possible

1908 presidential alternative to the twice-rejected William Jennings Bryan.2

A series of mishaps and miscalculations, centered around Cleveland's street

railway situation, soon eclipsed the promise of that autumn morning. The

1907 victory was Johnson's last, and within two years he lost city hall to a

political lightweight, the victim of a reversal in fortune more dramatic than

any in the city's history. Robert H. Bremner has described Tom Johnson as

"greedy for affection and greedy for accomplishment."3 In the months follow-

ing the election these characteristics, manifested in a single-minded determina-

tion to push through his streetcar reforms, set the mayor on a collision course

with Cleveland's unionized transit employees. The ensuing strike of 1908 ru-

ined Johnson's political career and probably hastened his death.






Arthur E. DeMatteo is a Ph.D. candidate in American labor history at the University of

Akron. He wishes to thank Professors Daniel Nelson and James F. Richardson for reading

earlier drafts of this article and providing helpful criticisms and suggestions.


1. Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 6, 1907.

2. Ibid., November 11, 22, 1907; New York Times, November 8, 9, 1907.

3. Robert H. Bremner, "The Civic Revival in Ohio: The Fight Against Privilege in Cleveland

and Toledo, 1899-1912" (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1943), 46.