By The Chronicle
The Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor union also known as the Wobblies, clashed with the established townsfolk during a Tower Avenue parade on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I.
Five people died violently that day — four gunned-down veterans and one IWW member, beaten, shot and hanged from a narrow bridge over the Chehalis River.
The basic context that led up to the massacre makes the street battle a little less surprising. The events are described in the book “Wobbly War,” written by Longview newsman John McClelland, Jr.
According to the book, the parade began at 2 p.m. The route on Tower Avenue had actually been extended from earlier parades. It proceeded slightly past the IWW hall, where it turned around to go the other way.
What happened next is hopelessly in dispute, except that it ended in the quick death of three of the Legionnaires — Warren Grimm, Arthur McElfresh and Ben Cassagranda. One marching veteran, and some Wobblies, said members of the parade suddenly dashed toward the hall and were in the process of breaking down the door when the Wobblies started shooting.
Most of the Legionnaires, however, said the Wobblies began shooting from both sides of the street as part of a well-planned ambush on the unsuspecting veterans. Wesley Everest, a Wobbly who had served in the Army’s spruce logging division, ran from the Wobbly hall and was chased.
In a final confrontation on the banks of the Skookumchuck River, Everest fatally shot Dale Hubbard, a young veteran trying to apprehend him.
Everest was captured, beaten and dragged through town with a belt around his neck to the jail, the site of Centralia’s current police station and City Hall.
As the afternoon turned to evening, the mood of Centralia was apparently fearful and dangerous. That night, the lights went out downtown and Wesley Everest was removed from his cell, put in a car, and taken to the bridge at Mellen Street. He was hanged twice and shot several times. Some stories say he was castrated, though that remains under major dispute.
Controversy of the incident and the trial of the Wobblies lingered for years. Only in recent decades has the incident come into the light of open discussion.
Massacre Mural Brimming With Labor Movement Symbolism
The two-story Wobbly mural on the side of the Centralia Square Antique Mall building holds weighty symbolism, both obvious and lesser known. “The Resurrection of Wesley Everest” was painted in 1997 by Mike Alewitz, a professor at Central Connecticut State University, who explained the meaning of his work.
Alewitz said he wanted the concepts to be applicable to modern history, which is why the Spanish words, Organisacion, Educacion and Emancipacion, appear on the painting.
He said the struggle of labor in Centralia continues today with Latino workers, and did not stop with the famous Industrial Workers of the World, who made the city famous when they battled parading residents on Tower Avenue in 1919.
The basic elements of the mural are listed by number:
#1) The hall of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies: The Wobblies guarded their hall on the day of the massacre, expecting an ambush from local townsfolk. It had happened a year earlier to their second hall, which was burned down during a Red Cross parade. The “OBU” on the top of the building stands for “One Big Union” of workers, a popular slogan of the IWW. In the background at the hall is a small picture of Karl Marx, the most influential socialist theorist.
#2) Old Man Lassiter: Tom Lassiter was a partially blind newsstand owner who would sell socialist newspapers. He was run out of town in 1918, shortly before the massacre.
#3) Raining black cats: These “sabo tabbys” are the symbol for sabotage, which the Wobblies regularly used to disrupt capitalist enterprises.
#4) The “Steam Plant”: This smoking plant is a tribute to the TransAlta mining company, which runs a coal-burning plant in North Centralia, and donated money to get the mural painted.
#5) Mount Helen Lee: This was a tribute to an Evergreen State College professor who helped come up with the idea for the mural.
#6) The two stumps: The “I Will Win” banner is a reference to the IWW workers, who lived in log cabins. It is juxtaposed with the stump on the other side of the mural that shows a trailer with the banner “Suse Puede,” roughly translated to mean the same. Alewitz said he was struck by the poor conditions endured by immigrant workers in Centralia, and the two stumps are a then-and-now approach to local labor.
#7) The “pie in the sky” and the angel protesters: The pie in the sky is a reference to a satire song by slain Wobbly folk singer Joe Hill. He coined the pie in the sky phrase that appeared in his song “The Preacher and the Slave,” a parody of the well-known hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” which promised a better home in heaven after hard labor on Earth. The dripping wet angels holding the sign are meant to be the wives of the Wobblies who were shot with water from fire hoses when they called for the release of their husbands, imprisoned after the massacre.
#8) Wesley Everest: The slain Wobbly was beaten and eventually shot and hanged from a bridge over the Chehalis River. He is pictured half in logger clothes and half in his military garb to show his experience in both fields.
#9) Coal mining: The heavy equipment is meant to show Centralia’s strip mining industry, which was still in action until the TransAlta coal mine was shut down in 2006.
#10) “The powers that be”: This figure, described by Alewitz as an “ugly human” is spewing fecal matter from his mouth. Alewitz said the suited man is meant to symbolize the established power in Centralia, including the press, which created hysteria about the Wobbly threat. The fecal matter is turning into a mob of people waving crosses, nooses and American flags, marching toward the Wobbly hall over the imprisoned workers and flames of discontent. Alewitz said some of the mob members have “block heads,” which was a term to describe workers who believed their bosses when they were told hard work would lead to a better life for them.
#11) The capitalist pig: The pig symbolizes the logging company owners surrounded by piles of timber and bags of money. The pig is being hugged by a block head and a “porkchopper,” a reference to a bureaucratic union boss who doesn’t really care for the union members.
#12) The Elks Club: Members of the Centralia Elks Club, which formed alliances with other established groups in the town to oppose the Wobblies, are shown as rats with a noose, a knife and a gun. The Elks Club at the time of the massacre was located in what is now the Ayala Brothers Furniture Co. on North Tower Avenue.