By MALLORY GRUBEN
After a years-long quest for “historical balance,” Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) member Mike Garrison will help install a plaque memorializing the union victims of the Centralia Tragedy of 1919. The event is one of the most controversial pieces of the history of Lewis County, Washington. More than a century later, locals still dispute details of the bloody run-in between the Centralia Legionnaires and IWW members commonly known as Wobblies.
The story, in broad strokes, is that on Nov. 11, 1919 during an Armistice Day parade, several members of the Centralia chapter of the American Legion allegedly broke off from the march to storm the IWW union hall. The Wobblies had expected the raid after months of rumors that it was coming, so several workers were inside the hall to protect it. The street erupted in gunfire — it’s unclear if Wobblies or Legionnaires fired first — and two Legionnaires died. As shots continued, some Wobblies tried to leave the hall, including Wesley Everest, who shot and killed two more Legionnaires as he fled.
Later in the day, police arrested Everest, eight other Wobblies, and Elmer Smith, the IWW’s lawyer. While the men waited in jail, a group of anti-Wobbly citizens broke in and removed Everest. The group took him to a bridge over the Chehalis River where they mutilated him, hung him, shot at his body, and left him hanging overnight.
The surviving Wobblies were tried in a court case that IWW supporters say was botched. There’s evidence that the Legionnaires may have intimidated jurors and witnesses who could have helped the Wobbly defense. Court records show that the judge rejected an initial jury decision on less serious charges and ignored the jury’s petition for leniency, issuing longer-than-usual sentences for the seven men with second-degree murder convictions. (Smith and one Wobbly were acquitted, and one other union member was declared guilty but insane.) Smith, the lawyer, was later disbarred for collecting affidavits from jurors saying they felt pressured not to acquit the Wobblies, and from witnesses who said they had lied during their testimonies.
In 1924 on the anniversary of the tragedy, the city erected the Sentinel Statue in George Washington Park as a memorial for the four American Legion members who died. The monument says they were “slain while on peaceful parade.” Garrison, the modern-day IWW member, says the memorial helps American Legion supporters perpetuate the false notion that Centralia Tragedy was a “massacre” of innocent Legionnaires carried out by villainous union members. Garrison lives in Winlock but has been called the “last Wobbly in Centralia.” For decades, he’s tried to stop historians, government officials, newspaper reporters, and Wikipedia editors from calling the event a massacre. In 2018, he started a campaign to erect a monument memorializing Everest and the Wobblies who were jailed, and served on a committee meant to design the plaque. He wanted to dedicate the monument on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, but the plan was waylaid by disagreements between committee members, many who have ties to the American Legion, Garrison said. Then, the Centralia City Council decided it needed a “donation policy” before it could consider accepting a donated plaque. It took three years to pass the policy and finalize a design, Garrison said. On Oct. 11, 2022, he asked the council to vote on the memorial, and it was unanimously approved.
“When I first came to Centralia there was a local tradition of burning garbage on Wesley Everest’s grave every Nov. 11 night. When John Baker took over the cemetery he put a stop to that,” Garrison said. “Of course, the 7-0 council vote shows how far we have come.” The plaque features the IWW logo and the names of nine Wobblies and Smith. Everest’s name is followed by “lynched,” while others are followed by “imprisoned” and the length of their sentence.At the top the memorial reads, “Union Victims of the Centralia Tragedy of 1919,” and on the bottom “For defending their union hall.” Garrison and regional IWW members will dedicate the memorial at 1 p.m. Nov. 11 at Washington Park in Centralia.
Saturday, Nov. 11 (Armistice Day)
Free and open to the public
- 1 p.m. IWW memorial dedication in Washington Park (S. Pearl St., Centralia, Washington)
- 2-3:30 p.m. Tours of the sites related to the tragedy, including the former union hall, Wesley Everest’s grave, and the cemeteries where other IWW victims are buried
- 3:30-7 p.m. Social and educational event at the Centralia Railroad Depot (210 Railroad Ave) including literature tables, union displays, and discussions with authors David Tucker and Tom Copeland
- 7-9 p.m. Memorial concert featuring Linda Allen, Jess Grant, Aaron Jesch, and Mark Ross