Editor’s note: I don’t often use the word ‘miracle,’ but there is no better term. In 1924, a bomber detonated an iron shell filled with ten pounds of high explosive in Montpelier’s Columbia Hotel, which had 68 guests. Glass shattered hundreds of yards away, sleeping bodies fell from beds, wood flew like toothpick shrapnel, and…NO ONE DIED. No one. There wasn’t even a life-threatening injury. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
In the early hours of January 9, 1924, an explosion rocked downtown Montpelier, Indiana. A bomb, likely set by a member of the local Molders’ Union, caused significant property damage to a Columbia Hotel and nearby commercial buildings. Over the next few months, 49 members of this union would be indicted, but only one faced trial. His conviction was later overturned.
The story of the bombing of the Columbia Hotel began with a strike at two local manufacturing facilities in November 1923. That month, company management at the Montpelier Manufacturing Company and the National Steel Castings Company (both companies were owned by the same parties) announced production changes at their foundries resulting from a business downturn.
The revised plans called for the plants to transform into open shop factories designed to do piece work. Company owners believed the changes were necessary to remain competitive.
Molders and coremakers at both companies belonged to the local Molders’ Union and quickly organized a strike. By early December, strikebreakers had been hired from other cities to fill empty positions at the factories. They were housed at the Columbia Hotel.
Picketers made a habit of gathering before the hotel’s doors each morning as workers were escorted into company vehicles, and again in the evening as they returned from work. Picketers shouted obscenities at the strikers and called them “pigs” and “scabs.” Pushing and shoving were also common.
By early December, the Blackford County Court was called upon to issue a restraining order against strikers following physical assaults and threats to several of the strikebreakers. Despite the restraining order, violent tactics continued. The city marshal eventually drew lines on the pavement that picketers were instructed not to cross.
Despite increased security, attacks on the strikebreakers continued. About a week prior to the bombing, a steel casing was thrown through one of the hotel’s windows. Nothing, however, prepared the local community for the escalation in violence that occurred on January 9.
At approximately 1:20 AM, the block surrounding Columbia Hotel was shaken by a large blast. A bomb had exploded on the hotel’s premises. Large holes were blown through the front wall of the hotel, and one side of the building was also badly damaged. The blast was strong enough to break windows and cause façade damage to several nearby buildings.
At the time of the explosion, 67 strikebreakers were asleep inside the hotel. Harris Martin, the hotel’s owner, and his family were also in residence. Miraculously, no one was injured.
In the aftermath of the blast, witnesses provided scant details of the event. A deputy sheriff stationed at the back of the hotel lobby that night recalled seeing a flash and explosion but didn’t see who set it or where the explosion originated. In fact, investigators were never able to determine whether the bomb was detonated inside the hotel lobby or just outside the building’s entrance.
Another witness saw a man running away from the hotel right before the explosion. He was described as around 5’5, 140 lbs., and wearing a sweater and dark cap. A third witness claimed that they saw one of the picketers, a man named William Davis, several minutes later wearing a sweater and cap matching the first witness’s description. A fourth witness allegedly saw a different picketer running from the direction of the hotel around the time of the blast.
It was clear to law enforcement officers that the Moulders’ Union was involved in the blast, but evidence was all circumstantial. In the weeks following the blast, many community members came forward to allege that they had heard key members of the union making threats and discussing plans that seemed to implicate them in the bombing.
A few weeks before the bombing, a local union leader named Bert Reeves stated, “It will not be three weeks, there will be just smoke and that will be the end of the hotel.” The night before the blast, he allegedly told a local hardware merchant, “If you are not with us you will be hurt awful bad. We are going to win this strike whether or not.” The blast set in front of the hotel also damaged the hardware store.
Eventually, 49 union members who had organized the strike or routinely picketed the hotel were rounded up for questioning. Depending on the evidence against them, they were charged with conspiracy to plant a bomb or unlawful picketing (an Indiana law made it illegal to picket a person’s home, and a judge later ruled that the hotel could be considered the strikebreakers’ home under Indiana law). They were each held on a $5,000 bond.
The arrests did little to ease tensions in the town. People were spotting bombs everywhere.
On February 27, a large bomb filled with gun cotton was discovered on the town’s main road. Authorities later postured that the bomb had been set to be detonated by a passing car. Had it exploded, the bomb likely contained enough explosives to destroy a large portion of Montpelier’s business district. Later that day, police reported it was actually a dry cell battery, and not a bomb at all.
Union men out on bond for the Columbia Hotel bombing were immediately suspected, although evidence was scant, and no one was ever arrested.
It wasn’t until May that the first of the 49 accused men had his day in court. William Davis, one of the men seen running from the hotel shortly before the blast, was tried on charges of conspiracy to plant a bomb as well as unlawful picketing.
The trial lasted 18 days, with evidence eventually filling more than 2,000 legal-sized typewritten pages. After 12 hours of deliberation, a jury of ten men and two women found Davis guilty. Davis was fined $100 and sentenced to no less than two and no more than 14 years in state prison.
Davis later appealed his conviction on the grounds that the circumstantial evidence wasn’t enough to render a conviction. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed the jury’s decision in May 1928. Ultimately, Davis was the only one of the 49 indicted men to ever face trial. After months of delay in prosecuting the other 48 cases, a judge dismissed the indictments against all other co-conspirators for untimely action.
The strike, itself, raged on through the spring, but slowly faded from the media spotlight. By 1926, both companies were broke and put into the hands of court-appointed receivers. Neither ever recovered. The business depression, coupled with the lengthy and contentious strike, effectively destroyed both companies.
In 1928, the National Steel Castings Company was put up at auction to satisfy its mortgage. A minimum bid was set at $60,000. No bids were recorded. A year later, it was sold for $15,000 to a Muncie junk dealer.
The Montpelier Manufacturing Company suffered a similar fate. It was sold to a Fort Wayne businessman in 1926 for $60,000. However, he was unable to return the company to a profitable state and sold the factory site in 1929.
The bombing of the Columbia Hotel has gone down in Indiana history as an example of the most feared type of escalating violence resulting from union strikes. The bombing demonstrated union members willingness to disrupt company operations.
The incident also illustrated the ramifications of promising hundreds of people a livelihood and then snatching it away. In the end, the incident did more harmful than good. The lengthy strike and unwillingness to compromise led to the demise of both companies and the loss of many skilled manufacturing jobs in the area.