IN A CITY WHERE THE MOST TAN-
gible product has become the document, where the major assembly lines now make government forms, on Labor Day we should note that in the beginning Washington was a workingman's town.
The stonecutters, masons and carpenters building the Capitol probably outnumbered lawyers 100 to 1. In 1798, they felt they were strong enough to demand a raise, but management -- the federal commissioners -- threatened to fire them. So the workers backed off, and it's been downhill for organized labor in this town ever since.
While the rest of the country was recovering from violent labor confrontations in the late 1800s, Washington's district attorney indicted members of a musicians' union in 1887 for trying to drive the conductor of the National Rifles Band out of business. It seems the bandmaster had underbid for a job serenading passengers on one of the steamers that plied the Potomac.
Big Unions need Big Jobs, which require Big Capitalists, and in 1887, the federal government brought one of its biggest jobs to Washington. It expanded the shops at the Navy Yard so that big 16-inch guns could be built there.
Early in this century, workers in Alexandria built ships at the Virginia Iron Ship Building Co. and made the stuff to blow them up at the Navy's torpedo factory. South of Anacostia along the Potomac, the Firth Sterling Steel Ordnance plant spewed out fire and smoke.
Young Anacostians like Walter L. Fowler knew that the big money was to be made there . . . at least for as long as they could stand it. As Fowler recalled in his unpublished memoirs:
"All I had to do was to take a long steel rod with a hook on the end, stand up to a furnace and, one at a time, hook a little copper roll with a hole in the center looking like a doughnut, pull it out white hot and pass it to a man on the hammer . . . By the time I had pulled six I was cooked, my eyebrows burned off . . . I left for home and never went back."
Like lots of other Washingtonians, Fowler got into a white-collar line of work. He eventually rose to become the District's chief budget officer, and it's just as well. The steel plant went under in 1922, as did Virginia Iron in 1923. Artists took over the torpedo factory, and the Navy gun factory became the Navy Memorial Museum. Industrial Washington is only a memory now.