The town of Hope has often been far removed from the great events of history. But one of its sons witnessed one of the most momentous events of history first-hand: the birth of the Russian Revolution.

This witness to history was William Holland Winterrowd, an engineer who grew up in the big brick house on south Main Street in Hope. Born in 1884, Winterrowd graduated from Purdue University in 1907. By 1917 he was Assistant Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Along with George Bury, Vice President of the railway, he was invited to Russia to advise the government on modernizing their outdated railway system.

There he kept a day-by-day diary that gives an eyewitness account of the Revolution.

In February 1917 the two men were staying in what was then the capital of Russia, Petrograd (now called St. Petersburg). With many workers laid off and the food beginning to run out, Petrograd workers had begun to call for strikes. By the end of the month all the factories and mills had been shut down by the workers, the people were marching for bread, and unrest had started to develop. The Cossacks, a special military force, had been called out, but, Winterrowd observed, “both crowds and Cossacks seem to be in general good humor, former singing and dancing and the latter laughing.”

The following day a policemen drew a revolver on the crowd, but before he could fire, he was shot dead by a Cossack. This surprise revealed that the Cossack force, called to support the police, were often on the side of the workers rather than on the side of the authorities.

Winterrowd watched as the situation began to grow ominous. In the following days the police and soldiers fired intermittently on the unruly crowds, and things were now “changing into a very serious mood,” as Winterrowd observed. It became clear that some of the policemen refused to uphold order, and that some of the crowd ringleaders were actually policemen who had gone over to the side of the workers.

On February 27 (by the Russian calendar), the first sustained violence broke out. Winterrowd looked on as the streets flooded with revolutionaries.

Watching anxiously from his window in central Petrograd, he observed the chaos in the streets: “a hooligan with an officer’s sword belted over his overcoat, a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other; a small boy with a large butcher’s knife, a soldier with an officer’s sword in one hand, without the scabbard, and a bayonet in the other hand; another with a revolver in one hand and a tram-railer cleaner in the other; a student with two rifles and a band of machine-gun bullets around his waist. All were singing, shouting, and repeatedly firing off their weapons into the air.”

New troops of soldiers were sent into the area, but “upon being informed of the situation immediately arrested all of their own officers and handed them over to the crowd; particularly unpopular officers they shot.... The crowd then marched to all of the prisons which they broke open and released the inmates whom they armed.”

They attacked the arsenal, seized the weaponry there, and sent the arsenal up in flames.

“When the news spread that the soldiers at the arsenal had joined the people,” Winterrowd wrote, “every other soldier in the army, including the Cossacks, went over to the people against the police.”

The crowd raided liquor stores and, drinking their loot, were soon were out of control, shooting policemen on sight. The police then retreated to the roofs, where they had hidden machine guns, and began firing down on the streets, killing many. This provoked the mobs on the streets to mount posses to find and kill the policemen. The mobs seized cars, mounted machine guns, and shot all enemies. A bullet came through Winterrowd’s hotel window, looking out on the main square of Petrograd. Keeping out of site of the crowd, Winterrowd retrieved the bullet, to bring it home as a tangible souvenir of his time in Petrograd.

While the people were battling it out on the streets, a central committee of revolutionaries was setting up a new government. The tsar abdicated. With no government in place to advise, Winterrowd and Bury left Russia, having narrowly escaped the violent fate of many victims of the February Revolution.

Later that year came the October Revolution, when the Communist Bolsheviks established the Soviet Republic, which would not be disbanded until 1991. Winterrowd’s account of the February Revolution was printed in the national magazine Leslie’s and in the Shelbyville newspaper. He concluded,

“Thus ended one of the most historical and probably the most memorable day for the Russian people. To quote a remark heard, ‘The slowest people on earth had done the quickest thing ever done.’”