1877 Shamokin Uprising

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Rock Street in Shamokin, Location of 1877 Shamokin Uprising
Reading Depot in Shamokin, raided in the Shamokin Uprising

The 1877 Shamokin Uprising occurred when desperation and starvation drove Pennsylvania's railroad workers and miners to join the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, America’s first nationwide strike.

Background[edit]

Railroad workers and miners had perilous jobs in the late 19th century. More than 200 railroad workers and 1000 miners died in accidents every year. The companies often forced both to buy from company stores at inflated prices and work from sunup to sundown. Companies made engineers pay for all train damages, regardless of fault. Children tore their hands picking rocks from coal in collieries.

The first recorded strike in the anthracite coal region occurred in 1842. More followed in 1849, 1869, and 1872. During the Civil War, the mine owners even used cavalry platoons to arrest 8 miners and evict them from company homes for striking in Locust Gap. At that time, the workers in Locust Gap formed the Miner's Benevolent Society, to provide accident insurance and demand better pay. It was one of the first unions in America.

The Workers' Benevolent Association, founded in St Clair in 1868, expanded to Northumberland County, including Locust Gap, on October 19, 1869. It built on the efforts of previous unions like the Miners Benevolent Society.

By 1872 the Reading Railroad was the biggest mine company in the Anthracite region. It used its monopoly on the railroads to take over 70,000 acres (280 km2) of the best coal lands. Places like Gowen City and Gowen Street in Shamokin were named after the company's president, Frank Gowen. Gowen even bought a police force from the government called the "Reading Coal and Iron Police." Between 1871 and 1875 Gowen borrowed $69 million to pay for his empire. But he and the other railroad barons had overestimated the demand for train service and over-invested. Debts forced them to fire many workers, resulting in a nationwide depression in 1873.

In 1874 a third of Pennsylvania's workforce was unemployed. The Reading Railroad cut train workers' wages by 10%, resulting in an unsuccessful strike. In 1875 only 1/5 of American workers had full-time jobs. Some people vented their frustration by damaging tracks, trains, and mines. On May 11, 1875 the trestle at Locust Gap Junction was exploded by drilling holes and filling them with gunpowder. The telegraph office at Locust Summit was burned. From 1860 to 1909 arson destroyed 25 collieries between Mount Carmel and Trevorton. Knoebels Amusement Resort has a Mining Museum with a beautiful mural of the twice burned Locust Gap colliery.

The July 1875 Officers of the Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Association for Northumberland County include: Pres. John N. Evans Mt. Carmel ; VP Dennis Coming Locust Gap ; Sec. Ben Ressler, Excelsior ; Tres. John L. Shanahan Mt. Carmel Mt. Carmel District: Pres. Lewis Dietrich ; VP Pat Donnal ; Sec. John L. Shanahan ; Tres. Julius Maure ; Trustees Patrick Donlan, Patrick Nowlan, and Thomas Perry

Overview of events[edit]

When Gowen lowered mining wages to 54% of their 1869 level, miners began the "Long Strike" of 1875. It started in January 1875 and lasted 170 days. But Gowen stored enough coal to outlast the strike and crushed the miner's union by firing its members.

In July 1875, Gowen presented “A List of Outrages in the Schuylkill and Shamokin Regions" to Pennsylvania's legislature, including: March 25, 1875- Locust Summit telegraph burned, 32 coal cars dumped on tracks at Locust Gap March 26–29 coal cars dumped at Locust Gap Junction March 29- coal trains stoned near Locust Gap March 31- between Locust Gap and Alaska station, men stoned, and fired upon a train. Then the men boarded the train, drove out the crew, damaged the engine, and blocked tracks April 29- provisions stolen from Mount Carmel freight depot May 1- flour and feed stolen from freight car in Locust Gap May 6- attempt to blow up trestle in Locust Gap May 7- hose cut from water columns at Locust Gap and Summit

Gowen further accused leaders of the Irish community of running an alleged secret society called the "Molly Maguires" that killed mine officials. He used private police to investigate and company lawyers to prosecute. Catholics and Irish were excluded from juries. Beginning in June 1877, 20 "Molly Maguires" were executed- often despite strong evidence of innocence.

The Reading Railroad lowered miners' wages 10–15% twice between 1876 and 1877. Many workers' meals became bread and water. Some families ate pets.

As for the railroad workers, Gowen decreed they must leave their union and join the company's insurance plan, which they would lose if they stopped working. In response, the trainmen went on strike in April 1877. Gowen replaced them with scabs whose inexperience caused many accidents. Nevertheless, Gowen didn't rehire the fired workers, and destroyed the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers.

In July 1877 America was deep in the depression. The previous year the total revenues of America's railroads fell by $5.8 million. But they raised profits to $186 million (up $0.9 million) by cutting wages. Most owners received 10% dividends. In July 1877 railroads across America conspired and lowered wages another 10%. Train brakemen and firemen's wages came to $30 per month.

Strike begins[edit]

When they found out on July 16, trainmen in Baltimore left work, sparking the Great Strike. More than 80,000 trainmen and 500,000 other workers from Boston to Kansas City joined them, despite the absence of unions. In Pittsburgh when the National Guard, invited by the railroad, shot 26 unarmed strikers and bystanders, crowds burned freight cars for 3 miles (4.8 km). Troops shot more, raising Pittsburgh's dead to over 40. In Pittsburgh and Saint Louis, Missouri the railroad workers were strong enough to take over management, run trains, and collect tickets. In Hornellsville, New York when scabs started a train up a mountain, strikers soaped the tracks. The train went up, slowed, stopped; the passenger cars were unhooked and slid back down the mountain.

In Reading on July 22, with the Reading Railroad 2 months in arrears of paying wages, crowds of women and children watched as strikers blocked tracks. The railroad called in the National Guard. A few people threw bricks and the soldiers opened fire in all directions, killing 10 and wounding 40, including 5 local police.

That evening in Sunbury, rumors circulated that the National Guard would pass through to crush Pittsburgh's strike. An agitated crowd gathered at the railroad junction at 3rd and Chestnut streets. The soldiers took another route, but when a freight train tried to leave, the railroad workers took it over and sent it back.

On July 23 the trainmen met at Red Men's Hall. They decided to join the national strike and continue blocking freight trains until the railroads took back the 10% reduction. The next morning they ordered the shop mechanics to leave work too.

In Danville on the morning of July 23, the workers appointed a group to ask the Commissioner of the Poor for bread or work. The Commissioner "passed the buck" to the mayor. At 3 PM a large crowd gathered at the weigh scales on Mill Street in the middle of Danville . One speaker said "We will give the borough authorities until tomorrow at 10:00 to devise some action to give us work or bread. If at that time nothing is done for us, we will take [explicative] wherever we can find it." John Styer discussed their poverty and demanded government aid. The town newspaper reported unless the borough council banished starvation, "disorder would ensue. Men would take the law into their own hands."

The next day there was almost a bread riot. Citizens were on the verge of starvation. Grocers brought their flour inside for safety, and farmers left markets with half their goods sold. At noon crowds led by Ben Bennet and former constable Frank Treas took a few old muskets from an abandoned storehouse. Next they rushed for weapons stored in the third story of the "Danville National Bank" on Mill and Northumberland Streets. Police met them. One policeman tried to arrest Treas, for using incendiary language. But he could not get to Treas in the crowd. A sign on Bloom Street proposed a meeting of workingmen in Sechler's Woods on July 26. Following these events, the authorities gave food to those in need.

July 25, beginning of incident[edit]

In Shenandoah on July 25, 800-1000 workers paraded down the streets with flags and a drum corps. When they got to the baseball field at 10 PM, they could see that arsonists had set fire to the mining stables in nearby Lost Creek. On July 27, Shenandoah's miners brought business of all kinds to a standstill.

In Shamokin on the morning of July 24, miners struck at the Big Mountain Colliery. 10 families in a row of houses had no food for 3 weeks, except a few scraps from their gardens. At 2 PM a large meeting of workers on Slope Hill demanded work or food.

The next day they repeated their demands at Union Hall on Rock Street. William Oram, the attorney for both the borough and the Mineral Railroad & Mining Company told the crowd the borough and wealthy citizens would give them street work for 80 cents a day.

The crowd appointed a Workingmen's Committee to negotiate with the borough council that night for a higher rate. The committee demanded $1.00 a day, and the borough agreed. But when the committee returned to Union Hall, the crowd rejected the $1.00 offer.

Then 1000 men and young people marched down Rock Street and Shamokin Street . When someone threw a stone through Shuman & Co.'s Store, the crowd could restrain itself no longer. They surged into the Reading Railroad station and depot on Shamokin and Independence Streets, where the parking lot now stands. They broke the windows and doors, took the freight from the cars and everything in the building, and gutted it. Next they crossed Liberty Street toward the Northern Central Depot on Commerce Street.

Meanwhile Mayor William Douty gathered vigilantes outside City Hall in response to a prearranged signal - a bell ringing at the Presbyterian church where he belonged. Douty managed his family's coal mines and collieries at Big Mountain, Doutyville, and Shamokin. He also persecuted the Molly Maguires. Douty's vigilantes marched down Lincoln and Liberty Streets armed with muskets and revolvers. They told the crowd to leave, and when that failed, shot into it. 12 people were wounded and 2 killed, neither one involved in the uprising. Mr. Weist was shot dead while closing his candy store on Liberty and Independence Streets; Levi Shoop was the second victim. The crowd escaped to the town's outskirts. The vigilantes captured the train stations and patrolled the town. According to rumors, after retreating, people tore up the tracks a few miles east of town.

In November, a wounded victim named Phillip Weist was tried for leading the riot. Despite receiving serious injuries, he was imprisoned for 8 months in the Northumberland County jail. In addition, James Richards, Peter Campbell, Christin Neely, and James Ebright were imprisoned 7, 6, 4, and 3 months respectively for rioting and burglary.

Elsewhere railroads crushed the strike using coal and iron police, vigilantes, and the National Guard. Across America, these "forces of order" killed more than 100 people. It was not a complete defeat for the strikers, however. The strike showed the conflict of interests between working people and management. If corporations pushed people too far, they would react out of desperation. And the strike showed that if workers acted together, they could challenge the corporate system. The future growth of unions would make workers stronger than an unorganized mass.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Montour County newspapers, Danville library
  • Sunbury Gazette, Northumberland County Historical Society
  • Reading Eagle, Berks County Historical Society
  • Pottsville Miners Journal
  • Bell's "History of Northumberland County."
  • Phillip Foner's "The 1877 Uprising."

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

A site on Pittsburgh's strike with maps and historical markers