Great Railroad Strike of 1877
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|Great Railroad Strike of 1877|
Blockade of engines at Martinsburg, West Virginia, 16 July 1877
|Date||July 14 – September 4, 1877|
|Methods||Strikes, Protest, Demonstrations|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, sometimes referred to as the Great Upheaval, began on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, United States after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) cut wages for the third time in a year. This strike finally ended some 45 days later, after it was put down by local and state militias, and federal troops. Because of economic problems and pressure on wages by the railroads, workers in numerous other cities, in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, into Illinois and Missouri, also went out on strike. An estimated 100 people were killed in the unrest across the country. In Martinsburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other cities, workers burned down and destroyed both physical facilities and the rolling stock of the railroads - engines and railroad cars. Local populations feared that workers were rising in revolution such as the Paris Commune of 1871.
At the time, the workers were not represented by labor unions. The city and state governments organized armed militias, aided by national guard, federal troops and private militias organized by the railroads, who fought against the workers. Disruption was widespread and at its height, the strikes were supported by about 100,000 workers. With the intervention of federal troops in several locations, most of the strikes were suppressed by early August. Labor continued to work to organize into unions to work for better wages and conditions. Fearing the social disruption, many cities built armories to support their militias; these defensive buildings still stand as symbols of the effort to suppress the labor unrest of this period.
With public attention on workers' wages and conditions, the B&O in 1880 founded an Employee Relief Association to provide death benefits and some health care. In 1884 it established a worker pension plan. Other improvements generally had to await labor organizing.
- 1 Economic conditions in the 1870s
- 2 Causes of the strike
- 3 The strike
- 4 Strike over
- 5 Laying blame
- 6 Aftermath and legacy
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Economic conditions in the 1870s
During the early 1870s Europe suffered a significant economic depression, and social unrest during the 1871 Paris Commune uprising. In the United States effects were also felt, and the banking firm Jay Cooke and Company failed on September 18, 1873. Cooke was the country's top investment banker, the principal backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad as well as a prime investor in other railroads, and the company which had handled most of the government's wartime loans; its failure was catastrophic to the national economy. In response, the U.S. economy sputtered and collapsed. Shortly after Cooke's demise, the New York Stock Exchange closed for 10 days, credit dried up, and foreclosures and factory closings became common. Of the country's 364 railroads, 89 went bankrupt, and more than 18,000 businesses failed between 1873 and 1875. Unemployment reached 14 percent by 1876, while workers who kept their jobs were employed for a mere six months out of the year and suffered a 45% cut in their wages to approximately one dollar per day. This economic cataclysm is now referred to as the Panic of 1873.
While the public blamed President Ulysses S. Grant and the United States Congress for mishandling the economy, in particular Grant's monetary policy of contracting the money supply, the causes of the panic were much deeper. With the end of the Civil War, the country had grown at a feverish, unregulated pace, especially in the railroad industry. The government gave massive land grants and subsidies to railroad companies to encourage construction of lines spanning the country.:17, 58 The overbuilding of the nation's railroads, and the overinvestment by bankers of depositors' funds in the railroads, laid the foundation for the Panic and the depression that followed. A full economic recovery did not take place until 1878-79.
Causes of the strike
When the Civil War ended, a boom in railroad construction ensued, with roughly 55,000 kilometers (35,000 miles) of new track being laid from coast-to-coast between 1866 and 1873. The railroads, then the second largest employer outside of agriculture, required large amounts of capital investment, and thus entailed massive financial risk. Speculators fed large amounts of money into the industry, causing abnormal growth and over-expansion. Jay Cooke's firm, like many other banking firms, invested a disproportionate share of depositors' funds in the railroads, thus paving the way for the ensuing collapse.
In addition to Cooke's direct infusion of capital in the railroads, the firm had become a federal agent for the government in the government's direct financing of railroad construction. As building new track in areas where land had not yet been cleared or settled required land grants and loans that only the government could provide, the use of Jay Cooke's firm as a conduit for federal funding worsened the effects that Cooke's bankruptcy had on the nation's economy.
In the wake of the Panic of 1873, a bitter antagonism between workers and the leaders of industry developed. Immigration from Europe was underway, as was migration of rural workers into the cities, increasing competition for jobs and enabling companies to drive down wages and easily lay off workers. By 1877, 10 percent wage cuts, distrust of capitalists and poor working conditions led to workers' conducting numerous railroad strikes that prevented the trains from moving, with spiraling effects in other parts of the economy. Suppressed by violence, workers continued to organize to try to improve their conditions. Management worked to break up such movements, and mainstream society and the Catholic Church feared labor organizing as signs of socialism. Tensions lingered well after the depression ended in 1878-79.
Many of the new immigrant workers were Catholics, and their church had forbidden participation in secret societies since 1743, partially as a reaction against the anti-Catholicism of Freemasonry. But by the late 19th century, the Knights of Labor, a national and predominately Catholic organization, had 700,000 members seeking to represent all workers. In 1888 Archbishop James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore sympathized with the workers and collaborated with other bishops to lift the prohibition against workers joining the KOL. Other workers also took actions, with unrest marked the following decades. In 1886 Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor for the skilled craft trades, attracting skilled workers from other groups. Other labor organizing followed.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 started on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in response to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) cutting wages of workers for the third time in a year. Striking workers would not allow any of the trains, mainly freight trains, to roll until this third wage cut was revoked. Governor Henry M. Mathews sent in state militia units to restore train service, but the soldiers refused to use force against the strikers. The governor called for federal troops.
Meanwhile, the strike spread to Cumberland, Maryland, where workers stopped freight and passenger traffic. When Governor John Carroll of Maryland directed the 5th and 6th Regiments of the National Guard to put down the strike, citizens from Baltimore attacked the militia. As the troops marched from their armories towards B&O's Camden Station for the train to Cumberland, violent street battles between the striking workers and the Maryland militia erupted. When the outnumbered troops of the 6th Regiment fired on an attacking crowd, they killed 10 and wounded 25. The rioters injured several members of the militia, damaged engines and train cars, and burned portions of the train station. The militia remained trapped in Camden Yards, besieged by armed rioters until July 21–22, when the President sent federal troops and Marines to Baltimore to restore order.
There were strike actions in Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo, New York. Workers in the cities in industries other than railroads still attacked them because of how they cut through the cities and dominated city life. Their resentment of the railroads' economic power was expressed in physical attacks against them at a time when many workers' wages were lowered. Protestors "included cross-class elements from other work sites, small businesses, and commercial establishments. Some protestors acted out of solidarity with the strikers, but many more vented militant displeasure against dangerous railroad traffic that crisscrossed urban centers in that area."
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania became the site of the worst violence of related strikes. Thomas Alexander Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad, described as one of the first robber barons, suggested that the strikers should be given "a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread." As in some other cities, local law enforcement officers refused to fire on the strikers. Several state militia units were ordered into service, including the 3rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel George R. Snowden.
On July 21, militiamen bayoneted and fired on rock-throwing strikers, killing 20 people and wounding 29. Rather than quell the uprising, these actions infuriated the strikers, who retaliated and forced the militia to take refuge in a railroad roundhouse. Strikers set fires that razed 39 buildings and destroyed rolling stock: 104 locomotives and 1,245 freight and passenger cars. On July 22, the militia mounted an assault on the strikers, shooting their way out of the roundhouse and killing 20 more people on their way out of the city. After more than a month of rioting and bloodshed in Pittsburgh, President Rutherford B. Hayes sent in federal troops to end the strikes.
Three hundred miles to the east, Philadelphia strikers battled local militia and set fire to much of Center City before Governor John Hartranft gained assistance and federal troops to put down the uprising.
Workers in Reading, Pennsylvania's third-largest industrial city at the time, also broke out into a strike. This city was home of the engine works and shops of the Reading Railroad, against which engineers had struck since April 1877. State militia shot 16 citizens. Preludes to the massacre included: fresh work stoppage by all classes of the railroad's local workforce; mass marches; blocking of rail traffic; and trainyard arson. Workers burned down the only railroad bridge offering connections to the west, in order to prevent local militia from being mustered to actions in Harrisburg or Pittsburgh. Authorities used state militia, local police and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in an attempt to break the strike. Reading Railroad management mobilized a private militia, which members committed the shootings in the city. This militia was not mobilized by local public officials.
On July 25, 1000 men and boys, many of them coal miners, marched to the Reading Railroad Depot in Shamokin. They looted the depot when the town announced it would pay them only $1/day for emergency public employment. The mayor, who owned coal mines, organized a city militia. It committed 14 civilian shooting casualties, resulting in the deaths of two persons.
On August 1, 1877, in Scranton, one day after railroad workers conceded a strike, a city posse of 51 men armed with new rifles and under the command of William Walker Scranton, general manager of the Lackawanna Iron & Coal Company, returned fire at a group of rioters, strikers, and, most likely, bystanders. The posse killed or fatally wounded four and wounded an undetermined number of others, estimated at 20 to 50, according to different sources.
Pennsylvania Governor Hartranft declared Scranton to be under martial law; it was occupied by state and federal troops armed with Gatling guns. Later the posse leader and about 20 of his men were charged with assault and murder. They were all acquitted. Under the effects of the shootings and military occupation, the miners ended their strike without gaining any of their demands.
On July 24, rail traffic in Chicago was paralyzed when angry mobs of unemployed citizens wreaked havoc in the rail yards, shutting down both the Baltimore and Ohio and the Illinois Central railroads. Soon, other railroads throughout the state were brought to a standstill, with demonstrators shutting down railroad traffic in Bloomington, Aurora, Peoria, Decatur, Urbana and other rail centers throughout Illinois. In sympathy, coal miners in the pits at Braidwood, LaSalle, Springfield, and Carbondale went on strike as well. In Chicago, the Workingmen's Party organized demonstrations that drew crowds of 20,000 (twenty thousand) people.
Judge Thomas Drummond of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who was overseeing numerous railroads that had declared bankruptcy in the wake of the Panic of 1873, ruled that "A strike or other unlawful interference with the trains will be a violation of the United States law, and the court will be bound to take notice of it and enforce the penalty." Drummond told federal marshals to protect the railroads, and asked for federal troops to enforce his decision: he subsequently had strikers arrested and tried them for contempt of court.
The mayor of Chicago, Monroe Heath, recruited 5,000 men as volunteer militia, asking for help in restoring order. They were partially successful, and shortly thereafter were reinforced by the arrival of the National Guard and federal troops, mobilized by the governor. On July 25, violence between police and the mob erupted, with events reaching a peak the following day. These blood-soaked confrontations between police and enraged mobs are known as the Battle of the Viaduct as they took place near the Halsted Street viaduct, although confrontations also took place at nearby 16th Street, on 12th, and on Canal Street. The headline of the Chicago Times screamed, "Terrors Reign, The Streets of Chicago Given Over to Howling Mobs of Thieves and Cutthroats." Order was finally restored. An estimated 20 men and boys died, none of whom were law enforcement or troops; scores more were wounded; and the loss of property was valued in the millions of dollars.
On July 21, disgruntled workers in the industrial rail hub of East St. Louis, Illinois, halted all freight traffic, with the city remaining in the control of the strikers for almost a week. The St. Louis Workingman's Party led a group of approximately 500 men across the Missouri River in an act of solidarity with the nearly 1,000 workers on strike. It was a catalyst for labor unrest spreading, with thousands of workers in several industries striking for the eight-hour day and a ban on child labor. This was the first such general strike in the United States.
The strike on both sides of the river was ended after the governor appealed for help and gained the intervention of some 3,000 federal troops and 5,000 deputized special police. These armed forces killed at least eighteen people in skirmishes around the city. On July 28, 1877, they took control of the Relay Depot, the Commune's command center, and arrested some seventy strikers.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began to lose momentum when President Hayes sent federal troops from city to city. These troops suppressed strike after strike, until at last, approximately 45 days after it had started, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was over.
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The strike and its repercussions were attributed to a number of factors by contemporaries:
- Xenophobia: Authorities often blamed immigrants for the labor unrest, expressing fear and suspicion of the waves of new ethnic groups from southern and eastern Europe, many of whom were Catholic, in contrast with the majority-Protestant culture of the US at the time. German and Bohemian agitators were blamed most often, but in some cities other immigrant ethnic groups, such as Irish and Italians, were blamed as well.
- Idle hands: Illinois governor Shelby Cullom stated that "the vagrant, the willfully idle, was the chief element in all these disturbances," suggesting that men were unemployed by choice, rather than the paucity of jobs.
- Communism: Others asserted that the Great Railroad Strike was due to Communist and/or socialist influences. The New York World blamed "the hands of men dominated by the devilish spirit of Communism." In his 1878 book Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives, Allan Pinkerton blamed the unrest on a combination of Paris Commune proponents and the high degree of transience among the American working class at the time.
- Lack of trade unions: While there was some union activity, especially from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, many of the strikers had yet to organize. The Trainsman's Union, led by Robert Ammon, was one of the more effective labor groups.
- The 1876 Election Deal: Thomas Scott, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was said to agree to deliver the disputed congressional votes to Hayes in the Compromise of 1877, in exchange for a promise of federal investment in his proposed Texas and Pacific railroad, but the federal government never committed to that southern route.
Aftermath and legacy
No complete accounting of the economic losses caused by this strike exists. It is known that the engineers' and firemen's brotherhoods lost approximately $600,000 over the 45 days of the strike. The Burlington Railroad suffered losses of at least $2,100,000.
After the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, union organizers planned for their next battles while politicians and business leaders took steps to prevent a repetition of this chaos. Many states enacted conspiracy statutes. States formed new militia units, and constructed National Guard armories in numerous industrial cities. For workers and employers alike, the strikes had shown the power of workers in combination to challenge the status quo. A state militiaman in Pittsburgh, ordered to break the 1877 strike, pointed out that the workers were driven by "one spirit and one purpose among them -– that they were justified in resorting to any means to break down the power of the corporations."
Unions became better organized as well as more competent, and the number of strikes increased. The Knights of Labor grew to be a national organization of predominately Catholic workers, numbering 700,000 by the early 1880s. In the 1880s nearly 10,000 strike actions and lockouts took place. In 1886 nearly 700,000 workers went on strike. Business leaders strengthened their opposition to the unions, often firing men who tried to organize or join them. Nonetheless, the labor movement continued to grow.
One result of the strike was increased public awareness of the grievances of railroad workers. On May 1, 1880 the B&O Railroad, which had the lowest wage rate of any major railroad, established the Baltimore and Ohio Employees' Relief Association, which provided coverage for sickness, injury from accidents, and a death benefit. In 1884, the B&O became the first major employer to offer a pension plan.
Attempts to utilize local militia to quell violent outbreaks in 1877 highlighted their ineffectiveness, and in some cases their propensity to outright side with strikers and rioters. In response, as earlier riots in the mid 1800s had prompted the modernization of police forces, the violence of 1877 provided the impetus for the formation of the modern National Guard, "to aid the civil officers, to suppress or prevent riot or insurrections.":118:30
The first national strike began July 16, 1877, with Baltimore and Ohio Railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and Baltimore Maryland. It spread across the nation halting rail traffic and closing factories in reaction to widespread worker discontent over wage cuts and conditions during a national depression. Broken by Federal troops in early August, the strike energized the labor movement and was precursor to labor unrest in the 1880s and 1890s.
Another was placed in 1978 in Martinsburg, WV by the West Virginia Department of Culture and History.
In popular culture
- Watts, Jeanette. Wealth and Privilege (2013). The main characters in this historical novel of the Gilded Age are caught in the middle of Pittsburgh's railroad strike.
- History of rail transport in the United States
- Murder of workers in labor disputes in the United States
- Shelton, Josh. "Pages from US Labor History: The Great Railroad Strike of 1877". Retrieved 2008-05-25.(Saved version of article available at https://web.archive.org/web/20031119041136/http://www.socialistappeal.org/uslaborhistory/great_railroad_strike_of_1877.htm ) Archived October 22, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
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- Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the Railroad Riots in July, 1877, Harrisburg: L.S. Hart, state printer, 1878, p. 19
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- Guide to the Baltimore and Ohio Employees Relief Association, Annual Reports, 1880-1918. Special Collections Research Center, Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, The George Washington University.
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- "Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Martinsburg Shops". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-10-13.
- Michael Caplinger and John Bond (October, 2003) National Historic Landmark Nomination: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Martinsburg Shops, National Park Service and Accompanying 18 photos, exterior and interior, from 2001 and undated.
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