The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was an uprising launched in response to pay cuts enacted by the country's largest railroads following the financial Panic of 1873. The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was a 10% wage reduction, which had followed several others over the previous four years. Unfortunately, in a time when blue collar employees enjoyed virtually no job protections, these measures made it virtually impossible for workers to fight back. Along the Baltimore & Ohio this reached a boiling point; believing they had no other recourse, workers at the railroad's shops and major division point of Martinsburg, West Virginia walked off the job on July 26, 1877. Due to its strategic location this move crippled the B&O's operations. As freight trains sat idle employees of other railroads, realizing the strike's effectiveness, joined the cause; even workers outside the industry, who had also been oppressed, walked off the job. While the movement lasted less than a month, and ultimately ended in failure, it sparked a revolution which brought about today's modern unions. It also had a secondary effect of bringing about federal oversight and laws to protect employees on the job.
Life as a railroader in the 1870's was not an easy occupation filled with many dangers, few safety measures, and many long hours. To make matters worse the financial Panic of 1873 crippled the nation and put many Americans out of work. According to the book, "The Great Strikes Of 1877" by David O. Stowell, there were around 30 national and international trade unions operating within the United States just prior to the panic. At the time, the country was enjoying a great economic boom in the peacetime that followed the Civil War. This included the railroad industry which was rapidly expanding in the decade after the conflict by laying down more than 40,000 miles between 1870 and 1880 according to John Stover's book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads." In addition, roughly 34,000 miles were spiked down in just an 8-year period, 1865 - 1873. By contrast, only 6,000 miles were added in the four years after the economic downturn (1873-1877). As railroads blossomed into America's second-largest employer, behind only the agricultural/farming industry, a great deal of the new trackage was built on speculation thanks to the availability of cash and strong economy. Unfortunately, this led to a house-of-cards scenario; coupled with Congress's passage of the Coinage Act (American currency would no longer be backed with silver), the stage was set for the events of 1873.
That year, the Northern Pacific Railway, attempting to complete the first transcontinental railroad into the Pacific Northwest, was having considerable difficulty earning enough revenue to garner further interest in the continued sale of its bonds. These bonds were being marketed by Jay Cooke's banking firm, Jay Cooke & Company, throughout the U.S. and aboard. To continue the project's financing, the bank essentially wrote blank checks in the hope the bonds would continue to sell. When this failed a run on the bank took place and Cooke's firm, along with the railroad he controlled, entered bankruptcy on September 18th that year. Thus began one of America's worse depressions and a crisis that would endure for the following six years. Mr. Stowell's book notes that, as a result of this economic calamity, the number of organized unions dropped from 30 to 9 by the time the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began. With no federal support, railroads were quick to implement wage cuts in response to declining revenue, despite the fact dividends continued to be paid. As Philip S. Foner notes in his book, "The Great Labor Uprising Of 1877," railroads reduced workers' wages by an average ranging from 21%-37%while food prices declined only 5%. The Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) was particularly egregious by slicing pay up to 50%.
Although events along the B&O initiated the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, in essence it began slowly, taking on a life of its own over time. However, a series of events a few years prior could be argued as its starting point; between November, 1873 and July, 1874 workers struck along eighteen different railroads in a response to a series of initial wage cuts. In every case, the walkouts were brief, lasting for only a week or two and never drawing the nation's attention. For railroads, the usual tactic to quell such unrest was simply firing and blacklisting any worker(s) involved. This often work although the 1873/74 incidents only proved a foreshadowing of things to come. The country's very first strike is believed to have occurred between June 20th and 30th of 1831 along the B&O. What followed was a series of related events that never gained any effective traction in breaking the draconian rule large corporations held over their workers. Empathy was sometimes expressed in local media outlets but no national change ever came about since big business controlled the political arena. As a result, it was very difficult for organized labor to gain any significant headway in its drive for better pay, consistent hours, and federal job protections.
During the 1870's there were only four significant trade unions within the railroad industry; the Machinists' and Blacksmiths' International Union (MBIU), Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), Brotherhood of Railway Conductors (BRC), and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE). Only the latter, with some 10,000 members strong, held any significance but its powers were minor due to a lack of federal and state support. In addition, the BLE's Grand Chief Engineer at the time, Charles Wilson, balked at striking. He also refused to stand with workers outside the union in a unified effort to bring about change. Nevertheless, many, whether part of organized labor or not, felt their condition bleak by 1877. This was particularly true along the Baltimore & Ohio where workers suffered another 10% wage reduction that summer. Not only had many railroads implemented deep cuts but also provided employees with virtually no expensive coverages. For instance, they were often required to stay in opulent, railroad-owned hotels when away from home, pay for their own return tickets, and, of course, cover all other expenses (such as meals) while away.
Along the B&O the latest cuts went into effect on Monday, July 16, 1877. In response, the fireman of locomotive #32, leading a train about to depart Camden Junction, Maryland (Baltimore), walked off the job that day. His move triggered several fellow firemen to do the same. These spontaneous acts forced the B&O's hand which called on Baltimore's mayor, Ferdinand C. Latrope, to mobilize the police. This act of force worked and would be used time again to stop such uprisings along other railroads. Just as the B&O thought the issue over it reignited the following day when 38 engineers joined the cause, backed up by 140 workers of Baltimore's Boxmakers' And Sawyers' Union and 800 tin can makers. The latter did so for the same reason as the railroaders, wage reductions in their respective field. Interestingly, despite being labeled "rioters" the strikers never once stopped passenger/mail trains (a calculated move, no doubt, which would have halted the movement of federal property [mail] and brought further problems to their cause). Instead, they focused only on holding freight movements, the primary profit component of any railroad
From this point tensions escalated quickly. In Martinsburg, West Virginia, situated roughly 90 miles from Baltimore, B&O workers (most belonging to the local Trainmen's Union) went on strike during the evening of July 16th, declaring freight trains would not move until the railroad restored the 10% wage cut. The railroaders were simply after better pay, enough to feed and provide housing for their families, but unfortunately were painted as rioters, vagrants, and disrupters of the peace. In some newspapers they were even pegged as shadow communists, a ridiculous claim which held no merit. But with the political cards in their favor, the railroads enjoyed all the power. The B&O successfully convinced West Virginia's governor, Henry M. Mathews, to call up the local militia to break the strike. Under guard, a scab engineer (i.e., strikebreaker), began leading a freight train out of the yard on July 17th in an effort to reestablish some semblance of service. Determined to stop this, striker William P. Vandergriff wound up in a skirmish with militiamen. After an exchange of gunfire he was hit three times and later died. Despite his death, the skirmish spooked the scab who abandon his train.
The B&O then called for federal support but was initially rebuffed. By this time the strike was garnering national attention as more and more papers picked up the story, particularly following the Vandergriff incident. By July 18th, with no end in sight, Governor Matthews' call for U.S. troops was answered by President Rutherford Birchard Hayes. On the morning of July 19th Army regulars arrived in Martinsburg but were surprised to almost nothing out of place. There was no property destruction significance disturbance ongoing. The following day the B&O brought in fresh replacements and oversaw the arrest of many strikers which, backed with U.S. regulars, essentially ended the unrest in Martinsburg. The railroad's problems, though, were far from over as several other strikes had broken out across its then-2,700 mile network. Most notable was back in Baltimore where the strikes had continued but had remained largely quiet and uneventful affairs. That changed on the night of July 20th when the B&O pressed the matter by breaking up the ongoing protest, calling for the arrest or firing of anyone involved. The railroad was backed by 120 militia (later reduced to 59 when the others lost interest); with this show of force an effort was made to get the trains moving. Perhaps not expecting such strong local support, the remaining soldiers were pelted with stones and shouts. They responded by opening fire on the crowd. What was later dubbed the "Second Battle Of Bunker Hill," resulted in 11 people losing their lives with 40 others wounded. The now enraged crowd, which swelled to 15,000 strong, forced the militiamen to barricade themselves inside Camden Station's train sheds. The rioters and townfolk attempted to burn down the structure but were ultimately unsuccessful. Over the following weekend the incident subsided, aided by 1,200-2,000 federal troops to restore peace.
This was the last notable incident along the B&O, although strikes soon flared up elsewhere. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) of 1877, like the Baltimore & Ohio, was generally despised due to its poor working conditions and even poorer pay. On July 16th, the same day strikes began on the B&O, the PRR informed employees of its Western Division that as of July 19th all eastbound trains to Altoona would be double-headed due to the ongoing depression. It further stipulated that fewer crewmen would be utilized during this time, all the while refusing to implement safety devices like the knuckle coupler and automatic air bake. By and large the PRR had received nothing more than complaints when carrying out similar actions elsewhere across its system. In this case, however, the timing couldn't have been worse. With the workers recognizing the ordeal in Martinsburg, and already upset over their own wage cuts, two brakemen and one flagman of an eastbound freight train departing Pittsburgh on July 19th at 8:40 AM refused to go. Thus began a chain reaction that essentially shutdown PRR's Pittsburgh operations; a major terminal and division point along its main line.
They used tactics similar to the B&O workers and the PRR's operations ground to a halt. Once again, they also carried support of the local populace and, believing they had standing and attempted to work out arbitration with the railroad. As in most cases during that era, the PRR refused to even sit down with the workers and instead opted to use force in breaking up the strike. To do this the company was successful in having Pennsylvania's Adjunct General James W. Latta (Governor John F. Hartranft was away in Wyoming Territory at the time) at first call up the state's Sixth Division based in Pittsburgh.
This was later changed to the National Guard's First Division based in Philadelphia out of fear the Sixth's men would be loyal to the strikers' cause. As a result, early on the morning of July 21st, 600 men left Philadelphia where, along the way, they picked up a two Gatling Guns and ammunition in Harrisburg. This set the stage for July 21st, a day which endured even greater bloodshed than in Baltimore. That afternoon the militia arrived and were greeted with a growing crowd of on-lookers, the curious, passers-by, strikers, and sympathizers (many of whom were employed in other trades). As the crowd became incensed, the troops were ordered to charge with fixed bayonets. Several were stabbed, which led to an escalation of violence. The crowd then began pelting the soldiers with stones whereupon the order was given to fire point blank into the crowd. When it was over, 20 were dead (which included one woman and three children) and another 29 injured. The soldiers had essentially stirred a hornet's nest as the now enraged crowd, as well as others from around the city, forced them to retreat back into the local roundhouse. The group then began burning railroad property destroying every piece of equipment and building from the roundhouse to 23rd Street. In the end, the Pennsylvania Railroad lost 39 buildings, 104 locomotives, 46 passenger cars, and 1,200 freight cars.
In total, the PRR suffered $4.1 million in damages, of which it received $3 million in claims. The militiamen holed up in the roundhouse managed to save the structure, and their lives, by using a water hose belonging to the railroad. The managed to exit the building on the morning of July 22nd, at which time peace began to descend on the city. While more regiments of militia were called there was little need as the city policed itself and order was restored. As things died down in Pittsburgh, in nearby Allegheny City, just across the Allegheny River, the PRR found itself with another mess. After the railroad refused arbitration once more, workers stopped all traffic in this town which was a major junction point of several PRR-controlled systems including the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago (PFW&C); Allegheny Valley; and the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railway ("The Panhandle). In addition, the B&O's Connellsville Division served the town. As the strike grew in size, led by PFW&C brakeman Robert Adams Ammon the PRR was paralyzed across Pennsylvania and was losing millions of dollars every day. He proved an effective leader, wielding a great deal of support from his fellow workers and the public. However, when he attempted to turn the railroad back over to the company on July 24th he was overruled and resigned his position as leader.
With Ammon's departure, the strike along the PRR rapidly disintegrated despite continued public support. The workers may not have been completely aware of what they had started as the strike had now fully engaged the entire nation and throughout Pennsylvania, both railroaders and workers in other sectors had struck in an act of unity for better pay and working conditions. In some cases violence broke out and people were shot although most often the protests were peaceful. While PRR officials waited to retake their railroad, another incident occurred along the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (P&R), headed by Franklin B. Gowen. In Reading, P&R workers had also struck as of July 22nd after hearing of the on-goings in Pittsburgh. Once again, as had been the case on the PRR and B&O, Gowen refused any of their demands. Instead, after they commandeered company property, he called for the National Guard and was provided with Pennsylvania's Second Division. That evening, a large crowd had gathered near the P&R depot at Seventh and Penn Streets to witness the strikers' blocking the tracks. When the troops arrived, a few men pelted them with stones and bricks. They immediately opened fire and once it was all over, some 10 bystanders were killed and other 40 wounded.
Two days after this bloodshed, 1,500 workers of the Lackawanna Iron & Coal Company along with firemen and brakemen of the Delawarke, Lackawanna & Western and Delaware & Hudson railroads also went on strike in Scranton at noon. Once again, wages was the central issue. As a result of their refusal to work, coal miners were also forced off the job and by July 29th some 35,000 workers in the region were idle! In a last resort effort to quell this latest stoppage, the town's mayor, Robert H. McKune, formed a hasty militia of 116 citizens referred to as the "Scranton Citizens' Corps." Once again, shots were fired and before it was over, six miners on strike at had been killed. Afterwards, the state sought, and received, federal support with the regulars arriving by July 27th in an attempt to reopen rail traffic throughout the state. The PRR and Reading saw normal resumption of operations by July 31st and the railroads were running throughout Scranton again by August 2nd (interestingly, the miners continued to strike until forced back to work by the presence of federal troops in mid-October.
A day after PRR's employees struck in Pittsburgh (July 19th), the Erie Railway was faced with a similar situation at Hornellsville, New York. This town was the junction of its three primary main lines broken down into the Buffalo Division, Susquehanna Division, and Allegheny Division. In early June the company, which had been in bankruptcy since shortly after the 1873 panic, informed its employees a 10% pay cut would be enacted as of July 1st. At first, the workers did nothing. However, this changed following the strikes occurring along the B&O, PRR, and elsewhere around the country. They demanded their wages be restored but when the company, then led by Hugh Jewett, refused, the workers in Hornellsville went on strike at 1 PM on July 20th. It began a chain reaction which spread to other major Erie division points. Once more, the militia was called out; this time by New York's governor, Lucius Robinson. As has been seen, violence did break out many times the armed men were called to put down the strikes. However, in just as many cases they were befriended by the workers and did little to breakup the unrest. This was the case in Hornellsville where the militia did little to sop the happenings.
Eventually, though, force was enacted when fresh troops were called, this time involving the 23rd Regiment from Brooklyn, New York. Following their arrival in Hornellsville, the strike was over by July 26th. Since this town had been at the heart of the unrest, other areas along the Erie where it had broken out also capitulated. Interestingly, however, it turns out things were not quite over in Buffalo. This town was a major market for several railroads, including the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (NYC&HR). Following the strike along the Erie, NYC&HR workers and subsidiary Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (LS&MS) after suffering their own 10% reduction in wages. In an interesting turn of events, president William H. Vanderbilt handled the strike quite differently. He largely chose to ignore it and stopped all service, despite Governor Robinson again calling out additional National Guardsmen. In the end, between Vanderbilt's policy of disregard and force, the strikers lost the fight without having won any concessions. The NYC&HR declared it all over by July 30th, which coincided with the day LS&MS workers gave up.
Throughout the country there were strikes which never earned such national coverage; these locations included Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, Newark (Ohio), Indianapolis, and numerous other cities. All told, more than 100 people lost their lives during the bloodshed, many of which were not strikers at all. Except in a few instances, the strikes had largely been peaceful despite the fact the men were painted as villains by the every railroad. On August 5 the Great Railroad Strike Of 1877 was declared over as President Hayes noted, "The strikers have been put down by force..." In the immediate aftermath of the strikes, the workers generally accomplished nothing although a few railroads did restore their previous wages. While the Great Strike would be deemed a failure from a technical system, its long-term prospects were much more encouraging. The working public quickly realized they had more power than they previously believed as they saw how the railroaders managed to shutdown or seriously disrupt operations. This led to a resurgence of organized labor, such as the Workingmen's Party Of The United States (WPUS) and Greenback-Labor Party, both of which sought to elect politicians who would provide greater concessions to the working class. Some of these included an 8-hour work day, a national organization monitoring and policing the industry, a minimum wage, an end to discriminatory hiring practices, ending the practice of company scrip as a wage, nationalized railroads, and many other issues.
Not all were enacted but the Great Strike of 1877 was nevertheless the catalyst which eventually saw many come to pass. The Washington Capital noted the following about the strikes (reprinted in the Martinsburg Statesman on September 4, 1877):
"The late strike was not the work of a mob nor the working of a riot, but a revolution that is making itself felt throughout the land. The afterbirth indicates the serious nature of a nativity. Capitalists may stuff cotton in their ears, the subsidized press may write with apparent indifference, as boys whistle when passing a graveyard, but those who understand the forces at work in society know already that America will never be the same again. For decades, yes centuries to come, our nation will feel the effects of the tidal wave that swept over it for two weeks in July."
Following the strikes, the federal government took a much more hands-on approach to protecting the general laborer from corporate coercion. Not only did this lead to a rise in unions but also clamped down on corporations' brutal treatment of workers, not only from railroads but also in other sectors. On a broader scale, railroads were found themselves under far greater federal scrutiny; the Interstate Commerce Commission was born on February 4, 1887 to, as its name implied, regulate interstate commerce while a series of acts passed in the early 20th century further strengthened the ICC's power (Elkins Act of 1903, Hepburn Act of 1906, and Mann-Elkins Act of 1910). In addition, safety became a much more important issue; on March 2, 1893, Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act which went into effect in 1900. This mandated that all cars be equipped with George Westinghouse's automatic air brake (invented in 1869) and Eli Janney's automatic coupler (invented in 1873). Once put into widespread practice, accidents on the jobs dramatically decreased.