The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
Historical Background

Summer, eighteen hundred seventy-seven. The United States officially ended the twelve-year period spent "reconstructing" the nation after a divisive war. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was four months into his hard-won presidency, having lost the popular vote to New York's Governor Samuel Tilden but winning the office thanks to the partisan electoral college. Industrial growth, evident in the North prior to the war, was widespread, changing the economic foundation of the nation and the relationship of the individual to his work for the next century.

As devastating as the War Between the States was for soldiers and civilians, it was remarkably lucrative for entrepreneurs and financiers. The economy boomed with necessary production of goods for both the battlefield and the home front; technological advancements bred further innovation. The steel industry had already benefited from a new manufacturing technique known as the Bessemer process, developed in the 1850s, that used less than one-seventh the amount of coal previously needed. Shipping speed and profits increased due to advancements in water power and steam engines. New York City, a hub of national mercantilism and commerce, became a center for the buying and selling of money itself by the Civil War, housing the notable Stock Exchange of the City of New York. Venerable businessmen Cornelius Vanderbilt and Daniel Drew became even more prosperous, but the future of the country belonged to a younger generation. The robber barons and captains of industry of the last quarter of the nineteenth century were all under forty in 1861: Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, J.P. Morgan, Philip Armour, Andrew Carnegie, James Hill and John Rockefeller were in their early twenties; Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford were over thirty, and Jay Cooke, not yet forty. Their business acumen, willingness to take risks, and downright arrogance resulted in exorbitant, some would say obscene, wealth, much of which was, at this point, plowed back into the businesses to create even more capital. Their power is evident in the panic of Black Friday (September 24, 1869), caused by the efforts of Jim Fisk and Jay Gould to corner the gold market.

Money, technology, greed and a profound lack of government regulation gave rise to new forms of companies and corporations. The first businesses to become really big were the railroads, and regional lines frequently had monopolies over freight transportation and charges. In 1869, freight accounted for $300 million in railroad earnings. By 1890, the amount more than doubled, to $734 million. The Albany Argus published the train schedules in its daily newspaper. So tied to the vagaries of railroad charges were farmers in the mid-West that they took their concerns to the Supreme Court (Munn v. Illinois, 1876).

At the beginning of Ulysses Grant's second term, several Eastern financial institutions ran out of funds as a result of bad loans. The subsequent Panic of 1873 ravaged the nation; banks closed, the stock market temporarily collapsed, and an economic depression affected Americans for approximately five years. Within the first year, 89 railroads (of the 364 then existing) went out of business; their failure left farmers with no means of transporting products, and they too became casualties. The new industrialized economy was so intertwined that a vicious downward cycle began: by 1875, more than 18,000 companies collapsed. With no money and no visible relief on the horizon, Americans took out their frustrations on the available targets: government, corporations, banks, immigrants. Businesses turned to workers.

The change from an agrarian to industrial economy transformed the value of labor. Workers became just another cog in the machinery of business. When profits declined beyond those acceptable to stockholders, it was the worker who received lower wages, or was dismissed. The steady movement of rural dwellers to urban industrial areas and ever-increasing numbers of immigrants provided business owners a constant source of cheap labor, willing to work under the most deplorable of conditions. In the 1870s, workers did not yet organize; when they finally did, their unions were not sanctioned or protected by the federal government until decades later, in the 1930s.

Such was the United States in July, 1877. The Railroad Strike began simply enough, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on July 16. It became the first massive strike of American workers, and was viewed at the time as rebellion and insurrection. So great was the fear of corporate America that huge, stone armories were constructed around the country to protect the citizenry from a working people's revolt. They remain in many cities today as a reminder of a perceived war on capitalism and "the American way of life." Such is the legacy of The Great Strike of 1877, otherwise referred to as The Great Upheaval.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut wages for its workers by 10 per cent on Monday, July 16; it was the second such action in eight months. Confused and angry, the trainmen milled around the yard throughout the day. A crew abandoned work on a cattle train at day's end, and workers refused to replace them. Crowds gathered, uncoupled engines, and refused to continue operation until wages were reinstated. When the mayor arrived to quell the crowds and order the arrest of the leaders, he was jeered and ridiculed. Police were powerless to convince workers to operate the trains, and quickly withdrew.

B&O officials sought help from Governor Henry Matthews, who wired Col. Charles Faulkner, Jr., commander of the Berkeley Light Guard, to gather his troops in support of the rail officials. On Tuesday morning, Faulkner's militiamen, many of whom were railroad workers arrived in Martinsburg. As the cattle train moved out of the station with the militia on board, a striker, William Vandergriff, pulled a switch to derail the train. He shot a soldier who tried to restart the train, and was then shot himself. The engineer and fireman left the train; volunteers refused to answer Faulkner's call to run the train. Faulkner wired the governor that he was unable to control the situation; the crowds and militia were full of strike sympathizers.

What followed was spontaneous combustion. Firemen and rail workers stopped freight traffic along the entire line of the B&O; passenger and mail service went uninterrupted. Seventy engines and six hundred freight cars quickly piled up in the Martinsburg yard. Governor Matthews, determined to break the strike, sent in Light Guards from Wheeling; they too sided with the strikers, and they were moved from the rail yard to the courthouse. The people of Martinsburg were resolute in their support of the workers. The strikers, it would seem, were successful; order was restored.

However, B&O officials wired Washington, D.C. to request the employment of the U.S. Army, even suggesting that the Secretary of War be apprised of the situation. Faulkner wired Governor Matthews that a "bloody conflict" incited by railroad workers would prove too much for his small militia; the governor in turn, backed by an appeal from B&O president, wired President Hayes for help.

As the strike spread along the web of rail lines, the pattern remained the same: workers react to the pay cuts with a work stoppage; officials attempt to run the trains with militia and volunteers; attempts are abandoned due to popular support of the rail workers.

Wage cuts began earlier, June first, on the Pennsylvania Railroad; the Brotherhood of Engineers, Conductors and Firemen did nothing to protect its members, and workers took matters into their own hands. But wages were not the only working conditions at issue on railroads. Workers disapproved of the "first crew in, first crew out" system, which left workers no rest or family time. The length of the work day was calculated by miles rather than hours, and that mileage more than doubled. Runs were irregular, thereby making wages and work schedules erratic. No overtime pay was granted; reduction in crews meant longer hours, harder work handling extra cars.

Railroad brotherhoods, organized to assist workers in reaching their goals, were ineffectual; delegates were intimidated by rail officials and frequently capitulated to owners' demands without consulting the rank-and-file. And unions were full of spies, spreading word of work stoppages to company officials, who would in turn fire potential strike committee members. This panic would lead committee leaders to deny reports of impending strikes or work actions, leaving locals devoid of union leadership and direction. The Great Upheaval was the result of independent initiatives up and down the rails.

Three hundred federal troops entered Martinsburg on July 19; the workers in Martinsburg were supplanted in their efforts by strikebreakers from Baltimore, who began running the trains under military control. Just when it appeared as though the strike was indeed broken, railroad workers received support from wide-ranging sources: striking boatmen on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal; miners from Piedmont, West Virginia; boatmen, migrant workers, and young boys at Cumberland, Maryland. The president of the B&O, recognizing the possible extent of the strike, urged Maryland Governor John Carroll to call up the National Guard. Again, met by large numbers of labor sympathizers, the militia was driven back; Governor Carroll wired President Hayes for the U.S. Army.

During the same week, the Pennsylvania Railroad ordered a change in the operation of all freights running eastward from Pittsburgh, resulting in more work and increased danger of accidents and layoffs. Again, crew members independently refused to obey orders. Word of the strike spread quickly, and so did the arrival of militia.

On Sunday, July 22, militia dispersed an angry crowd with threats of gunfire in Buffalo, New York; on Monday, the crowd returned armed, pushed aside the militia, and forced the closing of the Erie roundhouse. By that evening, all major railroads abandoned attempts at moving anything but local passenger trains out of Buffalo.

Strike actions took place in sympathy around the nation: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - shops closed; Zanesville, Ohio - hotel construction halted, factories and foundries shut down; Toledo, Ohio - general strike, calling for a minimum wage of $1.50 per day; Texas and Pacific Railroad workers in Marshall, Texas, strike against the ten per cent cut. African-American workers in the South struck for equal pay to white workers in Galveston, Texas; black sewer workers in Louisville, Kentucky, initiated a strike that within three days involved coopers, textile workers, brick makers, cabinet workers and factory workers. Within a week after it began in Martinsburg, the railroad strike reached East St. Louis, where 500 members of the St. Louis Workingmen's Party joined 1,000 railroad workers and residents. Strikers in St. Louis continued operation of non-freight trains themselves, collecting fares; rail officials would have preferred to have all service extinguished, so that passengers would discredit the strikers and side with the companies.

For all of its fervor and support, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 ended by August 1, unsuccessful, its workers no better off at the end than when it began. Workers did not receive pay raises; legislation strengthened anti-union attitudes, and state militias were increased. What went wrong? In many ways, the very spontaneity of the strike was its own undoing; the workers were, after all, unorganized. The strike evolved, or erupted, because of a collective dissatisfaction with workers' loss of control to company bosses, and an almost subliminal idea that their power lay in mutual support. The workers overthrew established authority and control, but were unable to sustain the momentum or unity as the strike grew. After initially being ousted, forces of law and order regrouped in short order and were able to marshal their forces swiftly and confidently. In cities such as Chicago, Civil War veterans were organized ward by ward; civilians were sworn in as special police, freeing regular police for strike-related duty. The general public feared the violence of the workers; many editorials and pundits aligned their actions with those of the 1871 Paris Commune uprising. Whispers and headlines included the words "socialists," "anarchists," and "communists." Behind all local and state efforts to break the strike was the federal government, with its military and legislative muscle.

Ultimately the strike involved more than 100,000 railroad workers in fourteen states; they walked off their jobs, smashed cars and pulled up tracks in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Toledo, Louisville, Buffalo, and San Francisco. Before service was restored, more than 100 were dead, hundreds injured, thousands jailed, $5 million of property destroyed.

The Great Strike of 1877 is memorable for being the first of many to follow. Its dramatic display of cooperative power virtually ceased the movements of society and commerce. This lesson was not lost on business owners, many of whom thought twice about cutting wages in the near future. Some companies in the 1880s initiated labor reforms, providing death benefits, limited medical services, and pension plans for their workers. The Workingmen's Party gained a national presence. And, in 1878, the opponents of workers' revolts began constructing the protective armories.


Sources:

  • The Albany Argus. July 16 - August 2, 1877.
  • Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! Revised and updated edition. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1997.
  • Creating America: a History of the United States. Evanston, Illinois: McDougall-Littell, 2001.
  • Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1934, 1962 (renewed).
  • Lesh, Bruce. "Using Primary Sources to Teach the Rail Strike of 1877." Organization of American Historians Magazine of History: The Gilded Age. Vol. 13 No. 4, Summer 1999.
  • Mofford, Juliet Haines (editor). Talkin' Union: The American Labor Movement. Carlisle, MA: Discovery Enterprises, Ltd., 1997.
Last Updated: March 18, 2014