The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
About This Packet/Notes for Educators

This instructional packet uses newspaper articles from the nineteenth century to create a case study of a significant event in American labor history, the Railroad Strike of 1877, frequently referred to as the Great Strike. By using newspapers written and published at the time events occur, readers experience the emotion and the events as they unfold, without the filter of time and changing perspective. And, since they were written to be read by a wide variety of citizenry possessing varying levels of literacy, newspapers of any period provide classrooms with documents that may be more accessible to students than legislation, speeches and other textual primary sources.

Who Can Use This Packet?

The packet is designed for teachers and students of New York State and American history, and those wishing to learn more about the beginnings of organized labor in the United States. It may be used by teachers of middle school students in grade 8, high school students in grade 11, or resource and academic intervention programs. A correlation of the activities in this packet with the New York State Learning Standards and Performance Indicators for the Intermediate and Commencement Levels follows these Notes.

The packet may also find utility at the college level. Because it is a case study, students of labor history will find material to support secondary sources, and to begin their own primary research. Because it is an instructional packet, professors of methodology and students preparing for careers in social studies and/or English education can analyze the materials and activities for pedagogical construction and their implementation of NYS Standards. Additionally, supplemental or parallel activities using the documents can be developed as a practical application of educational theory.

Teachers are welcome to copy and use these materials if proper credit is given. The suggested acknowledgment is:

"Courtesy of the Friends of the New York State Newspaper Project. The New York State Newspaper Project was funded by the New York State Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities."

About the Articles

The majority of editorials and articles were selected for this packet based on several criteria. The Albany Argus was an influential newspaper published in the last half of the nineteenth century in Albany, New York. As such, it is frequently cited in fiction and non-fiction writing about the period, and is available via interlibrary loan to students and teachers throughout New York State through the New York State Library and your local public library on microfilm. More information may be obtained by referencing The Albany Argus for July 16, 1877 - August 5, 1877, or other newspapers published during that period.

The specific articles themselves can each stand alone, either providing an overview or particular viewpoint regarding the strike, or information to broaden an understanding of the topic and its importance at the local and regional level. The articles are in transcription, keeping the original spellings and punctuation, to facilitate student reading. Please note that spelling and punctuation are inconsistent across articles, or incorrect by today's standards. Spelling and punctuation were not standardized in print media until the early 1900s.

The packet contains more articles than are used in the student activities; they offer additional background information and details, and may or may not be used in the classroom, as the teacher deems appropriate. The articles are all textual in nature. Newspapers did not publish photographs or illustrations on a regular basis until the1890s. Visuals and non-text materials concerning labor history may be found on the Internet or in other sources; a list of related resources is at the end of this packet.

The last article in the packet is from The Buffalo Morning Express (July 16, 1892). It was found serendipitously and is a researcher's dream: an interview with the leader of the Railroad Strike of 1877 fifteen years after the fact, at the beginning of the Homestead Steel Strike in 1892. Not only does it provide a concise overview of the 1877 event; it contrasts the goals and actions of laborers in 1877 with those of 1892 from the perspective of one who was there. It was too useful and too rich to leave out.

Student Activities

The activities were created as instructional materials; students will learn the topic and develop research/reading skills as they proceed through the activities. Therefore, the use of class instruction and notes, texts, reference materials and other resources is necessary to complete the activities.

Teachers are encouraged to determine point allocations for various activities prior to distributing the assignment to students. This allows teachers to weight some items more heavily than others; employ letter grades for more interpretive items; and assign some items as individual work, group work, class discussion, or challenge activities. Teachers are encouraged to establish their own rubrics or scoring guides, based on their instructional goals and objectives for their students.

The activities are not numbered in sequential order, nor is one designed to be a prerequisite for others. Each activity is self-contained. Teachers can do one or several activities in the packet, dependent upon the ability and skills of their respective classes. Activities such as the guided readings or constructed response questions could be assigned as homework. Writing assignments could be developed in English/language arts classes. Student Activity 5 may be appropriate for Participation in Government or Advanced Placement classes, as classroom discussion in middle school, or as a challenge activity. Student Activity 6 (DBQ) could serve as an introduction to the study of labor history in the nineteenth century, and as an assessment of student research, analysis, and document interpretation.

The Short Answer Worksheet for Student Activity 6 - DBQ (Part A) contains 15 questions. Teachers may allocate credit in a variety of ways. For example, teachers may allocate 2 points for each correct answer on Part A, for a total of 30%, and allocate 70% for the essay (total score: 100%).

Terminology & Concepts

DBQs and constructed response questions use terminology that may be unfamiliar to teachers and students. Therefore, it is important for teachers to introduce terms and concepts, and frequently use them throughout the academic year. The greater the students' familiarity with the concepts and format, the more successful they will become with the process. What follows are working and simplified definitions of the some concepts important to using documents in the classroom.

  • document: any map, chart, illustration, graph, photograph, or written material which may be analyzed and interpreted to obtain information. This should not be confused with a primary source.
  • primary source:
    1. an official document (e.g. license; legislation; report card):
    2. eye- or ear-witness account (e.g. letters; journal entries; interviews; oral histories), or
    3. physical remains (e.g. photographs; clothing; furniture) that provides information about an event or time period and is from the period. Primary sources require interpretation by the reader or observer, unlike secondary sources (such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles) which have the interpretation of authors and editors, are written after the fact, and base their information on other sources.
  • evidence: specific information, such as legislation, events, biographical data, organizations, relevant dates; information and details obtained from the document in question.
  • support: specific evidence that helps prove a position or point of view.
  • thesis statement: a statement, proposition or position requiring agreement or disagreement; opinions regarding the thesis statement must be defended with related and supporting evidence taken from documents and/or outside sources (e.g. texts).


Last Updated: March 18, 2014