Monday, May 20, 2013

Dimotsis: Great Railroad Strike of 1877

Michael Dimotsis
May 8, 2013
Great Railroad Strike of 1877
When people look back and think of the violence in labor history in the United States some may think back to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. This strike was our country’s first major railroad strike. The United States needed railroads to function properly in this period and the strike threatened this system. It threatened the system by bringing about much violence and disaster to not only the railroad tracks thus hurting the companies but to the cities that the tracks passed through as well. This strike also negatively affected many lives. Many fires raged in places such as Philadelphia, and many people were killed or injured, not just strikers and militia/troops but also bystanders. Even though the Great Railroad Strike lasted only a couple of weeks, the violence that tore through the nation had effects that lasted much longer.

There is not one single reason why this strike occurred but many reasons that all came together to bring about this catastrophic event. One reason is that there was a reduction in wages. The president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, John W. Garrett, said in a letter to his railroad employees, that the pay of every company employee who received more than one dollar a day would be reduced by ten percent on and after July 16, 1877. 1 The workweek was also slashed to sometimes only two or three days a week. In addition, many people were still affected by the Panic of 1873 so lowering the already low wages outraged many railroad workers that needed the money to survive.2 On other railroad lines in July, The Pennsylvania Railroad publicized that they would be adding to their eastbound trains, almost doubling the size, but there would be no additions to the crews. Without an increase in the size of the crew, these workers would be working much harder for the same wages. The workers at the Pennsylvania Railroad responded by taking control of the switches at the rail yard, which then blocked the movement of the trains.3 Railroad workers all over did not feel that they deserved the wages they had. They definitely did not deserve their wages being cut or the workload increasing at the same time. For them the solution was simple: strike.
On July 13, 1877, right after the Baltimore and Ohio Company cut wages by ten percent again forty workers walked out of the job. This starts the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. By the end of July 13, workers successfully blocked freight trains around the Baltimore area and in West Virginia. These workers only allowed passenger traffic flow to go by. Soon this strike escalated into violence. Violence broke out in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis and Kansas City. Some governors called in the state militias to help get the violence under control. The militia in many places responded with more violence; they fired their bayonets at the strikers and innocent people were caught up in the fighting. When the mobs fought back against the militias with fierce violence governors in some states, like Maryland, asked President Rutherford Hayes if he could send in the troops because of how bad the violence was. 4
In some places, the militia did not respond with violence to the strikers. Some saw the strike as reasonable and empathized with the railroad workers. This occurred in Pittsburgh. When the militia became sympathetic with the railroad workers campaign the governor had to call in the National Guard to put a stop to the strikers’ violent tendencies. The National Guard came in, and like militias in other cities, they used intense violence to push back the strikers. The National Guard fired into a group; they not only hurt strikers but innocents as well. Twenty civilians were killed which included at least three young children. One newspaper in the area wrote, “Shot in Cold Blood by the Roughs of Philadelphia. The Lexington of the Labor Conflict at Hand. The Slaughter of Innocents.”5 It’s tragic how the strike shifted so quickly from being about working disputes and wages into a battle of violence where innocent people got killed. Also on July 25, 1877, violence broke out in Chicago when five thousand vigilantes came in to try to restore order but their presence ended up only increasing the bloodshed. The day later was even worse, as more violence broke out which resulted in the death of eighteen people.6 At this point, the strike, which started out with good intentions of the strikers over disputes on wage relations, started to escalate into a bloodbath of violence.
Pittsburgh was hit hard with the violence. First, the National Guards shot into crowds, hitting innocents. Secondly, fires went through the city, burning over thirty buildings almost fifty passenger cars on trains as well as over a thousand freight cars. There were millions in damages. By the end of the strike, about forty people were killed in just Pittsburgh alone. Over the entire country, there were more than a hundred deaths.7 This strike was far from peaceful; it was one of the most violent of the time. At the full strike, fourteen thousand rioters took to the street to wreak mayhem. It seems like chaos was the norm for this strike.
The main activity of the strikers was to shut down the freight traffic on the railroads. On July 21st 1877, strikers in the east of St. Louis shut down the freight traffic there and not long after the 24th, mobs that were in Chicago closed railroads in Baltimore, Maryland as well as railroads in Illinois and Ohio. Strikers in other cities later that day also shut down their railroads as well. 8 Even though the strike was pretty much over by the end of July, by shutting down the railroads these strikers felt powerful, important and noticeable.
There were certain groups who were blamed for the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Many people believed that foreigners were to blame. Some people blamed the violence on Bohemians and Germans; while others say the event was a lot like how Paris was during the reign of the Commune that happened in 1870 not long before the strike. Another possible theory is that the strike came out of Marxist ideas that in some states made anti-union sentiment grow. A prominent person, Governor Cullom of Illinois, believed that it was simply the unemployed and idle people that sparked the strike.9 Some say that the strike was not completely made up of just railroad workers and that many people that made up the mobs were just lawless violent people. In Chicago, the police arrested Mr. Clinch, a man who was a prominent activist of the present lawless movement. He was present during the attacks on the police and he liked to facilitate violence.10 Even though lawless men were part of the strike for the violence aspect, there was still railroad workers part of it because of their grievances. "The strike," an anonymous merchant in Baltimore said, "is not a revolution of fanatics willing to fight for an idea. It is a revolt of working men against low prices of labor, which have not been accomplished with corresponding low prices of food, clothing and house rent.11” More realistically, it was probably a combination of factors that truly influenced the spark that started the strike and the depression that was occurring probably had some effect on influencing the strike.”
The strike may have lasted only a few weeks but it will forever be etched into the past of United States labor history as a bloody, intensely violent strike in which not only were innocents killed and injure but also strikers themselves did not achieve much out of the strike. One thing that this strike did do is set a precedent for strikes to come. Strikes continued throughout the 19th century as labor strikes related to the railroads occurred again from 1884 to 1886 and from the years 1888 to 1889 and finally again in 1894.12 The Great Railroad Strike was the first major rail strike in the United States to occur. The strike also misused the railroad network that was needed for national unity, without this network, chaos was wreaked throughout major cities. As much as we would wish to forget, this is a part of our history. The bloodshed is important to remember because it shows how labors can only take so much abuse before they snap, turn to violence, and scream: strike!

1 Lesh, Bruce. "Using Primary Sources to Teach the Rail Strike of 1877." OAH Magazine of History (Organization of American Historians), 1999: 38-47 JSTOR.

2 Digital History . Digital History . 2013. (accessed April 29, 2013).

3 Digital History . Digital History . 2013. (accessed April 29, 2013).

4 Digital History . Digital History . 2013. (accessed April 29, 2013).

5 Digital History . Digital History . 2013. (accessed April 29, 2013).

6 St. Louis Research Project. East St. Louis Action Research Project. 2000. (accessed April 29, 2013).

7 Digital History . Digital History . 2013. (accessed April 29, 2013).

8 St. Louis Research Project. East St. Louis Action Research Project. 2000. (accessed April 29, 2013).

9 St. Louis Research Project. East St. Louis Action Research Project. 2000. (accessed April 29, 2013).

10 "Railroads and the Making of Modern America." Pittsburgh Daily Post . 28 1877, July . (accessed May 1, 2013).

11 Digital History . Digital History . 2013. (accessed April 29, 2013).

12 Digital History . Digital History . 2013. (accessed April 29, 2013).

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