Not too many folks know much about the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, put down by Federal troops. It’s one of those now obscure labor disputes of ancient times; useless information which bears no resemblance to modern day America. Certainly nothing mentioned in American History class in high school.
Au contraire mon frere!
The 1870’s were a period of monumental economic turmoil. And it started with a bank failure, railroad and business bankruptcies, a disputed Presidential election, massive unemployment and then the great railroad strike.
On September 18, 1873 the nation’s largest investment banking firm, Jay Cooke and Company collapsed.
As 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 as the company which had handled most of the government’s Civil War loans, its failure was catastrophic. In response, the economy sputtered and then collapsed.
Shortly after Cooke’s demise, the Federal government slashed spending, the New York Stock Exchanged closed for 10 days, credit dried up, foreclosures and factory closings became common. Of the country’s 364 railroads, 89 went bankrupt, over 18,000 businesses failed between 1873 and 1875. Unemployment reached 14 percent by 1876, while many workers who kept their jobs were employed for a mere six months out of the year. A wage of $1 a day was not uncommon.
This economic cataclysm is now blandly referred to as the Panic of 1873.
With the end of the Civil War the country experienced feverish unregulated growth with the government giving massive land grants and loans to railroad companies and speculators all channeled through Jay Cook and Company. Thus, the massive overbuilding of the nation’s railroads, and the over investment by bankers of depositors’ funds in the railroads laid the foundation for the Panic and the depression that followed.
Sound familiar? Wait. There’s more.
The Presidential election of 1876 resulted in a narrow popular vote victory for Sanuel Tilden, the Democrat over the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. While Tilden had an electoral college plurality of 184-165 he did not have a majority as required by the U.S. Constitution. He needed 185 votes, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana had sent two sets of electors, one pledged to each. There were deals to be made.
The election went to the House which formed a 15 man Comission (5 from the House, 5 from the Senate and 5 Justices) to decide the disputed electoral votes.
The commission via the Southern Electors eventually awarded the Presidency to Hayes in return for a commitment to the Southern electors to remove Federal troops from Southern states. The vote was 185-184 in favor of Hayes. This deal was part of a proposal put forth by Thomas A. Scott, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Railroad. More about him later. The election of Hayes and the withdrawal of Federal troops from the south signaled the imposition of Jim Crow and the beginning of another hundred years of black oppression.
The mood of the country grew darker, as the majority who had voted for Tilden felt disenfranchised.
The Great Railroad Strike started in Martinsburg, West Virginia on July 14, 1877 in response to two wage cuts in 6 months by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Striking workers would not allow any of the stock to roll until this second wage cut was revoked. The Governor sent in state militia units to restore train service, but the soldiers refused to use force against the strikers and the governor called for federal troops.
The strike spead to Maryland. When the Governor called out the Guard, citizens in Baltimore attacked them in the streets as they marched to Camden Yards to put down the strike. The Guard fired on the crowds, killing ten and wounding 25. The mob burned the station, destroyed rolling stock and damaged engines. The President sent the Marines to Baltimore to restore order. (The Orioles baseball stadium stands on the site – Camden Yards)
The strike then spread to Pittsburgh where on July 21, state militia bayoneted strikers, killing 20 and wounding 29 others.
Our Thomas A. Scott, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Rail Road, often considered 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.”
Rather than quell the uprising however, this action infuriated the strikers who then forced the militiamen to take refuge in a railroad roundhouse and set fires that razed 39 buildings and destroyed 104 locomotives and over twelve hundred freight and passenger cars.
On July 22, the militiamen 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 over a month of constant rioting and bloodshed, President Hayes sent in federal troops to end the strikes.
The strike’s fury spread to Reading Pennsylvania where 16 strikers were shot by the state militia. The citizenry destroyed the Reading bridge, the railroad’s only link to the West to stop the militia from proceeding to Pittsburgh.
The Burning of the Reading Bridge
On July 24 rail traffic in East St. Louis and Chicago was paralyzed by strikers as coal miners went out on strike in sympathy. The Mayor of Chicago called for 5,000 vigilantes to help restore order and shortly after Federal troops arrived.
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 strikers occurred at the Halsted Street viaduct and on Canal Street. The headline of the Chicago Sun Times screamed, “Terrors Reign, The Streets of Chicago Given Over to Howling Mobs of Thieves and Cutthroats.”.
Order was finally restored, with the deaths of nearly 20 men and boys, the wounding of scores more, and the loss of property valued in the millions of dollars.
On July 25, 1000 men and boys, many of them coal miners, marched to the Reading Railroad Depot in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. They looted the depot when the town announced it would only pay them $1/day for emergency public employment. The mayor, who owned coal mines, formed a vigilante group that shot 16 strikers, killing two.
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.
Who got blamed for the strike? The Illinois Governor blamed the “vagrant and willfully idle”.
Others, like the editors of the New York World blamed “the hands of men dominated by the devilish spirit of communism”. Socialists. Immigrants.
In the 1876 election deal, Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose “mediation” plan delivered the Southern electoral votes to Hayes got a federal bailout of the Texas and Pacific railroad in which he owned a large stake. While it is not clear if this deal led to the sending of federal troops to the strike-torn areas, the possibility of a quid pro quo arrangement is reasonable.
In the years that followed workers learned they had to organize into unions to obtain rights and work for labor legislation. The railroad workers had no union in 1877 – and they were shot down in the streets by their own government. It was not the first time and it would not be the last. Do you have any doubt your own government would do the same to you today?
Meanwhile in Newport, Rhode Island the Vanderbilts of the New York Central Railroad dynasty would be building Summer cottages within 15 years . The Breakers and Marble House would be the scene of many a fabulous social season.