The Strikes of 1877

In the year 1877, the country was in the grip of the Depression. In the hot summer, whole families lived in cellars, drank infested water, and children became sick in large numbers. The atmosphere among railroad workers was tense because of low wages ($1.75 a day for brakemen working twelve hours), scheming and profiteering by the railroad companies, and deaths and injuries among the workers - loss of hands, feet, fingers, the crushing of men between cars. Railroad work was one of the most dangerous jobs in America; over two hundred workers were being killed each year, and thirty thousand injured. In the eyes of the railroad companies, these accidents were 'acts of God', and should be ascribed to the carelessness of the workers. The Locomotive Firemen's Magazine had a different view: "It comes to this: while railroad managers reduce their force and require men to double duty, involving loss of rest and sleep . . . the accidents are chargeable to the greed of the corporation[58]".

When company after company started announcing wage cuts, a series of violent strikes by railroad workers in a dozen cities followed. These strikes shook the nation as no labor conflict had done before. At the Baltimore & Ohio station in Martinsburg, West Virginia, workers determined to fight the wage cut went on strike, uncoupled the engines, drove them into the yard, and announced no more trains would leave Martinsburg until the 10 percent cut was canceled. A crowd of support converged on the depot, and there were too many for the local police to disperse. Baltimore & Ohio officials asked governor Matthews for military protection, and he sent in militia. A train tried to get through, guarded by the militia, and a striker, trying to derail it, exchanged gunfire with a militiaman trying to stop him. The striker was shot in his thigh and arm. The arm was amputated later that day, and nine days later he died.

Six hundred freight trains now jammed the yards at Martinsburg. The West Virginia governor asked newly elected President Rutherford Hayes for federal troops, arguing that the state militia was insufficient. Being composed of many railroad workers, the militia was indeed not totally reliable. Much of the U.S. army was engaged in Indian battles in the West. Congress had not yet put aside money for the army, but J.P. Morgan, August Belmont, and other bankers now offered to lend money to pay army officers (but no enlisted men). Federal troops arrived in Martinsburg, and the freight cars came into motion.

In Baltimore, the governor summoned the National Guard at the request of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Thousands of railroad sympathizers surrounded the armory of the National Guard and threw rocks. The soldiers came out, firing, and the streets became the scene of a bloody battle. The end of the day found ten men (or boys) dead, more severely wounded, one soldier wounded. New battles broke out, and soon three passenger cars, the station platform, and a locomotive were on fire. The governor asked for federal troops, and Hayes responded. It took five hundred soldiers for Baltimore to quiet down.

The rebellion of the railroad workers began to spread. Joseph Dacus, then editor of the St. Louis Republican, reported:

Strikes were occurring almost every hour. The great state of Pennsylvania was in an uproar; New Jersey was afflicted by a paralyzing dread; New York was mustering an army of militia; Ohio was shaken from Lake Erie to the Ohio River; Indiana rested in a dreadful suspense. Illinois, and especially its great metropolis,Chicago, apparently hung on the verge of a vortex of confusion and tumult. St. Louis had already felt the effect of the premonitory shocks of the uprising…[59]

The strike spread to Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Again, it was an unplanned outburst of repressed anger, happening outside of the regular union. The trikers multiplied, joined by young boys and men from the mills, mines, and factories. The freight trains no longer moved out of the city. The Trainman's Union had not organized this, but it tried to take control by calling a meeting, inviting "all workingmen to make common cause with their brethren on the railroad." The Philadelphia troops came in, and at least ten workingmen were killed, most of them not railroaders. More burning, looting, and shooting occurred, twenty-four people died, seventy-nine buildings were burned to the ground. Something of a general strike was developing in Pittsburgh, involving mill workers, car workers, miners, laborers, and the employees at the Carnegie steel plant.