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Reflecting on the deadly rail strike of 1877

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The looming rail strike threatening to upend holiday shopping this year adds tension to an already stressed industry. But it would hardly be the United States’ first rail strike, and compared to some of history’s most dramatic strikes, a work stoppage today would likely seem benign.

One of the nation’s earliest rail strikes occurred in 1877 and had deadly consequences. That summer, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad instituted a 10% pay cut for workers, the catalyst for a movement that ultimately left 117 dead.

The strike saw 100,000 workers from 14 states vandalizing vehicles and even ripping up railroad tracks, according to “The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore” by Bill Barry, with up to half of freight on 80,000 miles of track stopped. The movement prompted the U.S. Army to deploy, joining 45,000 state militiamen.

On July 16, 1877, workers gathered at the West Virginia B&O Railroad station to protest the pay cut. They uncoupled trains and confined them in the roundhouse, demanding the company rescind the cut. West Virginia Gov. Henry M. Matthews quickly dispatched militia to break up the crowd and get the trains moving again.

The militia attempt was unsuccessful, according to Brittanica. Many men who made up the militia were either railroad workers themselves or knew the protesters, so they lacked enthusiasm for the fight. That’s when federal troops came in. After that, trains were up and running within four days.

But by the time the trains were back in service, the mentality behind the first strike had spread.

On July 20, the movement turned deadly in Maryland, where a group of protesters worked to stop numerous trains from operating. Militiamen fought back and killed 10 people. 

Events worsened on July 21 in Pittsburgh. Again, local forces from the National Guard were first to respond to protests but were reluctant to fight against their neighbors. In response, Pennsylvania Gov. John F. Hartranft called in guardsmen from Philadelphia, who conducted a bayonet charge, which resulted in the riot. At least 20 civilians died. 

From there, the crowd started to set fires to rail equipment and structures, prompting the military to respond with gunfire throughout the night. Another 20 people were killed. 

On July 29, eight days later, railroads in Pittsburgh were back up and running after other groups of National Guardsmen and support from federal troops arrived.

As the strikes grew, military lockdowns spread throughout cities in the United States, but similar events continued, driving up the body count.

The political climate

The B&O strikes began shortly after the great reconstruction, according to Barry’s writings in “The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore” and 12 years after the Civil War. During the war, railroads expanded dramatically, and afterward, the United States continued to transform with new technologies in its infrastructure. 

By 1877, there were almost 80,000 miles of railroad track. At a time when most manufacturing firms employed fewer than 10 employees, the Pennsylvania railroad employed nearly 50,000. Since government land grants and monopoly routes supported most of the rail construction, the industry has always been closely intertwined with the government. B&O even received a charter with a tax exemption in 1827.

Additionally, many in the rail workforce were immigrants from Ireland and Southern Europe, who could provide unskilled labor for low wages but felt rail monopolies took advantage of them. This was the backdrop leading up to the protests. 

“The debate was over the rights and proper role of a working class which was being transformed by new industries and a new industrial social structure,” Barry wrote.

One clear indication of the difference between the two camps was John Work Garrett, president of B&O at the time. He had close ties with the government from his Civil War days and used those ties to influence the decision to send federal troops to break the strike. 

Throughout the movement, class prejudice and media bias were prevalent in the news — not unlike themes commonly debated among consumers of news today. Still, in 1877, it was much more blatant, with news outlets labeling strikers “vagrants,” “tramps” and “criminals.”

It is difficult for historians to get a good sense of the workers’ perspective since news outlets were on the side of the railroads. Additionally, much of the workforce was illiterate, making written perspectives from their side few and far between.

But one firsthand account from Pittsburgh was recorded and featured in “The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore.” It said railroad workers’ wages were cut so low they faced starvation, bringing them to a breaking point.

Illustration depicting discussion during rail strikes in 1877 (Photo: Library of Congress Collection)

Sweeping the nation

The strike of 1877 was one of the first national worker movements in the United States because railroads, unlike most other companies at that time, were national. Their influence extended to many sectors, making an impression on industries including box and tin can makers, canal boatmen, miners, farmers and numerous groups of black laborers, says Barry. 

One crucial sector was grain farmers and grain dealers, who often dealt with rail monopolies for rate and storage policies. Because of this, farmers and local merchants fed the strikers.

While there are some similarities in the grievances behind the 1877 strike and one that could materialize in the coming weeks, one important distinction is that this was not an organized union movement since only a few workers were part of a union at that time. It was more spontaneous. Discussion about the strike likely occurred for weeks leading up to the event, resulting in some loose organizational tactics. But most firsthand accounts at the time referred to the strike as a growing flame, encompassing numerous deadly events nationwide.

The protesters attempted to thwart working railroads. “The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore” mentioned one report from Syracuse, New York, that described workers blocking 6,000 freight cars, 70 engines and 40 freight trains.

According to Brittanica, most of the country’s strikes collapsed within the month due to a lack of structure. Without support from leaders of the prominent railway fraternal organizations, alarmed by the riots, no true organization linked each spontaneous “outburst” into a whole cohesive movement. The federal troops did not back down and workers’ anger eventually dissipated. 

“More than 100,000 workers participated in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, at the height of which more than half the freight on the country”s tracks had come to a halt,” said the Britannica article. “By the time the strikes were over, about 1,000 people had gone to jail, and some 100 had been killed.”

Little reform came from the deadly movement; companies continued to cut wages and thwarted unions. Issues surrounding wages, benefits, and unionization persist today, though the potential for 1877-style violence seems remote.

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. If there are topics that you think would be of interest, please send them to [email protected]