Railroad Melee

Tracking down a watershed moment for labor.

HUMANITIES, November/December 2011, Volume 32, Number 6

The Civil War sparked a number of unexpected consequences, but a boom in railroad construction was one of its most notable. Between 1866 and 1873, roughly 35,000 miles of track were laid, making railroad companies the second largest employer of American workers. But rail construction was a tenuous business, dependent upon sufficient capital. And so, on September 18, 1873, when Jay Cooke & Company, the principal backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad (and, not to mention, the investment firm that had handled the government’s Civil War loans), went bust, its effects were far-reaching. Shortly afterward, the New York Stock Exchange shut down, and about one in five railroads went under.

Not surprisingly, rail workers bore the brunt. In 1877, John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, slashed wages—a 10 percent reduction in the wake of earlier cuts. His superintendent, Robert Pictairn, altered company procedure, requiring engineers to operate longer trains with smaller crews. Workers became irate. On July 20, crowds assembled in downtown Baltimore, interrupting service and damaging rail property. The governor of Maryland summoned federal troops, who, with some sympathetic delay, restored order.

But a fuse had been lit. The Great Railway Strike of 1877, as it is now known, spread westward to Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Nebraska. Some estimates are that a total of 100,000 workers went on strike. At Railroads and the Making of Modern America, a website compiled by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and funded by NEH, visitors can examine images and broadsides and read harrowing accounts.

Violence occurred in Pittsburgh, where rioters torched thirty-nine buildings (including the Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse) and damaged 140 locomotives. Thomas Alexander Scott, an often caricatured robber baron, suggested that the strikers should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” His wish became a gruesome reality, and, after a month of near constant rioting, about a hundred people, including forty-some strikers, lay dead.

In Illinois, rail traffic was paralyzed by mobs. Coal miners stood in solidarity with rail workers, while Chicago’s Workingmen’s party organized a demonstration that drew thousands. Alarmed by the mounting violence, Judge Thomas Drummond of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, “A strike or other unlawful interference with the trains will be a violation of the United States law, and the court will be bound to take notice of it and enforce the penalty.” His ruling was ineffective, and confrontations between police and protestors became bloody. A Chicago Times headline read, “Terrors Reign, The Streets of Chicago Given Over to Howling Mobs of Thieves and Cutthroats.” The result was millions of dollars in property damage and eighteen casualties.

In the strike’s aftermath, an editor at Harper’s Weekly condemned its brutality, claiming, “We frankly own that the scenes at Pittsburgh and Chicago were worthy only of the savages. . . . Riot and anarchy are mere barbarism.” Local presses disagreed; they condemned the greed of industry captains and applauded the efforts of desperate workers.

The Great Railway Strike of 1877, then, was an improbable interlude during the span of a business that transformed America’s landscape. It was, if nothing else, a watershed moment in the pursuit of fair labor practices.