Digital History

Industrialization and the Working Class

The Great Railroad Strike Previous Next
Digital History ID 3189



The total miles of railroad track in the United States increased from just 23 in 1830 to 35,000 by the end of the Civil War to a peak of 254,000 in 1916. By the eve of World War I, railroads employed one out of every 25 American workers. The industry's growth was accompanied by bitter labor disputes. Many of the nation's most famous strikes involved the railroads.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the country's first major rail strike and witnessed the first general strike in the nation's history. The strikes and the violence it spawned briefly paralyzed the country's commerce and led governors in ten states to mobilize 60,000 militia members to reopen rail traffic. The strike would be broken within a few weeks, but it helped set the stage for later violence in the 1880s and 1890s, including the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886, the Homestead Steel Strike near Pittsburgh in 1892, and the Pullman Strike in 1894.

In 1877, northern railroads, still suffering from the Financial Panic of 1873, began cutting salaries and wages. The cutbacks prompted strikes and violence with lasting consequences. In May the Pennsylvania Railroad, the nation's largest railroad company, cut wages by 10 percent and then, in June, by another 10 percent. Other railroads followed suit. On July 13, the Baltimore & Ohio line cut the wages of all employees making more than a dollar a day by 10 percent. It also slashed the workweek to just two or three days. Forty disgruntled locomotive firemen walked off the job. By the end of the day, workers blockaded freight trains near Baltimore and in West Virginia, allowing only passenger traffic to get through.

Also in July, the Pennsylvania Railroad announced that it would double the length of all eastbound trains from Pittsburgh with no increase in the size of their crews. Railroad employees responded by seizing control of the rail yard switches, blocking the movement of trains.

Soon, violent strikes broke out in Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Governors in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia called out their state militias. In Baltimore, Charles A. Malloy, a 20-year-old volunteer in the Maryland National Guard, described the scene: "We met a mob, which blocked the streets. "They came armed with stones and as soon as we came within reach they began to throw at us." Fully armed and with bayonets fixed, the militia fired, killing 10, including a newsboy and a 16-year-old student. The shootings sparked a rampage. Protesters burned a passenger car, sent a locomotive crashing into a side full of freight cars, and cut fire hoses. At the height of the melee, 14,000 rioters took to the streets. Maryland's governor telegraphed President Rutherford Hayes and asked for troops to protect Baltimore.

"The strike," an anonymous Baltimore merchant wrote, "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."

In Pittsburgh, where the local militia sympathized with the rail workers, the governor called in National Guard troops from Philadelphia. The troops fired into a crowd, killing more than 20 civilians, including women and at least three children. A newspaper headline read:

Shot in Cold Blood by the Roughs of Philadelphia. The Lexington of the Labor Conflict at Hand. The Slaughter of Innocents.

An angry crowd forced the Philadelphia troops to retreat to a roundhouse in the railroad complex, and set engines, buildings, and equipment ablaze. Fires raced through parts of the city, destroying 39 buildings, 104 engines, 46 passenger cars, and over 1,200 freight cars. The Pennsylvania Railroad claimed losses of more than $4 million in Pittsburgh.

When the National Guard was at last able to evacuate the roundhouse, it was harassed by strikers and rioters. A legislative report said that the National Guard forces "were fired at from second floor windows, from the corners of the streets...they were also fired at from a police station, where eight or ten policemen were in uniform." Militia and federal troops opened the railroad in Pittsburgh and Reading, Pa. was occupied by U.S. Army troops.

It appears that some 40 people were killed in the violence in Pittsburgh. Across the country more than a hundred died, including eleven in Baltimore and a dozen in Reading, Pa. By the end of July, most strike activity was over. But labor strikes in the rail yards recurred from 1884 to 1886 and from 1888 to 1889 and again in 1894.

Native-born Americans tended to blame the labor violence on foreign agitators. "It was evident," said the Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States, published in 1877, "that there were agencies at work outside the workingmen's strike. The people engaged in these riots were not railroad strikers. The Internationalists had something to do with creating scenes of bloodshed.... The the city of Baltimore were not unlike those which characterized the events in the city of Paris during the reign of the Commune in 1870."

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