Great Railroad Strike of 1877

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In July 1877 West Virginia was the scene of a railroad strike that soon became the first nationwide strike in United States history. The trouble began when an economic depression led railroad companies to cut wages. Workers in West Virginia withheld their labor, and paralysis quickly spread to railways in the East and the Midwest in what became known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

In reaction to a business slump, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia cut wages for all employees by ten percent, including the president of the company. During the nineteenth century wages for unskilled laborers were meager, averaging $10 per week, although skilled workers could earn $20 per week. Since a 10 percent cut in pay caused a financial crisis for the families of many railroad workers, a number of train firemen refused to accept the wage cut and went on strike. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad firemen were soon joined by the employees of other rail lines in a sympathy strike. The railroad network itself insured that sympathizers stretched beyond the state of West Virginia, and strikes later broke out in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. It wasn't long before over half of all American railway line were closed.

In Martinsburg, West Virginia, a small number of local volunteer militiamen tried to break strike against the Baltimore and Ohio. Several strike leaders were arrested, but a supportive crowd quickly rescued them. West Virginia's governor Henry Matthew attempted to send in more military support for the beleaguered town. But the militia company called to suppress the strike would not mobilize, since many of its volunteers were railroad workers or had family ties to railroad workers. West Virginia had four organized militia units, but since two of them sympathized with the strikers, the state had need of re-enforcement. Governor Matthews requested federal troops from President Rutherford B. Hayes (18771881) to help end the strike. The state's appeal was followed by similar requests from Kentucky and Pennsylvania. President Hayes had the resources and complied. Federal troops were available because the end of Reconstruction saw the withdrawal of many soldiers from the South.

The worst violence took place in Pittsburgh, where local militia ordered to break the strike instead sided with the workers. Federal troops arrived, and ten strikers were killed when violence erupted. Enraged by the deaths of the strikers, a crowd attacked the federal troops, driving them from the city. The mob then turned to destroying railroad property. Additional strikes occurred along the nation's railroad lines, and federal troops continued to provide assistance to beleaguered states unprepared to deal with the strikers and their widespread support.

At the height of the 1877 strikes, eleven states called 45,000 Guardsmen into service. The War Department committed 2,100 regular troops. By August 2, 1877, the strikes were over. Order was restored and the trains were running again. Military force, assisted by managerial restraint, ended the walkout. The wages of railroad workers were restored or at least not cut further.

Newspapers blamed the strike on Communists and Communist sympathizers. President Hayes, however, was just as quick to deny the involvement of Communists. The attacks, he said, were directed against the railroads and not against property in general, as one would expect if the strike was Communist inspired.

Hayes was both praised and criticized for his use of federal troops. Striking workers and their sympathizers, many of whom were Civil War (18611865) veterans, deeply resented his employment of federal troops to break the strike. On the other hand, the president's supporters pointed to his cautious use of the troops and his reluctance to cause bloodshed. Critics, including Pennsylvania Railroad president Thomas Scott, charged that the president waited too long to call in the troops and that the wide scope of the strike was a result of the government's failure to protect the private property of the corporation and its shareholders.

Regardless of blame, the Railroad Strike of 1877 revealed serious labor unrest throughout the nation. The railroad industry targeted unions as a main source of their labor problems, and states re-examined their need for a well-equipped and trained militia. This widespread strike was among the first acts of what was to become a national labor movement.

See also: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Labor Movement, Railroad Industry, Reconstruction


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Foner, Philip Sheldon. The Great Labor Uprising of 1877. New York: Monad Press: distributed by Path-finder Press, 1977.

Rich, Bernard. The President and Civil Disturbances. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 1941.

Scheips, Paul. Benevolence and Bayonets and Civil Military Relations in the United States. Evansville: University of Evansville, 1988.

Yeller, Samuel. American Labor Struggles. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1936.