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Railroad Strike of 1877

Railroad Strike of 1877

United States 1877

Synopsis

In 1877 an explosion of working-class protest rocked the United States. Initiated as a more or less spontaneous railway workers strike, it became generalized into a nationwide crescendo of street protests and pitched battles. Millions of dollars of property was destroyed, more than a hundred lives were lost, with many more injuries. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was at the explosive center of this historic upsurge, but similar confrontations and struggles wracked cities throughout the eastern and midwestern portions of the country. The uprising was systematically repressed but helped to generate future labor struggles.

Timeline

  • 1857: In its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a slave is not a citizen.
  • 1862: Major Civil War battles include Shiloh, Second Bull Run (Manassas), and Antietam. During the latter battle, 17 September is the bloodiest day in American history, with nearly 5,000 dead, and more than 20,000 wounded.
  • 1867: Establishment of the Dominion of Canada.
  • 1870: Beginning of Franco-Prussian War. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1877: In the face of uncertain results from the popular vote in the presidential election of 1876, the U.S. Electoral Commission awards the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes despite a slight popular majority for his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden. The election of 1876 will remain the most controversial in American history for the next 124 years, until overshadowed by the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
  • 1877: In part as a quid pro quo demanded by southern legislators in return for their support of the Republican Hayes over the Democrat Tilden, the new president agrees to end the period of martial law in the South known as Reconstruction.
  • 1877: Surrender of Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph to federal troops.
  • 1877: Great Britain's Queen Victoria is proclaimed the empress of India.
  • 1877: Debut of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake.
  • 1879: Thomas Edison invents the incandescent electric light.
  • 1883: Brooklyn Bridge completed.
  • 1887: Heinrich Hertz proves the existence of electromagnetic waves, which are propagated at the speed of light.

Event and Its Context

In the era of dramatic industrialization following the Civil War, the most powerful of the big business corporations were the railroad companies. During the economic depression that had begun in 1873, the companies reduced the pay of railroad workers by 10 percent. In 1877 they announced another 10 percent reduction in the workers' pay, and also insisted that railroad employees use company hotels when away from home, which meant a further reduction in real wages. Workforce reductions meant unemployment for some and intensified labor for those remaining. This generated fierce resentment among rail workers and their families, and also within the laboring population generally.

Eruption

In Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh's north side), workers held meetings in early June to organize a national Trainmen's Union that was designed to include all railway workers and to organize a general rail strike for 27 June. Information provided by company spies resulted in the firing of many union members, and the strike was cancelled, but the anger and discontent deepened. On 16 July a spontaneous strike erupted in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and quickly spread to cities including St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, and Baltimore; it hit Pittsburgh on 19 July.

Pittsburgh Massacre

Despite rising passions, the Pittsburgh strikers sought to maintain a peaceful but effective work stoppage that halted all rail traffic. Rallies and meetings explained their goals to a largely approving public. Railroad officials and state authorities, however, soon pushed events onto a different track.

State militia units from Philadelphia were ordered to Pittsburgh. (Militia units from Pittsburgh were deemed unreliable because they sympathized with the strikers.) On 21 July 600 troops arrived from Philadelphia. Led by Superintendent Robert Pitcairn of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a posse of constables with arrest warrants for the strike leaders, they found themselves confronted by crowds of men, women, and children. The crowds, loudly protesting the troops' presence and expressing support for the strikers, sought to prevent military action. The militiamen responded with a bayonet charge that resulted in injuries and provoked a hail of rocks from some sections of those assembled. The troops opened fire on the unarmed crowd, scattering them and leaving at least 20 dead (including one woman and three small children) and 29 wounded.

As word of the massacre spread, thousands of workers rushed to the scene, many of them armed. The militia retreated into the roundhouse and considered using Gatling guns against the now violent crowds, but decided at the last minute that such a move would be unwise. As it was, the enraged crowds broke every window in the roundhouse and some went on to set fire to the rail yards. The fire destroyed 39 buildings of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 104 engines, 46 passenger cars, and over 1,200 freight cars. All buildings on Penn and Liberty Avenues from Union Depot to 28th Street were consumed. It is estimated that more than $4 million in damage was done.

From Allegheny City, the Trainmen's Union sought to maintain order, working to maintain an effective strike on a nonviolent basis. Union leader Robert Ammon—who had worked as a brakeman—coordinated protection of remaining company property and even oversaw the conduct of passenger traffic on the Pennsylvania Railroad for a few days. In the same period, other workers in the Pittsburgh area, including thousands of iron and steel workers and coal miners, were inspired to go out on strike. Workers from other cities and towns in Pennsylvania joined in the strikes or in rallies and meetings supporting the strike.

On 26 July, however, regular troops of the U.S. Army joined with state militia units to take control of the city and reopen all railroad operations in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City. This was the first time in U.S. history that federal troops were utilized against strikers and labor protests. In western Pennsylvania a military force of 10,000 was deployed to secure the reopening of rail service from the Pittsburgh area to Harrisburg.

A National Working-Class Uprising

Dozens of cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest experienced some version of these confrontations and conflicts. Many newspapers and magazines interpreted the upsurge along the lines articulated by Allan Pinkerton, head of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, an "expert" who made a career of working with employers and the government to undermine and destroy labor organizations. Pinkerton saw it all as a case of "ignorant workingmen being gulled and deceived" into rebellion by "communistic scoundrels who in stealth and secret continue their conspiracies against civilization."

Pointing to the influence of the International Workingmen's Association (the First International) headed by Karl Marx, the detective chieftain asserted that "all manner of labor unions and leagues have been forming [that were] animated by the vicious dictation" of the International and that "no manufacturing town, nor any city, has escaped this baleful influence." Pinkerton further pointed out that because of worsening economic conditions, increasing numbers of workers "have become discontented and embittered," and in 1877 "by these dangerous communistic leaders were made to believe that the proper time for action had come." He pointed to the example of Chicago, where "the rantings of a young American communist named Parsons" had precipitated violent riots.

In fact, the role of Albert Parsons and other members of the socialist Workingmen's Party of the United States (WPUS) in the Chicago strike and street battles of 23-27 July were almost the opposite of that attributed to them by Pinkerton. Believing that the time was ripe not for revolution but for such things as trade unions, increased wages, socialist election campaigns, and struggles for an eight-hour workday, Parsons and his comrades eloquently shared this message with the 15,000 workers who attended a WPUS rally on 21 July. Two days later, the socialists of Chicago found that they could exercise little control over the masses of workers and enraged crowds that were engaged in pitched battles with the police. Urging moderation, they proved irrelevant to the violence swirling past them.

The only place where the WPUS was consistently in the leadership of the struggle was in St. Louis during the events of 23-28 July. Such WPUS leaders as Albert Currlin and Laurence Gronlund formed and served on a strike executive committee that helped to channel the upsurge into a nonviolent and powerfully effective general strike. This action was punctuated by impressive and spirited mass demonstrations and rallies and characterized by the executive committee functioning with a quasigovernmental authority to maintain order while advancing the workers' demands. The mingling of African American and white workers was disconcerting for some, however, and because of racist anxieties the mass demonstrations were discontinued. Nor did the strike leaders have a clear program for victory. Violent assaults by police and troops, followed by mass arrests, brought an end to what had been dubbed the "St. Louis Commune."

More typical were the events of 19-16 July in Baltimore, where the deployment of militia to break the strike generated a furious response from thousands of indignant working people. Jeers and stones from the crowds were matched by bullets from the troops. "The streets were quickly deserted and the detachment passed by," wrote an eyewitness reporter of the Baltimore Sun, "still firing random shots over their shoulders with apparent recklessness." The dead and wounded were pulled into nearby saloons and drugstores, where the floors soon "looked like a butcher's pen." Riots and arson soon overshadowed the efforts of the strike committee, which was swept aside with scorn as soon as federal troops arrived to restore order.

Insurgent crowds that included women, children, and adolescent boys surged through many cities but only a substantial minority of railroad workers participated in the rioting. Among the participants were skilled and unskilled workers, white-collar employees, professionals, and small proprietors; there was also significant ethnic and racial diversity. The crowds in these cities were responding in part to the damage done to them by unbridled industrialization and economic hard times, and many were also mobilizing against the destructive impact that the railroad companies were having on their lives.

The railroad companies were the most powerful of the big business corporations that were coming to dominate the rapidly industrializing economy. They were in the forefront of a process that was degrading not only the lives of railroad workers, but also the communities and the environments of working-class America. A major factor in the explosion was the longstanding resentment of urban residents over the railroad's impact on urban space. Streets lined with retail stores, schools, churches, saloons, and homes were impacted by the filth and noise and sometimes danger that came with frequent train traffic. The angry crowds were, in part, engaging in community uprisings in defense of their streets and neighborhoods.

In all of this, some gains were made but—in the opinion of Friedrich Sorge, the old warhorse of the First International with extensive labor contacts—two severe limitations turned potential victories into defeat. First was the "cowardice" of railway workers in New York City and New England, "whose participation would have made the strike undefeatable." Second, the workers lacked the organization to capitalize on their many victories. The backlash of the employers, who could count on powerful support by the state and national governments, was consequently triumphant.

Legacy

The strikes certainly had global impact. Karl Marx commented in London to his friend Frederick Engels that although these early efforts would be suppressed, they might indeed "form the point of origin" of a true workers' party. Marx further noted that President Rutherford B. Hayes' policies would make African Americans and the dissatisfied farmers of the West into allies of the organizing workers. Yet this fusion of rebellious forces did not take place: for the most part, African Americans and whites did not unite, and the farmers' who organized in the Grange (which soon culminated in the massive populist rebellion) remained separate from the fleeting wave of labor party efforts that swept much of the country from the late 1870s to the late 1880s.

In fact, the utter defeat of the workers through the use of U.S. troops was a key aspect of the triumph of American capitalism. This becomes clear when it is seen in the larger context of the period. Troops had just been withdrawn from the South as part of the dismantling of Reconstruction, which involved an understanding that the reestablishment of white power regimes in that region (at the expense of African American rights) would harmonize with a continuation of industrial development policies that had been advanced by the Republican Party through the 1860s and early 1870s.

Troops were deployed to the West to subdue various Native American peoples who were resisting the invasion and conquest of their homeland by railroads and white settlers. The troops were also deployed, of course, in the cities that had been rocked by working-class uprisings. In less than two decades troops would be deployed overseas when the United States (which was, by the 1890s, already the world's foremost manufacturing nation) moved to become a major world power, particularly in Latin America and Asia, beginning with the Spanish-American War.

The 1877 events highlighted the inability of local and state militia units to guarantee the law and order required for a healthy business climate in the United States. The need to create a more effective basis for the operation of troops in such circumstances resulted in the construction of a substantial number of strong armories in larger U.S. cities. In addition, the courts and state legislatures in much of the country increasingly equated labor organizing with criminal conspiracy, which initiated a wave of rulings and laws directed against labor. Although the workers' defeat of 1877 was the most dramatic indication during the Gilded Age of the power of the rising big businesses over the working class, the uprising itself was immensely powerful and helped to inspire future struggles.

Key Players

Ammon, Robert A. (1852-1915): College-educated son of a well-to-do insurance man, Ammon traveled around the country (including serving a stint in the U.S. Cavalry) before the age of 21. With a wife and child, he got a job as a railroad brakeman in 1876, but was fired in 1877 for his role in organizing the Trainmen's Union. During the 1877 strike he sought to protect company property and maintain order but was arrested and jailed when the strike was broken. After his release he moved to California and was briefly involved in anti-Chinese activity of that state's labor movement. In 1887 he moved to New York City, went into business and law, and became a prosperous figure on Wall Street.

Gronlund, Laurence (1846-1899): Under the name of Peter Lofgreen, Danish-born Gronlund (who worked at various times as a teacher, a clerk, and a journalist) was a leader of the St. Louis WPUS. He was later author of the first substantial popularization of Marxist ideas in the U.S., the 1884 classic The Cooperative Commonwealth. After drifting out of the SLP, he became a leading activist in the Nationalist Clubs initiated by Edward Bellamy, author of the best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward.

Parsons, Albert (1848-1887): Parsons was a Confederate war veteran in Texas who fell in love with and married a woman of color (Lucy Gonzales, at least partly African American, perhaps also Indian and Mexican). Parsons subsequently became a radical Republican; with the collapse of Reconstruction in Texas, he fled with his wife to Chicago, where they both become active in radical labor activities. Active in the Typographical Workers Union, he was blacklisted after 1877 when he became a full-time labor and socialist activist. Editor of the revolutionary paper The Alarm in the 1880s, and a leader of the radical wing of the eight-hour movement, he was victimized as one of the Haymarket martyrs and executed in 1887.

See also: Panic of 1873; Workingmen's Party of the United States.

Bibliography

Books

Bruce, Robert V. 1877: Year of Violence. Indianapolis:Bobbs Merril, 1959.

Burbank, David T. Reign of the Rabble: The St. Louis General Strike of 1877. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1966.

Commons, John R., and Associates. History of Labor in the United States, Vol. II. New York: Macmillan, 1918.

Foner, Philip S. The Great Labor Uprising of 1877. New York: Monad Press, 1977.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1925.

Hacker, Louis M. The Triumph of American Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947.

Pinkerton, Allan. Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives. New York: G. W. Dillingham and Co., 1878.

Sorge, Friedrich A. Labor Movement in the United States.Edited by Philip S. Foner and Brewster Chamberlin. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Stowell, David O. Streets, Railroads, and the Great Strike of1877. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

—Paul Le Blanc

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