Workers in many industries joined the railroaders in their strike, making this first nationwide strike one of the broadest general strikes in American labor history. Although the strikers initially gained much public sympathy, the widespread violence associated with the strike discredited the labor movement in the eyes of many Americans.
During the summer of 1877, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad cut wages by 10 percent for all workers making more than $1 per day. A few months earlier, the Pennsylvania Railroad had made similar reductions. Railroad workers, many of whom were unorganized and represented by no union, were greatly concerned by these pay cuts and the general treatment of workers. A group in Baltimore, Maryland, organized a
The strike began on July 16, 1877, at Camden Junction, near Baltimore, where brakemen and firemen refused to work. The following day, workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, also walked off the job. The strike soon spread to nearly every major railroad center in the United States–only New England and the South were generally untouched. The railroads hired nonunion workers, but in many localities striking workers used mob action to prevent these “scabs” from operating the trains.
State militia forces were called out in many cities to restore order, but the militiamen often sympathized with the workers and were reluctant to employ force. The governor of West Virginia asked for federal troops, and President Rutherford B. Hayes sent the U.S. Army to restore order, marking the first such use of the U.S. military to put down a strike. Army troops were sent to cities in several states. The government argued that this use of force was necessary to protect the trains that carried the U.S. mail.
Magazine illustration shows the burning and sacking of freight trains (top), a mob outside James Bown & Son gunworks (center), and the burning of offices and machines shops in Pittsburgh.
Throughout the United States, there were mass demonstrations, general strikes, and violence in support of the railroad workers. Railroad equipment was vandalized and burnt, and cargoes were looted. By the time the strike ended, about half of the railroad traffic in the United States had been disrupted. More than 100,000 workers had gone on strike. Countless numbers of the unemployed had joined in demonstrations and protests in sympathy with the strikers. More than one hundred people were killed in the nationwide violence, and more than one thousand were arrested. Although the railroads made few concessions to the workers, the widespread nature of the workers’ resistance made it difficult to fire or discipline more than a small percentage of those involved in the strike.
Bruce, Robert V. 1877: Year of Violence. New ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989. Stowell, David O. Streets, Railroads, and the Great Strike of 1877. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Panic of 1873
U.S. Postal Service