Great Railroad Strike of 1877

Federal Troops and Striking Railroaders Violently Clashed

Depiction of the beginning of the 1877 Great Railroad Strike
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began with clashes at Martinsburg, West Virginia. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began with a work stoppage by railroad employees in West Virginia who were protesting a reduction in their wages. And that seemingly isolated incident quickly turned into a national movement.

Railroad workers walked off the job in other states and seriously disrupted commerce in the East and Midwest. The strikes were ended within a few weeks, but not before major incidents of vandalism and violence.

The Great Strike marked the first time the federal government called out troops to quell a labor dispute. In messages sent to President Rutherford B. Hayes, local officials referred to what was happening as “an insurrection.”

The violent incidents were the worst civil disturbances since the New York Draft Riots which had brought some of the violence of the Civil War into the streets of New York City 14 years earlier.

One legacy of the labor unrest in the summer of 1877 still exists in the form of landmark buildings in some American cities. The trend of building immense fortress-like armories was inspired by the battles between striking railroad workers and soldiers.

Beginning of the Great Strike

The strike began in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on July 16, 1877, after workers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were informed that their pay would be cut 10 percent. Workers grumbled about the loss of income in small groups, and by the end of the day railroad firemen began walking off the job.

Steam locomotives could not run without the firemen, and dozens of trains were idled. By the next day it was apparent that the railroad was essentially shut down and the governor of West Virginia began to ask for federal help to break the strike.

Approximately 400 troops were dispatched to Martinsburg, where they scattered protesters by brandishing bayonets.

Some soldiers managed to drive some of the trains, but the strike was far from over. In fact, it began to spread.

As the strike was starting in West Virginia, workers for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had begun walking off the job in Baltimore, Maryland.

On July 17, 1877, news of the strike was already the lead story in New York City newspapers. The New York Times coverage, on its front page, included the dismissive headline: "Foolish Firemen and Brakemen on the Baltimore and Ohio Road Cause of the Trouble."

The position of the newspaper was that lower wages and adjustments in working conditions were necessary. The country was, at the time, still stuck in an economic depression which had been triggered originally by the Panic of 1873.

Violence Spread

Within days, on July 19, 1877, workers on another line, the Pennsylvania Railroad, struck in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With the local militia sympathetic to the strikers, 600 federal troops from Philadelphia were sent to break up protests.

The troops arrived in Pittsburgh, faced off with local residents, and ultimately fired into crowds of protesters, killing 26 and wounding many more. The crowd erupted in a frenzy, and trains and buildings were burned.

Summing it up a few days later, on July 23, 1877, the New York Tribune, one of the nation's most influential newspapers, headlined a front-page story "The Labor War." The account of the fighting in Pittsburgh was chilling, as it described federal troops unleashing volleys of rifle fire at civilian crowds.

The New York Tribune reported:

"The mob then began a career of destruction, in which they robbed and burned all the cars, depots, and buildings of the Pennsylvania Railroad for three miles, destroying millions of dollars worth of property. The number of killed and wounded during the fighting is not known, but it is believed to be in the hundreds."

End of the Strike

President Hayes, receiving pleas from several governors, began moving troops from forts on the East Coast toward railroad towns such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Over the course of about two weeks the strikes were ended and workers returned to their jobs.

During the Great Strike it was estimated that 10,000 workers had walked off their jobs. About a hundred strikers had been killed. 

In the immediate aftermath of the strike the railroads began to forbid union activity. Spies were used to ferret out union organizers so they could be fired. And workers were forced to sign "yellow dog" contracts that disallowed joining a union.

And in the nation's cities a trend developed of building enormous armories that could serve as fortresses during periods of urban fighting. Some massive armories from that period still stand, often restored as civic landmarks.

The Great Strike was, at the time, a setback for workers. But the awareness it brought to American labor problems resonated for years. And the work stoppages and fighting in the summer of 1877 would be a major event in the history of American labor.

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McNamara, Robert. "Great Railroad Strike of 1877." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, McNamara, Robert. (2017, March 3). Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Great Railroad Strike of 1877." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 19, 2018).