"Terrors Reign, The Streets of Chicago Given Over to Howling Mobs of Thieves and Cutthroats."
-Chicago Times headline, 1877
130 years ago America was a different place. Labor unions were small in number and relatively powerless, the federal government was immensely corrupt, and the presidential election had just been openly rigged.
Hmmm. OK. Maybe America wasn't different from today's world after all. But it was a great deal different from the America of most of that 130 years.
On September 18, 1873, the country experienced a financial panic so severe that Wall Street closed for 10 days. By 1875, 18,000 businesses had failed and the unemployment rate had risen to 14%.
For America the mid-1870's was still very early in the Industrial Revolution. There was no social safety net, so when the breadwinner lost his job the whole family went hungry. While industry was growing and expanding, the workers rights movement was still in its infancy. Craft unions only represented 1% of the workforce. The first attempt at a national union had been a complete bust. Even after the economic downturn ended businesses cut wages, and cut wages some more, and kept cutting them, and there was nothing the working man could do about it. Wages had been cut by as much as 45% and most employees were working part time.
The new industries showed little respect for working people. Many paid the workers in company script which could only be redeemed at company stores while requiring the workers to live in company housing. Working 10 hours a day, six days a week was the norm. The new industrial machines were dangerous and the courts would rarely favor lawsuits for injuries sustained. The Robber Barons of the day justified it with Social Darwinism.
This environment needed only a spark to have an explosion.
The Great Strike of 1877
The Great Strike was unprecedented for many reasons. It was the first nationwide strike. It saw some of the first general strikes in America. It was far larger than any strike before it, and rarely matched in size after it. But the biggest difference was that it was the only national strike in American history that wasn't led by a labor union. In fact, labor union members were a minority of the strikers.
Instead of being simply a strike by a labor union against a certain company about specified grievances, the Great Strike resembled a general working class revolt against the establishment. It was leaderless and uncoordinated, and for that reason it was also probably the most violent strike in American history.
Nothing in America was ever the same after the Great Strike.
Even before the Great Strike had started there was labor trouble. Pennsylvania Railroad slashed wages by another 10% in June of 1877, while doubling the size of trains going east without adding any additional crew. Angry railroad workers stopped the trains in protest. Management decided to preempt a strike and started firing unionized workers.
No sooner had these measures for economy in the company's management gone into effect, than the class, and only the class— utterly worthless employees— to, began their secret meetings and their seditious efforts.
The following month, on July 11, 1877, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad copied Pennsylvania and cut wages by 10% while reducing the workweek by at least a day. It was the second pay cut of the year for B&O. At Martinsburg, West Virginia, the workers had had enough.
On July 16 firemen and brakemen refused to work. The company tried to bring on replacements — many experienced men were unemployed because of the depression — but the strikers assembled at Camden Junction, three miles from Baltimore, would not let trains run in any direction.
The word quickly spread to Martinsburg, W. Va., where workers abandoned their trains and prevented others from operating them. The railroad company appealed to the governor, who called out the militia. Militiamen and workers exchanged gunfire. The scabs ran off, the militia withdrew — and the strikers were left in control of their idled trains.
Trains idle at Martinsburg
The national guard refused to use deadly force against other West Virginia citizens. As word of the strike spread, so did the strike itself. Soon trains weren't moving in Wheeling and Parkersburg. The governor's hand was forced and he called for federal troops. New Republican President Hayes immediately responded to the call, and for one of the first times in this country's history federal troops were about to be used to break up a labor dispute.
At Martinsburg, federal troops armed with Gatling guns managed to drive off the strikers with a show of force. 13 locomotives were released and trains began moving again...for the moment.
Meanwhile the strike had spread to Baltimore where it became more violent. The strike was far from over.
"Indeed, it was barely begun. As fast as the strike was broken in one place it appeared in another."
- Harper’s Weekly
Soon the strike had spread to western Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio. No longer was this about B&O. It was about all railroad companies, and soon it was about even more than that. Maryland's governor called out his own militia.
Within a half hour of the call, "a crowd numbering at least 2,000 men, women, and children surrounded the [Maryland Sixth Regiment] armory and loudly expressed their feelings against the military and in favor of the strikers," according to Harper’s Weekly. The crowd added bricks and stones to the curses hurled against the armory. The police were powerless.
Once the troops emerged for their march to Camden Station, shots were fired — and shots were exchanged.
6th Regiment fights its way through Baltimore
The militia killed 11 and wounded 40, both strikers and onlookers. Half of the 120 troops quit almost immediately. The rest marched to the Camden Station where they engaged the strikers in a running battle. By that time nearly 15,000 strikers and supporters had arrived at the station. The governor asked for federal troops, which sent five hundred regular army troops and calmed the situation down.
Strikes were occurring almost every hour. The great State of Pennsylvania was in an uproar; New Jersey was afflicted by a paralysing dread; New York was mustering an army of militia; Ohio was shaken from Lake Erie to the Ohio River; Indiana rested in a dreadful suspense. Illinois, and especially its great metropolis, Chicago, apparently hung on the verge of a vortex of confusion and tumult. St. Louis had already felt the effect of the premonitory shocks of the uprising.
- St. Louis Republican, 1877
The Battle of Pittsburgh
Baltimore was a moderately pro-union city, but Pittsburgh's union roots ran much deeper. The local police and militia openly sided with the strikers. According to Harper's Weekly, even local businessmen sided with the strikers.
The strike in Pittsburgh can be traced to one man - a flagman named Gus Harris.
Harris refused to go out on a “double-header,” a train with two locomotives carrying a double length of cars, to which railroaders had objected because it required fewer workers and made the brakemen’s work more dangerous.
The decision was his own, not part of a concerted plan or a general understanding.
When Harris said he would not go, the rest of the crew refused too. The strikers now multiplied, joined by young boys and men from the mills and factories (Pittsburgh had 33 iron mills, 73 glass factories, 29 oil refineries, 158 coal mines). The freight trains stopped moving out of the city. The Trainman’s Union had not organised this, but it moved to take hold, called a meeting, invited “all workingmen to make common cause with their brethren on the railroad.”
Local authorities were forced to call on the Philadelphia militia for help in breaking the strike, who didn't arrive until July 21.
"[Strikers should be given] a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread."
- Thomas Alexander Scott, President of Pennsylvania Railroad, 1877
When the Philadelphia militia arrived at the Pittsburgh train station they were met by thousands of men, women and children, and a "shower of stones". Some of the events are disputed but two facts are certain: 1) the angry mob was mostly unarmed, and 2) the militia fired volley after volley into the crowd without discriminating the victims.
"The sight presented after the soldiers ceased firing was sickening," reported the New York Herald; the area "was actually dotted with the dead and dying."
Official estimates were 20 men, women and children dead, 29 wounded. But those numbers are probably understated because some relatives carried away their dead and wounded loved-ones. The high percentage of dead shows that the militia didn't "accidentally" shoot anyone.
Normally at this point the story ends. The military committed their atrocity on the civilians. The civilians would cower in their homes. A few ringleaders would be given kangaroo court trials and then publicly hung. Some government official would express "sympathy", and the media would accept it all and then forget about it.
However, this isn't one of those times.
"Shot in Cold Blood by the Roughs of Philadelphia. The Lexington of the Labor Conflict at Hand. The Slaughter of Innocents."
- Newspaper headline, 1877
When word of the massacre reached the nearby mills and manufacturing shops, the workers there poured out into the streets. Some broke into a gun factory.
"Miners and steel workers came pouring in from the outskirts of the city and as night fell the immense crowd proved so menacing to the soldiers that they retreated into the roundhouse."
- Harper's Weekly
Instead of facing a few thousand rock-throwing women and children, the troops were now facing an entire armed city. Instead of a city wanting them to leave, they now wanted them all dead. By midnight the railroad roundhouse that the militia had retreated to was surrounded by 20,000 angry men, about 5,000 of them armed. This wasn't what the President of Pennsylvania Railroad had in mind when he talked about a "rifle diet". In fact, the situation was totally out of control of the authorities.
Workers and soldiers exchanged rifle fire all night long. At one point the workers nearly set the roundhouse on fire by sending a blazing oil car hurtling against a nearby building. If that had happened there was little chance that any of the militia would have survived the night.
"[It was] a night of terror such as last night I never experienced before and hope to God I never will again."
- New York Herald, told by a Civil War veteran, member of the militia
The next morning the troops realized that help was not going to come in time. If they were to live they had to save themselves. They marched out of the roundhouse firing in all directions. Their fire was returned.. from everywhere. 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."
The troops literally ran out of town under fire. Along the way they managed to kill about 20 more people, while four of the troops were killed along the way, their bodies left behind because anyone who stopped would die. The militia was sniped at for nearly a dozen miles outside of Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile the angry mob took their rage out on the railroad station. They set fires that razed 39 buildings and destroyed 104 locomotives and 1,245 freight and passenger cars. The entire city had come to a complete halt.
The destruction of the depot
Roundhouse after the fire
For nearly a month the city of Pittsburgh was outside of the control of state and federal authorities.
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania
The workers of Reading Railroad were not a happy bunch. Their pay was in arrears by two months. On July 22, a crowd of workers and their families had gathered at the Reading train station and blocked traffic. In a near exact copy of previous clashes, the railroad called out the national guard. The crowd threw stones at the troops and the troops responded by shooting wildly into the crowd, killing 10 and wounding 40, including 5 local police.
“Six men lay dead in the twilight,” Bruce reports, “a fireman and an engineer formerly employed in the Reading, a carpenter, a huckster, a rolling-mill worker, a labourer A policeman and another man lay at the point of death.”
The crowd did not leave, but grew more menacing. At which point the troops lost heart. They stacked their guns and swore not to fire. Some handed their weapons and ammo to the crowd. They were allowed to leave.
The same evening in Sunsbury word got out that a national guard unit would pass through on its way to Pittsburgh to crush the strike there. A crowd gathered at the railroad junction at 3rd and Chestnut streets to stop it. When the train came into town the crowd overran the train, took it over, and sent it back in the direction it came.
In Danville on the morning of July 23, the workers appointed a group to ask the Commissioner of the Poor for bread or work. The Commissioner “passed the buck” to the mayor. At 3 PM a large crowd gathered at the weigh scales on Mill Street in the middle of Danville . One speaker said “We will give the borough authorities until tomorrow at 10:00 to devise some action to give us work or bread. If at that time nothing is done for us, we will take [explicative] wherever we can find it.”
The next day there was almost a bread riot. Citizens were on the verge of starvation. [...] One policeman tried to arrest Treas, for using incendiary language. But he could not get to Treas in the crowd. Following these events, the authorities gave food to those in need.
Meanwhile back in Reading a protest on the 25th got out of control and looted the Reading Railroad station. "Mayor William Douty gathered vigilantes outside City Hall in response to a prearranged signal - a bell ringing at the Presbyterian church where he belonged." Douty had already made himself famous by being a coal mine owner who persecuting the Molly Maguires. Douty's vigilantes shot into the crowd, wounding 12 and killing two. Neither of the two killed were members of the rioters. A Mr. Weist was shot dead while closing his candy store.
In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, one militia unit mutinied. In Altoona, a national guard unit found itself surrounded by rioters and disabled engines, simply surrendered. The rioters gave them water and sent them home accompanied by a singing quartet. When that unit made it back to Philadelphia they were met by a much larger group of rioters who took their guns away and marched them through the street like prisoners of war. They were fed at a hotel and then sent home.
Believe it or not, most railroad unions were not supporting the strike. The Order of Railway Conductors, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the Brotherhood of Engineers, disavowed the strike.
While the Philadelphia militia was fighting for its life against the strikers in Pittsburgh, the working men and women of Philadelphia was supporting the cause of the strikers. Strikers and rioters engaged the militia in street battles. Much of the City Center suffered fire damage before federal troops arrived and put down the riots.
Further to the west
“All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea—that the workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.”
- strike speaker in St. Louis, 1877
The strike hit its peak when it reached Illinois.
On July 21, all railroad traffic through St. Louis was halted by the strikers. In a show of support, a general strike was called by the Workingmen's Party and the entire city simply shut down for a full week.
At one of its huge meetings, writes Marieke van Ophem, "a black man was the voice for those who worked on the steamboats and levees. He asked: ‘Will you stand to us, regardless of color?’ The crowd shouted in response: ‘We will!’"
Only around St. Louis did the original strike on the railroads expand into such a systematically organized and complete shut-down of all industry that the term general strike is fully justified. And only there did the socialists assume undisputed leadership. . . . no American city has come so close to being ruled by a workers’ soviet, as we would now call it, as St. Louis, Missouri, in the year 1877.
- David Burbank
Despite a lack of violence, the city was put under martial law. Strike leaders were thrown in jail without charges or a trial. Federal troops, combined with company thugs, put an end to the strike, much like everywhere else.
Chicago wasn't so lucky.
The last major city to join in the strike, Chicago workers were met with the most deadly, official violence.
On July 24, rail traffic in Chicago was paralyzed when angry mobs of groups of unemployed citizens wreaked havoc in the rail yards, shutting down both the Baltimore and Ohio and the Illinois Central Railroads. Soon, other railroads were brought to a standstill, with demonstrators shutting down railroad traffic in Bloomington, Aurora, Peoria, Decatur, Urbana and other rail centers throughout Illinois. In sympathy, coal miners in the pits at Braidwood, LaSalle, Springfield, and Carbondale went on strike as well.
The Workingmen's Party had a large base in Chicago and one of its leaders was a man named Albert Parsons. Parsons was fired from the Chicago Times the day after he spoke at the huge Workingmen's rally on July 24, which drew 20,000 people. Albert Parson was martyred a decade later by being hung for his participation in the Haymarket Square Riot, despite the fact that he wasn't even in Haymarket Square at the time of the riot.
The mayor of Chicago, Monroe Heath, asked for 25,000 vigilantes to put down the strike. Together with the police, they attacked the crowds.
“The sound of clubs falling on skulls was sickening for the first minute, until one grew accustomed to it. A rioter dropped at every whack, it seemed, for the ground was covered with them.” Two companies of U.S. infantry arrived, joining National Guardsmen and Civil War veterans. Police fired into a surging crowd, and three men were killed.
The next day, an armed crowd of 5,000 fought the police. The police fired again and again, and when it was over, and the dead were counted, they were, as usual, workingmen and boys, eighteen of them, their skulls smashed by clubs, their vital organs pierced by gunfire.
Somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 workers had participated in the Great Strike. Between 100 and 200 had died, almost all of them at the hands of authorities. About 1,000 strikers were arrested.
The strike from beginning to end lasted about 45 days.
The results of the strike were mixed. Some railroad company wage cuts were rescinded. Some worker safety issues were addressed.
But the bosses also took steps to not let the workers gain the upperhand again. Many states enacted conspiracy statutes. New national guard units were formed, with armories constructed in many cities (usually with loopholes for guns). Business leaders took a rigid stance against unions, and in response to that rigid stance, unions kept growing.
However, the workers learned important lessons as well. One lesson was that they in fact had the power to bring everything to a halt if they so chose. They also learned that strike organization was vital to win concessions for the workers.
This strike led directly to the rise of national unions, as well as decades of violent labor conflict that wouldn't completely end until workers rights were enshrined into federal law under FDR.