This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
Only a month after the execution of the Molly Maguires, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced that it was cutting wages that were already at a level barely able to support a family. Workers pleaded with the owners of the Baltimore and Ohio, who merely ignored them. On July 16, railroad workers near Baltimore, Maryland went on strike. Other workers connected with the railroad joined them, as did railroad workers in other cities. Strikes and demonstrations broke out in Martinsburg, West Virginia; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; Columbus and Cincinnati; Chicago; and St. Louis, Missouri.
So began the Great Strikes of 1877, long remembered in the history of labor agitation. Strikers not only paralyzed the railroads of the North — the lifelines of industry — but created considerable unrest in the cities. Not only men (“respectable” tradesmen among them), but women and young girls composed the throngs of workers in the cities. In Pittsburgh, armed strikers pushed engines from their tracks and defied state militia called out to pacify them. One state militia general found himself confronted by an angry mob when he tried to carry out his orders to arrest one of the ringleaders of the strike. Then someone in the mob cried out, “At them, boys! At them! Give them hell!” The militia general ordered his men to open fire, killing 16 and wounding several others. “The sight presented after the soldiers ceased firing was sickening,” wrote a reporter for the New York Herald. “Old men and boys attracted to the [scene of the standoff] . . . lay writhing in the agonies of death, while numbers of children were killed outright. Yellowstone, the neighborhood of the scene of the conflict, was actually dotted with the dead and dying; while weeping women, cursing loudly and deeply the instruments which had made them widows, were clinging to the bleeding corpses.”
When militiamen from Pittsburgh heard of the slaughter, they threw down their arms and joined the strikers. Soon the remainder of the Pennsylvania militia found itself besieged in a railroad roundhouse, while strikers and others who had just joined the fray pillaged city shops for weapons. Four-thousand strikers and others, unable to dislodge the militia, set fire to the roundhouse. The militia finally withdrew, while mobs burned railroad property and commenced a general looting of the city.
The country had never seen such an “insurrection.” By July 30, the strikes had spread to the coal fields, crippling industries and foundries that relied on coal. Railroad workers in Trenton and Newark, New Jersey, also quit work. Many Americans were appalled not only by the violence but by what they thought was the workers’ temerity. After all, some thought, how could they complain? Their wages, though small, were but a sign of their inferior abilities, and so they were only receiving their due. Even so stalwart an anti-slavery man as the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, after praising the “heroism of railroad employees” and admitting the right of every man to withhold his labor, still condemned any concerted effort that interfered with the labor of others. The strikers, the New York Times reported Beecher saying to congregants at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, “had put themselves in an attitude of tyrannical opposition to all law and order and they could not be defended.”
Beecher continued: “The necessities of the great railroad companies demanded that there should be a reduction of wages. There must be a continual shrinkage until things come back to the gold standard, and wages, as well as greenbacks, provisions and property, must share in it.” This erstwhile defender of the poor slave could find, it seems, no sympathy for the plight of wage workers. Their problem, he said, was that they needed to be trained in “self-denial.” Beecher (said the Times) continued that “it was true that $1 a day was not enough to support a man and five children if a man would insist on smoking and drinking beer.” Such a family, if it were prudent, “may live on good bread and water in the morning, water and bread at midday, and good water and bread at night (continued laughter).” Though he admitted that real hardship existed, Beecher insisted that “the great laws of political economy could not be set at defiance.”
The Great Strikes ended when President Rutherford Hayes decided to treat the strikes as an insurrection and sent the United States army under General Winfield Scott Hancock into Pittsburgh. Hundreds of millions of dollars of property had been destroyed because of the Great Strikes, and many Americans now grew fearful of communist and socialist infiltration.
Still, the strikes brought some benefit to workers. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad set up a relief association for workers that provided them and their families insurance (50 percent of the average monthly salary) in the event of illness, death, or on-the-job injury.
The Pullman Palace Car Company purchased 4,000 acres near Chicago to build a workers’ community called Hyde Park and hired landscape architects to design a town that included shopping centers, a playhouse, and gymnasium. The company, however, established rules for the town that strictly governed the inhabitants’ conduct and gave them no voice in local governance — policies that served only further to alienate the workers living there.
A Song of the Railroad Worker
“Drill Ye Tarriers Drill” is an Irish-American folk song about working on the railroad. It was first appeared in 1888, some 11 years after the Great Strikes.