Great Railroad Strike of 1877

July 16–August 5, 1877

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was a worker’s strike against several railroads, including the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The strike was caused by significant wage cuts, leading employees to go on strike and resort to violence to stop trains from moving. Federal troops eventually used force to bring an end to the strike, which had lasting repercussions on the development of labor, politics, and society in the United States.

Great Railroad Strike, 1877, Definition, Facts, APUSH

This illustration depicts striking workers trying to set the roundhouse on fire in Pittsburgh on July 22, 1877. Image Source: The United States in Our Own Time by Elisha Benjamin Andrews (1904).

What was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877?

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was triggered by wage cuts amid the Panic of 1873, spreading from Martinsburg, West Virginia, to major cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Railroad executives initially relied on local law enforcement to break the strike, but ineffective responses led to the deployment of state militias and ultimately federal troops by President Rutherford B. Hayes. The strike, marked by violent clashes and property damage, highlighted broader class divisions in post-Reconstruction America, contrasting with previous racial tensions.

Great Railroad Strike of 1877 Facts

Great Railroad Strike of 1877 Summary

These facts provide a summary overview of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, one of the most significant events of the Gilded Age.

Impact of the Panic of 1873 on Railroads

  • The Panic of 1873 triggered a national economic downturn, which is sometimes referred to as the “First Great Depression.”
  • Railroad corporations were significantly affected by the Panic of 1837.
  • The United States suffered through an economic depression for four years, from 1873 to 1877.
  • To reduce expenses, railroad companies cut the wages of employees.

The Supreme Court Upholds the Granger Laws

  • In March of 1877, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Granger Laws in the case of Munn v. Illinois.
  • The Granger Laws regulated the shipping rates for railroad and grain storage companies after the Civil War.
  • The ruling was a victory for the Grange, who lobbied on behalf of farmers.
  • The ruling kept railroads from raising rates and increasing their profits, even when there was no competition.
  • In most areas, the only viable transportation options for crops were the railroads.
  • Because of this, the railroads felt they should be able to charge more for transporting crops.
  • The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld the power of the Federal Government to regulate the use of private property when it is deemed necessary for the public good.

Railroads Cut Wages

  • The Pennsylvania Railroad responded to the ruling by cutting wages by 10% in May and by another 10% in June.
  • On July 13, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad cut the wages of all employees making more than $1 a day by 10%.
  • The B & O also reduced the number of days an employee could work to 2 or 3, depending on the job.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 Starts

  • On July 16, 40 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad workers in Camden Junction, Mayland went on strike, refusing to operate the trains.
  • When news of the strike spread through Baltimore, workers from other industries, including bakers, box makers, and factory workers, joined the strike.
  • Word of the strike spread quickly, and by the evening of the 16th, B & O workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia went on strike.
  • The strike quickly spread to B & O stations, towns, and cities along the railroad line.
  • By midnight, striking workers had taken control of the railroad.

This excerpt from Harper’s Weekly, published on August 11, 1877, provides further details:

“The origin of the first outbreak…was the refusal of the firemen and brakemen on the freight trains of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to submit to a further reduction of ten per cent. from their wages. On the morning of July 16 forty men in Baltimore left their trains and joined in a strike. As soon as this became known there was an immense number of applicants for the vacant positions, and the company had no difficulty in filling vacancies, generally with experienced men who had been for some time out of employment. But the strikers would not permit them to work. Assembling at Camden Junction, about three miles from the city, they stopped the trains, and refused to allow them to be run either way. The news spread with the rapidity of lightning, and soon the disaffection had reached Martinsburg, West Virginia. The men at that point, numbering about 100, left their trains in the evening, and forcibly prevented new hands from starting the cars.”

Martinsburg

  • Thomas M. King, the Vice President of the B & O Railroad, responded to the striking workers in Martinsburg by sending a message to Governor Henry H. Matthews, asking him to send troops to help protect the company’s interests.
  • Over the next few days, striking workers converged on Martinsburg.
  • Local law enforcement and the West Virginia Militia were unable to restore order.

This excerpt from Harper’s Weekly describes the events that took place at Martinsburg:

“the railroad company appealed to the Governor of West Virginia for help, and in response seventy-five men of the Berkeley Light Infantry Guards, under command of Colonel FAULKNER, were sent the next morning to Martinsburg. Here the first conflict with the military took place. Captain FAULKNER’S company was deployed on both sides of a train which was about starting, an engineer and fireman having volunteered to work. As the train reached the switch, one of the strikers, WILLIAM VANDERGRIFF, seized the switch ball to run the train on the side track. JOHN POISAL, a member of the militia company, jumped from the pilot of the engine and attempted to replace the switch. VANDERGRIFF fired two shots at POISAL, one causing a slight flesh-wound on the side of the head. POISAL returned the fire, shooting VANDERGRIFF through the hip. Several other shots were fired at VANDERGRIFF, striking him on the head and arm. When the firing was heard, a very large crowd of railroaders and citizens collected, and the feeling became intense. The volunteering engineer and fireman of the train ran off as soon as the shooting began. Captain FAULKNER then made the statement that he had performed his duty, and if the trainmen deserted their posts, he could do nothing more. The militia company was therefore marched to their armory and ingloriously disbanded, leaving the rioters in possession of the field, and the road blocked up with standing trains on the sidings. From this point the movement quickly spread westward to Wheeling, on the main stem, and also on the Parkersburg branch.”

Governor Matthews Asks President Hayes for Help

  • On the afternoon of June 18, Governor Matthews sent a message to President Rutherford B. Hayes, asking him to send a “force of from two to three hundred” soldiers from the U.S. Army to Martinsburg.
  • President Hayes was hesitant to send federal troops, and issued a proclamation, ordering “…all persons engaged in said unlawful and insurrectionary proceedings to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes on or before twelve o’clock, noon, the nineteenth day of July…”
  • Although Hayes hoped the strikers would heed his request, he also said “…it may be necessary in the judgment of the President to use the military force…”
  • Afterward, federal troops stationed in Washington and at Fort McHenry were ordered to proceed to Martinsburg. Altogether, there were about 325 troops, under the command of General William H. French, a veteran of the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
  • This marked the first time in United States history that a worker’s strike led to the mobilization of federal troops.

Where did the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 Start?

  • Despite the actions of the Baltimore workers, many sources indicate the Great Railroad Strike started on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, when workers blocked the passage of freight trains.
  • Regardless of when or where the strike started, it quickly spread to various cities including, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

However, both Harper’s Weekly from August 11, 1877, and Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States by Joseph A. Darcus, which was published in 1877, indicate the strike started on July 16 in Baltimore.

Federal Troops in Martinsburg

According to Harper’s Weekly, French and his men:

“…reached Martinsburg early on the morning of the 19th, armed with Springfield rifles and three Gatling guns. They found 1500 freight cars and 13 locomotives blocked on the side tracks in and about the town. Under the protection of the regular troops two freight trains were sent out from Martinsburg that day without bloodshed, one going east and the other west. Both went through in safety.”

“Thus the blockade at Martinsburg was partially relieved, but the strike was not ended. Indeed, it was barely begun; and before night-fall of the 20th it had become general, crossing the Ohio River, and extending as far west as Chicago.”

Baltimore

  • The Maryland Militia attacked a crowd of protestors, with bayonets fixed. They fired, killing at least 10 people. The crowd swelled to approximately 14,000 people, who retaliated by destroying railroad cars and a locomotive.
  • The Governor of Maryland, John Lee Carroll, sent a telegraph to President Rutherford B. Hayes, asking for help.

Pittsburgh

  • In Pittsburgh, Governor John Frederick Hartranft of Pennsylvania had to call in the National Guard from Philadelphia, after local militia refused to take action, in solidarity with the striking railroad workers.
  • Soldiers fired into a crowd of protestors, killing more than 20 people, including women and three children.
  • The protestors forced the soldiers to take refuge in a roundhouse at the railyard and then set fire to buildings, railcars, and equipment.
  • Militia and Federal Troops eventually opened the railroads in Pittsburgh and Reading, Pennsylvania. was occupied by Federal Troops.

The Strike Spreads Across the Country

  • Employees at other railroad companies joined the B & O workers in protest of wage cuts.
  • Within two weeks, the strike extended to Chicago and disrupted railroad traffic across Illinois.
  • On July 21 protestors blocked freight trains in East St. Louis, Missouri.
  • On July 24, protestors closed the Baltimore and Ohio and Illinois Central rail yards in Chicago.
  • Protestors blocked railroad traffic at Bloomington, Aurora, Peoria, Decatur, Carbondale, and other junctions in Illinois.
  • The strike eventually reached San Francisco.

Coal Miners Join the Strike

  • In Braidwood, LaSalle, Springfield, and Carbondale, Illinois, coal miners joined the strike, as they had also suffered reduced pay.
  • The operators of the coal companies responded by bringing in roughly 400 African American workers to replace the striking miners.

Escalation in Chicago and Involvement of the Workingmen’s Party

  • The strike intensified in Chicago where the Workingmen’s Party, a small Marxist organization, played a significant role.
  • The Workingmen’s Party rallied support for the striking railroad employees.
  • Chicago became a focal point of the strike as it severely impacted railroad operations in Illinois.
  • The involvement of the Workingmen’s Party heightened tensions between the strikers, railroad owners, and the government, and generated public support for the strikers.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 Ends

  • After nearly three weeks, and with no central figure or group to keep them organized, most of the protesters had gone home. 
  • By August 5, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was over.

Involvement of State Militias and Federal Troops

  • State Governors deployed Militias to deal with protestors, but they also struggled to handle the situation.
  • Eventually, President Rutherford B. Hayes took decisive action by sending Federal Troops to areas where the resistance to the strike was strongest.

Consequences and Impact of Federal Intervention

  • The Great Railroad Strike was the first major challenge for President Hayes during his administration.
  • Federal Troops, including many who had been stationed in the South during Reconstruction, were deployed to restore order.
  • The strike lasted for over two weeks and was marked by riots and violent clashes between strikers and Federal Troops.
  • In Chicago, Mayor Monroe Heath assembled a force that included approximately 5,000 men, with support from the National Guard and Federal Troops.
  • They clashed with strikers and their supporters on July 24 and continued on July 25.
  • Federal Troops were supported by cavalry forces under the command of General Philip Sheridan. The cavalry rode in and brought an end to the hostilities.
  • The strike resulted in casualties, including over 70 people killed, hundreds wounded, and arrested, along with extensive property damage.

Consequences of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877

The Great Railroad Strike was Linked to the Molly Maguires Incident

The Great Strike led some to people believe that labor protests were dangerous and contrary to American values, and was tied to the Molly Maguires Incident, where workers were accused of conspiring to use violence to organize a union for workers employed by the Reading Railroad. Among the outspoken critics of the workers was the prominent pastor Henry Ward Beecher.

States Improved Their Defenses

Various states responded to the violence by building armories in cities and industrial areas, and some enacted laws against conspiracy, targeting workers. 

Public Awareness of the Plight of Workers

  • The Great Strike created public awareness of the grievances of railroad workers against management. 
  • The New York Times published articles that acknowledged the difficulties of the working class.
  • Management at the railroad companies eventually started to reverse the wage cuts that led to the Great Strike.

President Hayes Responded with Caution

  • President Rutherford B. Hayes deployed troops only when requested by state and local authorities, and ordered them to safeguard government and private property, not to suppress the strikers or resume train operations.
  • President Hayes rejected the demands from Thomas A. Scott from the Pennsylvania Railroad to intervene with striking workers. Scott argued the strike was disrupting the U.S. Mail service. In his mind, that justified using federal troops to break the strike, but Hayes disagreed.
  • However, during the 1984 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland used federal troops to break the strike.

Labor Groups Started to Become Involved in Politics

Following the Great Strike of 1877, labor issues started to become important in the realm of politics. In states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, Workingmen’s Parties gained substantial votes during the 1877 elections.

The Greenback Labor Party was Formed

In 1878, labor leaders held the first convention of the Greenback Labor Party, which had success in elections that year. However, despite its name, the party’s appeal was primarily directed toward farmers rather than the working class.

Why was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 Important?

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was a significant moment in United States history which is often passed over. Although the strike focused on workers who were upset with their employers, it was similar to Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion in that the lower class reached a breaking point and revolted.

  • The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 brought tension created by economics and politics during the Gilded Age to the forefront.
  • The strike showed the nation faced significant challenges beyond the racial issues of the South, which had dominated the nation after the Civil War.
  • In the aftermath of the Civil War, the emergence of industry transitioned people from subsistence farming to wage labor.
  • The development of business and industry contributed to the emergence of a working class.
  • The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 brought the grievances of the working class into the limelight, contributing to the organization of labor unions, which were intended to protect the working class against unlawful labor practices.

Great Railroad Strike of 1877 APUSH

Use the following links and videos to study the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Gilded Age for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Great Railroad Strike of 1877 Definition

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was a widespread labor protest in the United States caused by wage cuts and harsh working conditions in the railroad industry. Starting in July 1877 with a protest by railroad workers in Baltimore, the unrest quickly spread across the country as workers from other industries joined the movement. The strike disrupted transportation and led to violent clashes between workers, company guards, and law enforcement. Federal troops were eventually called in to suppress the strike, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries. Although the strike eventually subsided, it brought the tensions between labor and business in post-Civil War America to the forefront and helped spur the labor movement to advocate for better working conditions and the rights of workers.

Great Railroad Strike of 1877 APUSH Units

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 is part of the following:

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Great Railroad Strike of 1877
  • Date July 16–August 5, 1877
  • Author
  • Keywords Great Railroad Strike of 1877
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 22, 2024

Taxonomies