The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was an uprising launched in response to pay cuts enacted by the country"s largest railroads following the financial Panic of 1873. 

The proverbial straw that broke the camel"s back was a 10% wage reduction, which had followed several others over the previous four years. 

Unfortunately, in a time when blue collar employees enjoyed virtually no job protections, these measures made it all but impossible for workers to fight back. 

Along the Baltimore & Ohio this reached a boiling point; believing they had no other recourse, workers at the railroad"s shops and major division point of Martinsburg, West Virginia walked off the job on July 26, 1877.  Due to its strategic location the move paralyzed B&O"s operations.  

As freight trains sat idle employees of other railroads, realizing the strike"s effectiveness, joined the cause; even workers outside the industry, who had also been oppressed, walked off the job. 


While the movement lasted less than a month, and ultimately ended in failure, it sparked a revolution which brought about today"s modern unions.  It also had a secondary effect of bringing about federal oversight and laws to protect employees.

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Life as a railroader in the 1870"s was not an easy occupation filled with many dangers, few safety measures, and long hours.  To make matters worse the financial Panic of 1873 crippled the nation and put many Americans out of work. 

According to the book, "The Great Strikes Of 1877" by David O. Stowell, there were around 30 national and international trade unions operating within the United States just prior to the panic.  At the time, the country was enjoying a great economic boom in the peacetime following the Civil War. 

This included the railroad industry which was rapidly expanding in the decade after the conflict by laying down more than 40,000 miles between 1870 and 1880 according to John Stover"s book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads." 

In addition, roughly 34,000 miles were spiked down in just an 8-year period, 1865 - 1873.  By contrast, only 6,000 miles were added in the four years after the economic downturn (1873-1877). 

As railroads blossomed into America"s second-largest employer (trailing only the agricultural/farming industry), much of the new trackage was built on speculation thanks to cash availability and the strong economy. 

Unfortunately, this led to a house-of-cards scenario; coupled with Congress"s passage of the Coinage Act (American currency would no longer be backed with silver), the stage was set for the events of 1873.  

That year, the Northern Pacific Railway, attempting to complete the Pacific Northwest"s first transcontinental railroad, was having considerable difficulty producing enough revenue to continue selling bonds. 

These were marketed by Jay Cooke"s banking firm, Jay Cooke & Company, throughout the U.S. and abroad. 

With the railroad struggling, the bank essentially wrote blank checks to further bond sales. 

When this failed a run on the bank commenced and Cooke"s firm, along with the railroad, entered bankruptcy on September 18, 1873.  The event sparked one of America"s worse depressions, a crisis which would endure for six years. 

As a result of the economic calamity, Mr. Stowell"s book notes that the number of organized unions dropped had from 30 to 9 by the time the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began.  In response to plummeting revenue, railroads were quick to implement wage cuts although many continued to pay dividends. 

As Philip S. Foner notes in his book, "The Great Labor Uprising Of 1877," railroads reduced workers" salary by an average of 21%-37% although food prices had declined only 5%.  The Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) was particularly egregious by slicing pay up to 50%.  

The Great Railroad Strike Of 1877 Begins

Although events along the B&O initiated the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, in essence it began slowly, taking on a life of its own over time. 

In addition, a series of events which had occurred a few years prior could be rightfully argued as its genesis; between November, 1873 and July, 1874 workers struck along eighteen different railroads in response to a series of initial wage cuts. 

In every case, the walkouts were brief, lasting for only a week or two and never drawing the nation"s attention.  For railroads, the usual tactic to quell such unrest was simply firing and blacklisting any employee(s) involved.   This usually worked although the 1873/74 incidents proved a foreshadowing of things to come. 

The country"s very first strike is believed to have occurred between June 20th and 30th of 1831 along the B&O.  What followed was a series of related events that never gained any effective traction in breaking the draconian rule large corporations held over their workers.

Empathy was sometimes expressed in local media outlets but no national change ever came about since big business controlled the political arena.  As a result, organized labor had little recourse in obtaining better pay, consistent hours, and job protections.

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During the 1870"s there were only four significant trade unions within the railroad industry; the Machinists" and Blacksmiths" International Union (MBIU), Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), Brotherhood of Railway Conductors (BRC), and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE). 

Only the latter, with some 10,000 members strong, held any significance but its powers were minor due to a lack of federal and state support. 

In addition, the BLE"s Grand Chief Engineer at the time, Charles Wilson, balked at striking.  He also refused to stand with workers outside the union in a unified effort to bring about change. 

Nevertheless, many, whether part of organized labor or not, felt their condition bleak by 1877.  This was particularly true along the Baltimore & Ohio where workers suffered another 10% wage cut that summer. 

Not only had many railroads implemented deep cuts but also provided employees with virtually no expense coverages. 

For instance, they were often required to stay in opulent hotels (railroad-owned) when away from home, pay for return tickets, and, of course, cover all other expenses (such as meals) while away. 

Along the B&O the latest cuts went into effect on Monday, July 16, 1877. 

In response, the fireman of locomotive #32, leading a train about to depart Camden Junction, Maryland (Baltimore), walked off the job.  His move triggered several fellow firemen to do the same. 

These spontaneous acts forced the B&O"s hand which called on Baltimore"s mayor, Ferdinand C. Latrope, to mobilize the police.  The show of force worked and would be used time and again to stop such uprisings along other railroads. 

Just as the B&O thought the issue was over it reignited the following day when 38 engineers joined the cause, backed by 140 workers of Baltimore"s Boxmakers" And Sawyers" Union and 800 tin can makers.  The latter did so for the same reason as the railroaders, wage reductions. 

Interestingly, despite being labeled "rioters" the strikers never once stopped passenger/mail trains (a calculated decision, no doubt, which would have halted the movement of federal property and brought further problems to their cause).  Instead, they focused only on holding freight movements, the primary profit component of any railroad.