Great Railroad Strike of 1877

By: Jimmy Houston and Matt Ambrose

The Company:
The business leaders responsible for the wage cuts and layoffs that angered workers to the point of strike and protest in the 1870s did not belong to one single company, but rather a few different companies in the vicinity of Pennsylvania and Maryland. While a great number of prosperous firms on the east coast of the United States began to fail as a result of the Panic of 1873, many began to take action. The first two companies that took action in an attempt to combat this economic failure were Pennsylvania Railroad and Baltimore and Ohio (B&O). These two companies took a number of measures that would, in the eyes of the business leaders, hopefully improve the condition of business and profits. In an attempt to explain these business leaders' point of views regarding this predicament, John W. Garrett once wrote, "Whereas - the depression in the general business issues of the country continues, thus seriously affecting the usual earnings of railway companies, and rendering a further reduction of expenses necessary." This is an excerpt from the "Announcement of Wage Cuts on the B&O Railroad" from the B&O Railroad Minute Book and here, Garrett is attempting to justify the wage cuts being put into place by the B&O Railroad. Garrett blames the financial depression on the crucial wage cuts and is attempting to persuade the citizens of the United States that with out the wage cuts, the company would surely fail. Even though this is true, what these business leaders thought would revive their companies actually paralyzed business altogether as their workers initiated the first rail strike and general labor strike in U.S. history.
This image is an advertisement for the Pennsylvania Railroad prior to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. This advertisement shows three trains owned by the company that essentially initiated the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 by being the first railroad company to cut its workers' wages in order to cut the company's costs.

The Workers:

The workers were infuriated by the wage cuts and the unreasonable hours that they were forced to work each day. As a group, the workers of the B&O railroad in Martinsburg, West Virginia went on strike on July 17th, 1877. At first, the workers started to strike by blocking trains from leaving their stations and they also refused to go to work until wage cuts were reversed. By the time militia and federal troops were brought in to stop the strikes, it had already spread to Baltimore, Maryland. In Pennsylvania, mobs of workers set fires and destroyed over 1,300 train cars. An article in the American Railroad Journal titled “Recent Railroad Damages” tells that, “all such riotous proceedings by a mob resulting in the damage to property and injury to person should be crushed out at once”. This shows that the railroad damage caused by the workers reached the larger companies and made them think about how the changes that they had made affected the moral of their workers and the companies as a whole.

This image depicts a few of the many railroad workers that went on strike during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. While the protest depicted in this image seems fairly peaceful, not all protests were like this. Many of these protests started out peaceful, but ended in disaster as many turned violent once militia and federal troops were called in.
The Problems:
While the railroad industry boomed all throughout the 1800s in the United States, the industry seemed to have hit a speed bump as the 1870s commenced. With the Panic of 1873, an economic emergency that plunged the United States into one of the worst financial depressions in American history, a great number of eastern firms began to fail. Among these various failing eastern firms, railroad companies across the eastern seaboard were struggling to survive as well. In a dire attempt to turn the economic status of their companies around, business leaders of proposed layoffs and pay cuts in order to cut down expenses and save money. Because workers were either being terminated, watching their salary diminish, or being forced to work fewer hours per day in order to keep their jobs, they were earning less money than usual. Extremely unhappy and upset, these workers decided to go on strike and further cripple the railroad industry of the east.
This image depicts a few railcars sitting idle at B&O Railroad. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the railroad industry came to a screeching halt because not only were the majority of railroad workers on strike, but most railroads in this area at the time attained some sort of extensive damage (whether it be destroyed railcars or uprooted railroad track). In the end, millions of dollars worth of damage was attained by the railroad industry of the east.
The immediate impact of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was quite astounding and left the country stunned and in desperate need of stability. In the end, 10 states had mobilized their state militia in attempt to quell the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and federal troops were called into a number of these states as well. Despite the fact that the United States government had scrambled much of its military in order to suppress these strikers from inflicting too much damage upon eastern cities and other people, much damage was still attained by these cities. When this strike had officially ended, 14,000 protesters had collaborated in order to destroy railroad property in Baltimore, Maryland. Even though this might seem like an unbelievable amount of violence for one strike, conditions only got worse. A short while after the commotion in Baltimore took place, 39 buildings, 104 locomotives, 46 passenger cars, and more than 1,200 railcars were destroyed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania while over $4 million in railroad equipment had been damaged in Pittsburgh. With this in mind, it is quite easy to see how the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 crippled eastern cities even further than they were by the Panic of 1873 alone. On the other hand, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 had quite a tremendous long term impact on the United States as well. The strike initiated a 20-year struggle between business and labor in the United States that led to a number of debates and changes regarding various issues in government, business, and labor.

This image depicts two large crowds fighting during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. As smoke from gunfire and rocks being thrown by furious strikers soar through the air, dead bodies of strikers and militiamen alike cover the ground between the two groups. With this gruesome scene in mind, it is quite easy to see exactly how the Great Railroad Strike was so destructive and crippling to the people and infrastructure of the south in the end.
After the strike had ended, the government had stressed the regulation of businesses and the prevention of monopolies. The business regulation started with the Granger Movement, which regulated the amount of land that the big railroad companies purchased in the midwest and regulated freight train rates as well. In response, President Rutherford B. Hayes once said, "Shall the railroads govern the country, or shall the people govern the railroads?" as he was reflecting on the railroad strikes. After the strikes in 1877, the Interstate Commerce Commission was created in order to regulate all railroads. Also, before the railroad companies were being monitored, there were only 3 brotherhoods that supported railroad workers nationwide. By 1900, there were 16 of these brotherhoods. This clearly exemplifies the fact that the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 changed the railroad industry and business as a whole in the United States forever.
This image is the official seal of the Interstate Commerce Commission of the United States of America. As you can see on the seal, the commission was established in 1887, a decade after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The Interstate Commerce Commission was established in response to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 with the intent of regulating all railroads in the United States.

Youtube Video:

The following link leads to a YouTube clip of a song written to inform listeners about the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Even though the song is not very good, it is extremely informational and teaches listeners about all aspects of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.


Secondary Sources:

ABC-CLIO American History Database, s.v. “Great Railroad Strike of 1877,” (accessed May 10, 2011).

Stowell, David O. The Great Strikes of 1877. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. (accessed May 10, 2011).

Primary Sources:

Garrett, John W. "Announcement of Wage Cuts on the B&O Railroad." B&O Railroad Minute Book. 1877. Web. 10 May 2011.

"The Recent Railroad Damages." American Railroad Association. [New York City] 28 July 1877: 959. Web. 10 May 2011.

Image. The Great Strike - The Sixth Maryland Regiment Fighting its Way Through Baltimore.

Image. Locomotives Sitting Idle.


Image. Pennsylvania Railroad.

Image. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Image. Locomotives Sitting Idle.

Image. The Great Strike - The Sixth Maryland Regiment Fighting its Way Through Baltimore.

Image. Interstate Commerce Commission

Video. Great Railroad Strike of 1877.