The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, sometimes referred to as the Great Upheaval, began on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, United States after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) cut wages for the third time in a year. This strike finally ended some 45 days later, after it was put down by local and state militias, and federal troops. Because of economic problems and pressure on wages by the railroads, workers in numerous other cities, in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, into Illinois and Missouri, also went out on strike. An estimated 100 people were killed in the unrest across the country. In Martinsburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other cities, workers burned down and destroyed both physical facilities and the rolling stock of the railroads - engines and railroad cars. Local populations feared that workers were rising in revolution such as the Paris Commune of 1871.
At the time, the workers were not represented by trade unions. The city and state governments organized armed militias, aided by national guard, federal troops and private militias organized by the railroads, who fought against the workers. Disruption was widespread and at its height, the strikes were supported by about 100,000 workers. With the intervention of federal troops in several locations, most of the strikes were suppressed by early August. Labor continued to work to organize into unions to work for better wages and conditions. Fearing the social disruption, many cities built armories to support their militias; these defensive buildings still stand as symbols of the effort to suppress the labor unrest of this period.
With public attention on workers' wages and conditions, the B&O in 1880 founded an Employee Relief Association to provide death benefits and some health care. In 1884 it established a worker pension plan. Other improvements generally had to await labor organizing.
The Reading Railroad massacre of July 23, 1877, in which ten people lost their lives, was the climax of local events in Reading, Pennsylvania during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
Set towards the end of the Long Depression of 1873 - 1879, the events of the massacre followed upon arson and riots against local facilities of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (commonly referred to as the Reading Railroad). Units of the Pennsylvania State Militia (comparable to today's National Guard) were brought in by train. Near nightfall, one such unit was marched into the Seventh Street Cut, a man-made ravine, three blocks long with thirty-foot walls, to free a train that had been stopped there by rioters.
Bombarded from above with bricks, stones and possibly gunshots (accounts vary), some of the soldiers fired rifle volleys into a crowd at the far end of the Cut. Ten civilian deaths resulted from this gunfire. Most rioting ended that night, and tense quiet prevailed the next day. Ultimately, the arrival of federal troops restored order to Reading.
A coroner's inquest following the massacre did not blame the militia for the deaths, but pointed to the overall upheaval in the city at the time.
View looking southward beneath the Walnut Street Bridge toward the Court Street Bridge, and to Penn Street, along the corridor referred to as the "Seventh Street Cut."
From the book titled "Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks Conty Pennsylvania," by Morton L. Montgomery. Published by J. H. Beers Co., Chicago, 1909:
The great riot in 1877 at Reading was an extraordinary event in the history of our community. On Saturday, July 21, 1877, great excitement prevailed in the city, owing to the general strike of railroad trainmen in the following States: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. The central point of excitement here was at Seventh and Penn streets, where many men gathered to discuss the situation. At that time the excitement at Pittsburg was intense, ending shortly thereafter in the great destruction of railroad property, which consisted of buildings, cars, etc., and in the loss of at least a score of lives.
On the next day, the situation was naturally worse owing to the news from Pittsburg, and more men crowded at the point named; but there was no disorderly demonstration of any kind during the day. By 10 o'clock in the evening, the crowd had moved to the passenger station, where the men greeted the last train from Philadelphia (10:30) with shouts and yells. Then the excitement became uncontrollable. The crowd moved westward on the Lebanon Valley railroad, and fire and destruction of property followed. Railroad tracks were torn up, and certain cabooses and freight cars were set on fire which resulted in a general alarm of fire, and the response of the fire department; and during the terrible excitement in and about the "cut," near Sixth street, whither all attention had been directed, the costly railroad bridge, which spanned the river within a mile to the west, was set on fire and entirely destroyed. The bright flames, which flashed high into the darkness of the night, attracted thousands of people to the place.
On the night of July 22, rioters burned down the Reading's Lebanon Valley Railroad bridge, which carried the Reading line across the Schuylkill River.
The news shocked the whole community. Crowds had gathered on Saturday, innocently, apparently, but unlawfully, without any earnest movement from the police to disperse them, and property had been destroyed on Sunday. On Monday, the newspapers were almost wholly, taken up with vivid descriptions of the excited condition of the community and of the destructive work of incendiaries. Throughout the day, great excitement prevailed, and as the night approached it grew greater. The four corners of Seventh and Penn streets were again crowded hour after hour, subject to a weak protest; but without any determined effort from municipal or county authorities to clear the highway. Trains were stopped, coal cars detached and many tons of coal dumped upon the track for several hundred feet.
With this state of affairs, the 6 o'clock passenger train approached the city around the bend of "Neversink," and the shrill whistle of the engine never sounded in such a piercing manner. The engineer remained bravely at his post; the command was given to proceed forward at full speed, and forward indeed he directed his engine at the rate of forty-five miles an hour over the blockaded track. Fortunately the train passed through safely, but the people scattered for their lives, coals were thrown high into the air, and a dense cloud of black dust obscured everything round about for a time. At the passenger station, great excitement arose immediately after the arrival of this train. The next down train was stopped in the cut, and this daring proceeding drew the crowd from the depot and intensified the excitement at Seventh and Penn streets. And the people remained at that point, immovable. Proclamations by the sheriff and earnest appeals by the policemen did not make the slightest impression upon them. The vast multitudes were in sympathy with the riotous demonstrations. And so matters remained for nearly two hours, apparently growing worse as the darkness of night fell upon the community. Then, however, a sudden change arose. And what agent was this that could, as it were, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, separate a maddened, threatening crowd, when sober, sensible appeals to citizens who had theretofore been a law-abiding people, were wholly unavailing? It was the bullet. This acted upon them as effectually as the lightning upon restless, thickening clouds in a portentous sky.
About 8 o'clock, seven companies of the 4th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, numbering about two hundred men, under the command of Gen. Franklin Reeder, arrived at the railroad station in the city, viz.:
Company B, Allen Rifles, Allentown; Company D, Allen Continentals, Allentown; Company E, Blue Mountain Legion, Hamburg; Company F, Easton Grays, Easton; Company H, Slatington Rifles, Slatington; Company I, Catasauqua; Company K, Portland, Northampton county.
After some consultation they were marched down the railroad and through the "cut" toward Penn street to liberate the train there. On the way, they were attacked by persons on the elevated pavements who threw stones and bricks upon them. They did not fire in self-defense, but moved on bravely. Nearing Penn street, the situation became so dangerous that some of the men, by some order or mistaken command, shot off their rifles. Bricks and stones were thrown with increased energy, and many shots followed. The crowd immediately scattered, and men were seen bearing away the wounded and killed. With the dispersing crowd, the soldiers also became disordered, and the companies disorganized. Their conduct was disgraceful, and the whole community, and especially the management of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Company, lost confidence in them as a means of restoring order or preserving peace. A battery of United States Regular Artillery, equipped as infantry, then came here shortly afterward, under the command of General Hamilton, and remained until peace, order and safety were assured. The fidelity of G. A. Nicolls and George Eltz as officials of the railroad at this point, in the perilous situation of affairs then existing, was highly commendable.
This riot resulted in the killing of ten citizens (Milton Trace, James J. Fisher, Ludwig Hoffman, John H. Weaver, Lewis A. Eisenhower, John A. Cassidy, John A. Wunder, Daniel Nachtrieb, Elias Shafer and Howard Cramp) ; and the wounding of twenty-seven persons (including four policemen) and twelve soldiers.
Dr. George S. Goodhart, the coroner of the county, then held an inquest to inquire into the loss of life; and after hearing a number of witnesses reported on Aug. 7, 1877, that the death of the persons named was caused by the military who were here by direction of the State authorities firing upon the rioters, and the terrible tragedy was directly attributed to the lawless assembling of persons at Seventh and Penn streets.
Many men were arrested and indicted for alleged implication in this riot. Two of them pleaded guilty and were sentenced to imprisonment for five years. There was a hotly contested trial of another, from Oct. 2nd to the 6th, but he was acquitted. The following week, fourteen were tried and all were acquitted excepting one, who was convicted of inciting to riot; and the third week, forty were called for trial but the prosecution was abandoned. These trials caused great excitement. F. B. Gowen, the president of the P. & R. R. Co., conducted the prosecution of these cases in person.
Looking southward along the Schuylkill River toward the Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge in 1897. The bridge was rebuilt following the 1877 railroad riots. Part of the original abutment is visible beside the present one along the present-day West Shore By-Pass (near the cow trail on right side of photo). The Keystone furnace (left side of photo) was erected in 1869, and used for the manufacture of pig iron.