The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

Ruins near the Union Depot and Hotel, Pittsburgh, PA, 1877.

In 1860, at the beginning of the Civil War, Railroads in the United States spanned only 50,000 miles. Yet by 1890, that number had more than tripled to 193,000 miles, and the Transcontinental Railroad became one of the biggest businesses in the country. Transportation became faster and practical, shipping costs were lowered dramatically, and national markets were created, with goods easily able to be transferred from coast to coast. Owners were flourishing in this Second Industrial Revolution, but as soon as a Depression hit the country, growing pains began to take a toll on this highly successful industry.

While railroads brought the nations together, they were significantly contributing to tearing the nation about.

The Company

Railroad Growth was Huge During the Second Industrial Revolution

Railroad owners controlled tens of thousands of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars. They bought coal mines, built iron mills, and consumed whole forests in the quest to make a profit. Railroads and other national corporations represented a distant, shadowy, and irresponsible. These businesses faced straitened circumstances during the depression of the 1870s.

The depression especially undermined the positions of railroads. Slow economic times, combined with a huge surplus in railroad capacity, brought the major carriers to a remorseless struggle for survival. They were forced to slash rates so they could continue to attract passengers and freight traffic. By 1877, northern railroads were still suffering from the Financial Panic of 1873, and facing declining revenues, the railroads cut their remaining workers' wages and salaries, prompting strikes and labor violence with lasting consequences.

The Workers

Workers were fed up with the severe work conditions they faced.

In the 1870s, labor was treated as a simple commodity. With so many unemployed workers available, if a worker disliked or feared his working conditions, another hungry man would surely step forward to take his place.

These workers were crucial to the growth of railroads and America’s new industrial society, and railroads employed one out of every five workers, but they shared few of its rewards. Abuse of the workers began with wage cuts on railway after railway, in tense situations of already low wages, deaths and injuries among the workers—loss of hands, feet, fingers, the crushing of men between cars. They labored 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and only tokein around $2.50 a day. Their professions were extremely dangerous and resulted in heavy injuries and deaths on the job. Victims of industrial accidents, such as laborers maimed by molten steel, received little or no compensation. For nearly all workers, railroad men included, hours were long and paychecks small. The quality of housing, education and health care available to workers was shockingly low, even by the standards of the period.

In a society increasingly populated by workers dependent upon large corporations for wages, the 'cut and dried individualism' that the monopolies were using so they could continue to dominate their business was not providing a reliable guide for future growth. Instead, many Americans came to believe that they would have to fashion a new order, one that allowed workers to live meaningful, healthy lives.

These anarchists opposed the oppressive government by their owners, and began to form scattered labor unions, but aside from the goals of their leaders, they had no real organization between them. Union leaders felt that the only way to voice their opinions about the terrible work conditions they had been facing was to strike and riot on a massive scale, and that's what they were going to do.

Editorial cartoons show that Harper's Weekly and other illustrated periodicals were critical of both strikers and the railroads, and called for a general return to public order. This New York Daily Graphic cartoon illustrates a common view: reckless railroad corporations had too much power.

The Strike

A contemporary artist’s rendering of the clash in Baltimore between workers and the Maryland Sixth Regiment during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The governor had called out the troops on behalf of the railroad company.

Many unions rioted against the Railroad Company in 1877, majorly due to the measures that the company took after the Panic of 1873, which caused a financial downturn. Railroads across America cut wages and salaries, dismissed workers or hired fewer workers. Violence erupted in cities like Baltimore, Kansas City, and San Francisco. Damaging general labor riots took place wherever railroads were, such as places like St.Louis, where the labor strike on July 21 crippled the city for a week. But the most popular riots took place in Martinsburg, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.

Martinsburg, West Virginia:
July 17, 1877
The Railroad Company cut employees, making more than a dollar a day, wages by ten percent. Workers became furious. Some workers reacted by simply walking off the job. Due to the loss of workers the company hired scabs, workers that take the place of a striking worker. But the company faced violence when workers took a larger stance, strike. They blockaded freight trains, preventing any trains from leaving Martinsburg. Local militia was called in to protect, but they were useless in stopping the strikers. The Governor of Baltimore called to President Hayes, for the Federal Troops support. The National Guard arrived, and immediately the freight trains began moving again. But some supporters, of the strike, began to throw rocks at the National Guard in protest, which caused the troops to open fire, which resulted in the deaths of 10 men.

July 21, 1877
The Railroad Company in Pittsburgh announced they would double the length of eastbound trains without an increase of the crews working. The employees went on strike by seizing control of rail yard switches, blocking the movement of trains. The local militia was not helpful, because the sympathized with the workers. But when The National Guard was called in, they did not have sympathy. The troops killed more than 20 rioters. These killings evoked more protest, and people began to burn railroad buildings, complexes, and equipment.

July 24, 1877
The Railroad company in Chicago, like in Martinsburg, cut wages. The following article from the Chicago Daily Tribune, on July 23, 1877, describes the reasons behind the wage cuts.

"During the past two years railroad companies have found their business shrinking up. Prices have fallen off. Freights have been reduced. Stocks have had their values squeezed out of them. They have been unable to pay dividends to their stockholders, rents for their hired roads, or interest on their bonds." (Primary Source A)

Even though the Railroad Company had reason for cutting wages, workers were still enraged. The Workingmen's Party, a Marxist union, called for a rally, in the city of Chicago, to nationalize railways. Close to six thousand supporters arrived, and many people gave persuasive speeches at this rally. This caused 20,000 workers to go on a strike, organized by the Workingmen's Party. Also a group of young people, persuaded by the rally, went through rail yards the following day, and closed down freight trains.

Public Reaction

Locomotives lined up as workers refuse to work during the Strike of 1877. The location is possibly Martinsburg, West Virginia.

The Public Reaction to the strike varied, but for the most part many lower class citizens in each town that the strikes occurred in were supportive and sympathetic. Many watched the strikes, cheering the strikers on. And in some cases even rioted against the troops trying to stop the strike. After these strikes happening in 1877, many of the workers were considered to be heroes by these lower class citizens.The sympathy that these citizens had made strikers more determined to reach their goal. The following excerpt from the Pittsburgh Daily Post, on July 21, 1877, expresses the support toward strikers in Pittsburgh.

"The railway strike inaugurated a few days ago on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad has assumed very large proportions, and is still extending rapidly. A bitter feeling is beginning to show itself among the strikers, and if not checked soon, will lead to serious results. So much sympathy is expressed for them by many, that they are becoming more determined." (Primary Source B)

While the lower class citizens cheered the strikers on, policemen and militia attempted to maintain order and peace. The following excerpt also from the Pittsburgh Daily Post, issued on July 24, describes the efforts that these men took to keep the peace within Pittsburgh.

"Sick of the terrible devastation of the day previous, the citizens yesterday took active measures to preserve the peace. Citizen's corps were organized to patrol the streets, a Committee of Public Safety was organized to map out and carry on the work effectively, the actually discharged members of the police force were again called into service by the mayor, and the local militia became active." (Primary Source C)

Middle/Higher Class citizens were thankful for the militia that was brought in the maintain the peace. They all feared the violence the strikes were inflicting, and many felt as if they were in grave danger. That is why the Great Strike of 1877 was successful in achieving their goal. The strikes were scaring business owners, therefore preventing them from any future wage cuts. No owners wanted to risk cutting wages because they feared strikes would occur, which is probably correct. Some owners even raised salaries to what they were before the cuts. Many states passed conspiracy laws as well. This was because many business leaders feared that the events of the Paris Commune of 1871 would come to the United States. Eventually these protests even led to a movement toward more business regulation, the workers goal.

The Effects of The Strike

On the short term, the violence of the strikes spread causing more violence against Railroads, mines, steamboats, and other industries. On the long term, due to the fact that The Great Railroad Strike was one of the first major strikes in the late 1800s, the strike is blamed for creating the violence that led to later strikes. Amoung these strikes were The Haymarket Square bombing, the Homestead Steel Strike in Pittsburgh, and The Pullman Strike.

Back to Work

Want to learn more about this strike? Check out this video!


Primary Sources

-Primary Source A:"Cause of the Strike and the Remedy." Chicago Daily Tribune 23 July 1877: n. pag. Railroads and the Making of Modern America
-Primary Source B:"Status of the Strike." The Daily Post [Pittsburgh] 21 July 1877: n. pag. Railroads and the Making of Modern America. Web. 11 May 2010.
-Primary Source C:"After the Riot." The Daily Post [Pittsburgh] 24 July 1877: n. pag. Railroads and the Making of Modern America. Web. 11 May 2010.

Secondary Sources

-Mintz, S. (2007). The Great Railroad Strike. Digital History. Retrieved 5/11/10
- Bruce. Robert V. 1877: Year of Violence. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.
- Thomas, William. "Railroads and the Making of Modern America | Topics." Railroads and the Making of Modern America. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2010.<>.


Harper's Weekly Image:
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Image of Workers:,ic:gray
Artists Depiction of Strike:
Image of People in Protesting in Front of Train:
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