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The Great Railroad Strike of 1877


The Age of Industrialization brought prosperity, modernity, technology as well as new threats are never seen before. The new technology, as well as new ways of creating products and services, created problems in various industries that are difficult to anticipate and, worse, extremely hard to solve. One of the major byproducts of the Age of Industrialization was the railroads and the locomotives that run through them. In the latter part of the 19th century, the railroad systems in the United States of America became a major component in the nation’s bid to become a global superpower. The railroads move men, products, and raw materials and, needless to say, became a very important part of nation-building. Thus, in the great railroad strike of 1877, the United States government did everything in its power to restore order, even if it meant using violence to break up the strike and force the workers to return back to work.

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Depression in the 19th Century

There was an economic depression that gripped the country beginning in the decade of 1870 and became very obvious in 1873.1 Four years later, the economic conditions grew worse, and by 1877, “…roughly 3 million people were unemployed … Those who were able to keep a job worked six months a year, and their wages were cut by about 45 percent.”2 It can be argued that while factories and railways created an economic boom – by allowing the mass production of cheap products and selling them even cheaper via a cost-efficient railroad system – these things also created the reverse, which is an economic glut. Overproduction is the result of errors in predicting supply and demand as well as overexpansion.

Thus, in a time of economic growth, large-scale employers hired thousands of workers and then faced the problem of overexpansion when the demand begins to slow down. The inevitable will come to pass, which is unemployment and wage cuts. According to Howard Zinn, the Depression of 1877 created unbearable pain and suffering, “That summer, in the hot cities were poor families lived in cellars and drank infested water; the children became sick in large numbers.”3 The inability to find work resulted in the creation of poor communities where poverty did not only bring hunger but sickness and death.

The Workers Slighted

It is one thing to experience hardships at home and another to be slighted at work. By reducing their earning capabilities and forcing railroad workers to toil in unsafe working environments, these laborers were forced to contemplate staging a strike. Zinn traced the development of the great railroad strike through the following chronology of events: “It all began with wage cuts on the railway after railway, intense situations of already low wages ($1.75 a day for brakemen working twelve hours), scheming and profiteering by the rail companies, deaths, and injuries among the workers – loss of hands, feet, fingers, the crushing of men between cars.”4 There is a widespread belief that the employers were making a ton of money while the workers had to endure slave-like conditions.

The workers could no longer bear the humiliation they faced at home and at work. There was little incentive to go on. If they work, they face the possibility of death or permanent injury, and if they survive another day, they could not afford to feed their families. In their calculation, they will die sooner or later. So on July 16, 1887, when railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, “…walked off the job to protest a 10 percent wage cut leveled by their employer, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad,” these men changed the course of history.5 This action started a chain-reaction of events, and strikes began to erupt in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Chicago.6

As a result, the strike “…erupted into one of the largest civil disturbances in American history, and it quickly overwhelmed local law enforcement officials.”7 One has to understand that the railroad systems in the 19th century can be compared to the airline industry or the telecom industry of the 21st century, meaning it is very vital to the economy. Moreover, the railroad system was linked to factories and other wage workers all over the country. It was impossible to stage a strike in Virginia without the rest of the country becoming aware of such an event.

For the Sake of Order

Crippling the railroads will definitely affect trade and industry in 19th century America, but the railroad workers created something more – they inspired wage workers outside their industry to participate and empathize with them and thus creating a bigger problem for the government. In Chicago, “In addition to walkouts and protests by railroad workers, sympathetic actions by other wage workers brought the city to a state of a general strike.”8 The economic depression experienced by railroad workers in Virginia or Philadelphia was not limited to the said industry. It was felt by every wage worker who had to fight for their rights. When wage earners from lumber mills, canning industries, etc., joined protesters from the railroad companies, they created a national problem that required the participation of the Federal government.

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The initial reaction of the railroad companies and U.S. government officials was to use the militia to restore order, but they soon found out that the proposed solution would not be enough to turn the tide. Governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and West Virginia called up their state militias and discovered very quickly that their militias lacked adjutant generals, professional training programs, contingency plans for deployment, and most importantly, appropriate firearms that can be used to subdue the strikers.9 Furthermore, members of the militia were familiar with the strikers. These militiamen also identified with the wage workers, and it was difficult for them to use all means necessary to break up the strike.

Socialism and Communism

It can be argued that the government’s crackdown on the strikers was not only brought about by the need to re-establish order and commerce but also to prevent socialists or communists from gaining anything significant out of the strikes. This view was strengthened by reports that socialists saw a major opportunity to spread their message about the evils of capitalism.10 The U.S. government feared that this blatant display of weakness would be used by socialists to fan the flames of revolution and bring the whole country to anarchy. The riots that ensued after major cities joined in the strikes forced the local government to consider other means of breaking the strike.

It is easy to understand why supporters of socialism and communism saw the upheaval as a great opportunity to finally rally Americans – at least the wage earners – to establish a strong communist party that will transform the United States into a nation where the power of the masses will create a more egalitarian society. The increasing polarization of two emerging industrial classes in the latter part of the 1900s: large scale employers and allied property owners on the one hand and a new immigrant, industrial working class on the other was a major problem for a government that vowed to be ruled by the people and of the people.11 The U.S. government officials had to act strong and fast before the situation become uncontrollable and spread to the rest of the country.

In the Aftermath of the Strike

The failure of state militias to end the siege instigated by railroad workers prompted no less than U.S. President Hayes to dispatch U.S. regular army troops, and thus the introduction of the army finally broke the strike.12 Members of the regular army were more disciplined and more prepared than the state militia. Furthermore, these soldiers were not familiar with the workers who are on strike, and therefore they can carry out orders without hesitation. Thus, the great railroad strike of 1877 was finally crushed with the help of the Federal government.

But the strikes created concessions for the workers. Some of the wage cuts were withdrawn, but at the same time, railroad companies were made aware of their weaknesses and strengthened their policing capabilities. But in the long run the strikes, “…taught many people of the hardships of others, and they led to congressional railroad regulation…” and encouraged unionism among workers.13 Still, there are those who claim that the strike was not worth the sacrifice of 100 dead people and 1,000 others thrown to jail.14 This means that at the beginning of the strike, there were 1,100 people who can barely provide for their families, and at the end of the strike, there were 1,100 people who could not provide for their families, for they are either in prison or six feet below the ground.


At first, it was easy to side with the wage workers. They had to go on strike to force employers to acknowledge that they too had rights and that businessmen had no right to play with their lives. But on the other hand, it must also be pointed out that railroad companies were significantly affected by the economic depression that gripped the country in the 1870s. This means that when these businessmen started hiring workers, they anticipated an economic boom that would create unprecedented demands for their products. But in a time of recession, all these projections must be scaled down, and unfortunately, the number of workers must also be reduced in order to adjust to a new economic reality.

The ensuing violence that resulted in deaths and jail time for many strikers made it clear that strikes and riots are not the only means to communicate workers’ grievances. These radical steps may permanently curtail the earning capability of jailed or dead wage earners. The great strike of 1877 should teach everyone a lesson. The employers must prepare for economic hardships and must not be ruled by greed and not commit to an expansion program that they could not sustain. For the workers, the best that they can do is to organize, establish unions and other organizations where their unity and cooperation can be their strength, instead of resorting to unpredictable and uncontrollable strikes as well as instigating riots that may cost them their lives and their means of livelihood.

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Lambert, J. Bartlett. (2005). If the Workers Took a Notion: The Right to Strike and American Political Development. New York: Cornell University Press.

Sawislak, Karen. (2005). “Railroad Strike of 1877.”

Scheirov, Richard. (2008). Chicago’s Great Upheaval of 1877: Class Polarization and Democratic Politics. In D. O. Stowell (Ed.). The Great Strikes of 1877. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

University of California, Santa Cruz. (2009). “The Great Railroad Strike of 1877.” Web.

Zinn, Howard. (2006).“1877: The Great Railroad Strike.”


  1. University of California, Santa Cruz. (2009). “The Great Railroad Strike of 1877.” Web.
  2. University of California, Santa Cruz. Par. 1.
  3. Howard Zinn. (2006).”1877: The Great Railroad Strike.” Web.
  4. Zinn, par. 5.
  5. Karen Sawislak. (2005). “Railroad Strike of 1877.” Web.
  6. Sawislak, par. 2.
  7. J. Bartlett Lambert. (2005). If the Workers Took a Notion: The Right to Strike and American Political Development. (New York: Cornell University Press), p. 53.
  8. Sawislak, par. 3.
  9. Lambert, p. 53.
  10. Sawislak, par. 3.
  11. Richard Scheirov. (2008). Chicago’s Great Upheaval of 1877: Class Polarization and Democratic Politics. In D. O. Stowell (Ed.). The Great Strikes of 1877. Illinois: University of Illinois.
  12. Lambert, p. 54.
  13. Zinn, par. 35.
  14. Zinn, par. 36.

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