The Great Upheavel of 1877

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Joined: 15-04-06
Jul 24 2007 12:33
The Great Upheavel of 1877

This year marks the 130th Anniversary of the first US nation-wide strike ("The Great Railroad Strike of 1877). I thought folks might find these links of interest. I tried to find a link with Jeremey Brecher's chapter (in Strike!) on the "Great Upheavel" but couldn't find a freebie.

Joined: 17-12-05
Jul 24 2007 12:52

Big up to the railroad strike from West Virginia that spread down the B&O line to Baltimore.

Steven.'s picture
Joined: 27-06-06
Jul 24 2007 12:54

Our article on it is here, from Zinn:

The Brecher piece is great, we'd love to have that whole book online. Maybe I'll try to email him. I'm sure I've seen his address on znet. Anyone who has it please let me know.

David in Atlanta
Joined: 21-04-06
Jul 25 2007 04:18

I just found this linked on infoshop

The Shamokin Uprising

Wednesday marks the 130th anniversary of the Shamokin Uprising, when desperation and starvation drove railroad workers and miners to join the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, America’s first nationwide strike.

Railroad workers and miners had perilous jobs in the late 1800s. More than 200 railroad workers and 1,000 miners died in accidents every year. The companies often forced both to buy from company stores at inflated prices and work from sun up to sun down. Companies made engineers pay for all train damages, regardless of fault. Children tore their hands picking rocks from coal in collieries.

The first recorded strike in the anthracite coal region occurred in 1842. More followed in 1849, 1869 and 1872. During the Civil War, the mine owners even used cavalry platoons to arrest eight miners and evict them from company homes for striking in Locust Gap. At that time, the workers in Locust Gap formed the Miners Benevolent Society, to provide accident insurance and demand better pay. It was one of the first unions in America .

By 1872 the Reading Railroad was the biggest mine company in the anthracite region. It used its monopoly on the railroads to take over 70,000 acres of the best coal lands. Places like Gowen City and Gowen Street in Shamokin were named after the company’s president, Frank Gowen. Gowen even bought a police force from the government called the Reading Coal and Iron Police.

Between 1871 and 1875, Gowen borrowed $69 million to pay for his empire.

But he and the other railroad barons had overestimated the demand for train service and over-invested. Debts forced them to fire many workers, resulting in a nationwide depression in 1873.

In 1874, a third of Pennsylvania’s workforce was unemployed. The Reading Railroad cut train workers’ wages by 10 percent, resulting in an unsuccessful strike. In 1875 only one-fifth of American workers had full-time jobs. Some people vented their frustration by damaging tracks, trains and mines.

On May 11, 1875, the trestle at Locust Gap Junction was exploded by drilling holes and filling them with gunpowder. The telegraph office at Locust Summit was burned. From 1860 to 1909, arson destroyed 25 collieries between Mount Carmel and Trevorton. (Knoebels Amusement Park has a mining museum with a beautiful mural of the twice burned Locust Gap colliery.)

When Gowen lowered mining wages to 54 percent of their 1869 level, miners began the “Long Strike” of 1875, lasting 170 days. But Gowen stored enough coal to outlast the strike, and crushed the miners’ union by firing its members.

The Mollies factor

Gowen further accused leaders of the Irish community of running an alleged secret society called the Molly Maguires that killed mine officials. He used private police to investigate and company lawyers to prosecute. Catholics and Irish were excluded from juries. Beginning in June 1877, 20 alleged Mollies were executed — often despite strong evidence of innocence.

The Reading Railroad lowered miners’ wages 10 to 15 percent twice between 1876 and 1877. Many workers’ meals became bread and water. Some families ate pets.

As for the railroad workers, Gowen decreed they must leave their union and join the company’s insurance plan, which they would lose if they stopped working. In response, the trainmen went on strike in April 1877. Gowen replaced them with scabs whose inexperience caused many accidents.

Nevertheless, Gowen didn’t rehire the fired workers, and destroyed the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers.

Strike begins

In July 1877, America was deep in the depression. The previous year the total revenues of America’s railroads fell by $5.8 million. But they raised profits to $186 million by cutting wages. Most owners received 10-percent dividends. In July 1877, railroads across America conspired and lowered wages another 10 percent. Train brakemen and firemen’s wages came to $30 per month.

When they found out on July 16, trainmen in Baltimore left work, sparking the Great Strike. More than 80,000 trainmen and 500,000 other workers from Boston to Kansas City joined them, despite the absence of unions. In Pittsburgh when the National Guard, invited by the railroad, shot 26 unarmed strikers and bystanders, crowds burned freight cars for 3 miles. In Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Mo., the railroad workers were strong enough to take over management, run trains and collect tickets. When scabs started a train up a mountain in Hornellsville, N.Y., strikers soaped the tracks. The train went up, slowed and stopped; the passenger cars were unhooked and slid back down the mountain.

In Reading on July 22, with the Reading Railroad two months in arrears of paying wages, crowds of women and children watched as strikers blocked tracks. The railroad called in the National Guard. A few people threw bricks and the soldiers opened fire in all directions, killing 10 and wounding 40, including five local police.

Trouble in Sunbury, Danville

That evening in Sunbury, rumors circulated that the National Guard would pass through, and an agitated crowd gathered at the railroad junction at Third and Chestnut streets. The soldiers took another route, but when a freight train tried to leave, the railroad workers took it over and sent it back.

On July 23, the trainmen met at Red Men’s Hall. They decided to join the national strike and continue blocking freight trains until the railroads took back the 10-percent reduction. The next morning they ordered the shop mechanics to leave work, too.

In Danville on the morning of July 23, the workers appointed a group to ask the Commissioner of the Poor for bread or work. The commissioner “passed the buck” to the mayor. At 3 p.m., a large crowd gathered at the weigh scales on Mill Street in the middle of Danville. One speaker said, “We will give the borough authorities until tomorrow at 10:00 to devise some action to give us work or bread. If at that time nothing is done for us, we will take (explicative) wherever we can find it.” John Styer discussed their poverty and demanded government aid. The town newspaper reported that unless the borough council banished starvation, “disorder would ensue. Men would take the law into their own hands.”

The next day there was almost a bread riot. Citizens were on the verge of starvation. Grocers brought their flour inside for safety, and farmers left markets with half their goods sold. At noon, crowds led by Ben Bennet and former constable Frank Treas took a few old muskets from an abandoned storehouse. Next they rushed for the weapons stored in the Baldy building at Mill and Northumberland streets. Police met them. One policeman tried to arrest Treas for using incendiary language, but he could not get to Treas in the crowd. A sign on Bloom Street proposed a meeting of workingmen in Sechler’s Woods on July 26. Following these events, the authorities gave food to those in need.

In Shenandoah on July 25, 800 to 1,000 workers paraded down the streets with flags and a drum corps. When they got to the baseball field at 10 p.m., they could see that arsonists had set fire to the mining stables in nearby Lost Creek. On July 27, Shenandoah’s miners brought business of all kinds to a standstill.

1,000 march in Shamokin

In Shamokin on the morning of July 24, miners struck at the Big Mountain Colliery. Ten families in a row of houses had no food for three weeks, except a few scraps from their gardens. At 2 p.m., a large meeting of workers on Slope Hill demanded work or food.

The next day, July 25, they repeated their demands at Union Hall on Rock Street. William Oram, the attorney for both the borough and the Mineral Railroad & Mining Co., told the crowd the borough and wealthy citizens would give them street work for 80 cents a day.

The crowd appointed a Workingmen’s Committee to negotiate with borough council that night for a higher rate. The committee demanded $1 a day, and the borough agreed. But when the committee returned to Union Hall, the crowd rejected the $1 offer.

Then, 1,000 men and young people marched down Rock Street and Shamokin Street. When someone threw a stone through Shuman & Co.’s Store, the crowd could restrain itself no longer. They surged into the Reading Railroad station and depot along Independence Street, where the municipal parking lot now stands (just east of the post office). They broke the windows and doors, took freight from the cars and everything in the building, and gutted it. Next they crossed Liberty Street toward the Northern Central Depot on Commerce Street.

Vigilantes respond

Meanwhile, Mayor William Douty gathered vigilantes outside Borough Hall in response to a prearranged signal — a bell ringing at the Presbyterian church where he belonged. Douty managed his family’s coal mines and collieries at Big Mountain, Doutyville, and Shamokin. He also participated in persecuting the Molly Maguires.

Douty’s vigilantes marched down Lincoln and Liberty streets armed with muskets and revolvers. They told the crowd to leave, and when that failed, shot into it. Twelve people were wounded and two killed, neither one involved in the uprising. Mr. Weist was shot dead while closing his candy store at Liberty and Independence streets; Levi Shoop was the second victim.

The crowd escaped to the town’s outskirts. The vigilantes seized the train stations and patrolled the town. According to rumors, after retreating, people tore up the tracks a few miles east of town.

Afterwards, Phillip Wiest was accused of leading the riot. Despite receiving serious wounds, he was imprisoned for eight months in the Northumberland County jail. In addition, James Richards, Peter Campbell, Christin Neely and James Ebright were imprisoned for seven, six, four and three months, respectively, for rioting and burglary.

Some benefit

Elsewhere, railroads crushed the strike using coal and iron police, vigilantes and the National Guard. Across America, these “forces of order” killed more than 100 people.

It was not a complete defeat for the strikers, however. The strike showed the conflict of interests between working people and management. If corporations pushed people too far, they would react out of desperation. And it showed that if workers acted together, they could challenge the corporate system. The future growth of unions would make workers stronger than an unorganized mass.

(Smith’s great-grandfather was a railroad worker in White Haven. The author lives in Danville.)