The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

The Cause of It All

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 had been inevitable for quite some time before the workers actually took action. During the years leading up to the strike, the country was suffering from depression. People were facing wage cuts, job losses, and some found themselves homeless. But it was the Panic of 1873 that truly influenced the Railroad Strike. On the East coast, many were laid off and wages were lowered. The business owners justified these wage cuts as practical because the workers as poor business conditions and therefore should not be paid as much. However, workers knew that businessmen were paying stockholders large sums of money.
Then in 1877, America fell into more depression. Times were difficult and called for reduced wages. When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company reduced wages by 10%, for the second time, the workers decided they had enough.

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Rioters saw railroad companies as their main enemy. They seized freight yards, blocked railroad tracks, and destroyed railroad property altogether. At one railroad in Pittsburg, over $5 million worth of damage was done to the property. Local militias as well as federal troops were called to help control the strike, but the strikers would not back down. They shot back at troops and even threw rocks at them. The mobs believed that they were fighting for American equality and independence, but they were doing this in a very violent way. Strikers even lost public sympathy because of their chaotic manner. Joseph McDonnell, the editor of a magazine titled Labor Standard commented that:

“While we are disorganized, we are only a mob and a rabble; when organized we become a power to be respected. If the working men had been organized in every city the strike would be more successful…”
McDonnell had a point here, as the mobs really did not gain much from the strike. Had they protested in a civilized, organized way as opposed to animalistic violence, the strikes may have made a difference.

Rioters destroying the Union Depot in Pittsburg

The Top 5 Major Cities

The Strike was popular all throughout the country, but mostly in Baltimore MD, Chicago IL, Pittsburgh PA, St. Louis MI, and Martinsburg WV. Martinsburg: Workers in Martinsburg set up blockades along railroads to keep trains from moving. They threatened to keep doing this until their wages were returned. Local militia was called in to stop them, but the strike had already spread to other cities across America. Baltimore: Baltimore was one of the cities influenced by the strike in Martinsburg. Like in Martinsburg, the local militia was called in to stop the strike, but the strikers just threw stones at the militia. The militia opened fire and 10 people were killed. In protest of the deaths, 14,000 people destroyed Railroad property. Federal troops were requested to come in. Pittsburgh: Although the violence was bad in Martinsburg and Baltimore, it was much worse in Pittsburgh. A mob of strikers set destructive fires to 39 buildings, 104 cars, and around 1,200 railcars. The militia was called in, but they refused to use violence on the strikers, so the National Guard was called in. They fired on the crowd killing 20 people, and injuring several hundred others. In response, the strikers destroyed $5 million worth of railroad property. St. Louis: The strike also spread to Missouri. On July 21, 1877 riots started in St. Louis and lasted for approximately a week. However, this strike was against general labor, instead of only railroad labor. Chicago: The Workingmen’s party organized a strike of 20,000 men in Illinois. They held rallies with an average of 6,000 people throughout Chicago. UnlikePittsburgh, the local militia resorted to violence to stop the strike. Their tactics included beatings and open-fire. In total, a staggering 750 strikers were killed by the militia.

Workers throwing Stones at the Militia
Workers throwing Stones at the Militia


The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 had many short and long term effects on America. Because of all the violence in the strike, many of the workers lost the sympathy of the general public. Without public sympathy, their desire to have their wages back became less important in the mind of Americans, and made people think they didn’t deserve their old wages back. Another long term effect was, after a month or so of striking, the workers were pretty much back where they started. They gained pretty much nothing by striking. One short term effect was more and more workers looked to The Knights of Labor for economic advice and support. The Knights of Labor are a group who is for the rights of workers. Another short term effect was the National Guard being called in, making it a national problem, instead of just within those specific states. Even though The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 had a lot of short and long term effects on America, it was just the first of many strikes that were to come in the following years.

The National Guard in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877
The National Guard in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877

"1877 -- Aftermath: The Grand Army of Labor." American Social History Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2010. <>.

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Boardman Jr., Fon W. America and the Robber Barons: 1865-1913. New York: David McKay Company, 1979. Print.

Gardener, Joseph L. Labor in the March: The Story of America's Unions. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc, 1969. Print.

Leiser, M.B. Destruction of the Union Depot. N.d. ABC-Clio, Pittsburg. Web.

Picture in the The Cause of It All: "The Great Railroad Strike." The Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Picture in the 5 Major Cities: in Aftermath: