The 1877 “Great Strike” and the Reading Massacre

In 1877, the biggest labor revolt in US history, known today as “The Great Strike” or “The Great Upheaval”,  began in West Virginia and spread across the entire country. Within weeks, state and Federal troops clashed with striking workers in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago and St Louis. In the railroad hub of Reading, Pennsylvania, ten unarmed strikers were killed by state militia troops in what is now known as “The Reading Massacre”.

Harpers_8_11_1877_6th_Regiment_Fighting_Baltimore

Strikers and militia clash in Baltimore.

In the years after the Civil War, as the United States first began to develop the industrial economy that would make her a world power, the largest and most powerful sector of the economy were the railroads. Constructing a nation-wide transportation network required a huge amount of resources–and the railroad companies grew exponentially to fill that need, becoming the first real “national corporations”. By 1870, the railroad companies were the most powerful entities in the US–like modern corporations, they dominated politics and dictated government policies.

In 1873, the US suffered the first of what was to be many economic depressions, known as “The Panic of 1873”. Many large companies, including railroad corporations, were wiped out. By 1877, the survivors were still trying to recover. To increase their profits, railroads began cutting employee pay. In May 1877, the Pennsylvania Railroad cut its wages by ten percent, followed by another ten percent cut in June. In July, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) announced a ten percent cut in pay.

At this time, labor unions barely existed, and they were weak and powerless. But when the wage cuts were announced, the railroad workers decided, on their own, that they had seen enough. On July 13, 1877, 40 locomotive firemen at a B&O depot in Martinsburg, West Virginia, spontaneously walked off the job in protest. It was the spark that set off a national explosion. They were quickly joined by other workers. By the end of the day, word of the strike had spread along the railroad lines, and B&O workers in Baltimore joined in, occupying the local train depot and shutting down all freight traffic. Both West Virginia and Maryland sent armed local militia units to break the strikes and regain control of the railroad yards, and gun battles broke out. In West Virginia, one striker was killed; in Baltimore, the militia itself was surrounded by a crowd of strikers and sympathetic citizens and opened fire, killing ten. Both states asked President Rutherford B Hayes for Federal troops.

By the end of the week, the strike had spread along the railroad lines to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and then to virtually every railroad center in the US, from Chicago and St Louis to Philadelphia and Baltimore, and even as far as San Francisco. In all, over 100,000 railroad workers walked off the job in 14 states (at a time when the total US population was just 50 million).

When the strike began spreading to other industries and started to take on distinctly political undertones, with demands being voiced for an 8-hour workday and an end to child labor, the robber barons (along with the rest of the US government) began to panic. Just six years earlier, the city of Paris had been rocked by an attempted revolution when the workers of that city had rebelled and set up their own government called “The Paris Commune”, which advocated a radical socialist agenda and had been crushed only through an invasion of the city by the French army with cannons and bayonets. With the railroad strike now turning into a full-blown social rebellion and with corporate fears of red flags appearing over American cities, US state and Federal officials sent in the troops to crush the strikers.

In many places, however, the local police and militia, sympathetic to the strikers, refused orders to open fire, and were hastily replaced with National Guard units from elsewhere in the state. When that failed too, a horrified President Hayes ordered almost 60,000 US Army regulars, veterans of the Civil War, into action. In Chicago, clashes with militia and Federal troops killed almost twenty people. In St Louis, a General Strike was called and the entire city was paralyzed–18 people were killed in street fights.

The most pitched battles happened in Pennsylvania, which was the central railroad hub for the entire Northeast, as well as the headquarters for several of the largest railroad companies. In Pittsburgh, the 3rd Infantry Militia Regiment killed 20 people, sparking off a riot that burned the train depot and destroyed 100 locomotives and over a thousand railroad cars. In the ensuing gun battles, another 20 strikers and citizens were shot and killed. In Philadelphia the entire Center City area was occupied by strikers, who burned the railroad depots. In Scranton, a group of local vigilantes armed by the Scranton Iron Company fired into a crowd of strikers, killing three. In the small town of Shamokin, in the militantly pro-union coal-mining district (home of the Molly Maguires), another vigilante group killed 12 strikers at the local train station.

The third-largest city in Pennsylvania at the time was Reading (pronounced “Red-ing”), which was a central hub for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the headquarters for the Reading Railroad. When the local militia refused to act against the strikers, the Reading Railroad Corporation appealed to the Governor for help, and on July 23, National Guard troops from the Fourth Volunteer Regiment arrived from Allentown. The night before, strikers had seized a depot and burned a railroad bridge. The state troops began marching towards the depot with the intention of freeing one of the trains being held by the strikers. On their way, the troops marched through an underpass known locally as the “Seventh Street Cut”, at the intersection of Seventh and Penn Streets, where they were surrounded by strikers and citizens who threw rocks and bottles down on them. The troops opened fire, killing ten unarmed people.

By August 1877, The Great Strike was over, beaten down by Federal troops and thousands more state National Guard, who had killed over a hundred civilians and placed nearly every large city in the US under martial law. It was the closest the US ever came to an actual social revolution; rebellion on this scale would not be seen again until the civil rights riots of the 1960’s almost a hundred years later. But the effects of the Great Strike were far-reaching. In every American city, huge stone National Guard arsenals were constructed in the center of town, to serve as a weapons cache and a fortress in the event of another social revolution. In 1878, in the city of Reading, the Knights of Labor held its first nationwide meeting–and would go on to spark the formation of the American labor movement. The Pullman Railroad Strike in 1894 propelled Eugene V Debs to the political stage–he shortly later helped form the Socialist Party and then the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies”). The city of Reading itself became a center of radical politics; as recently as 1947 it had elected a Socialist Mayor.

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3 thoughts on “The 1877 “Great Strike” and the Reading Massacre”

  1. Sharing this on Facebook.

    I’d read your briefer account of the Uprising in “World, Inc.”, and appreciate this more detailed piece.

    Some humanistic filmmaker, such as John Sayles (“Matewan”), should give these events a cinematic treatment.

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