The Problem

When the banking firm Jay Crooke and Company collapsed, as a result of investing too much in railroad security, on September 19, 1873 it affected the whole economy. This day, now known as Black Friday, led to the depression was known as the Financial Panic of 1873. The whole economy was left in shambles and businesses like the railroads were suffering.

The railroad companies would do anything they could to save money. In July costs were cut by doubling the length of fright trains without increasing the crew. This left a strain on the laborers who were already severely taxes. They also experienced salary and wage cuts which were the result of this financial struggle. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the first to start this trend by cutting the wages of their laborers by 20%. Other railroads such as Baltimore soon followed. The workers were fed up and wanted change!


On July 17, 1877 workers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad went on strike against the low wages they were being paid in Martinsburg, West Virginia. This strike was the start to a chain reaction that would cause fellow workers of other companies to join in the rebellion against the railroad corporations. The two week long strike which is known as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 that was not fueled by unions or a national organization caught the attention of many. The strikers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad first dismantled a cattle train and threatened to continue destruction until their wages increased. A local militia was sent in to stop the revolt. The goal of the militia was to convince the strikers to go back to work without the use of force. When this goal failed the governor of West Virginia called in federal troops. This was the first time that federal troops were ever called in to break apart a strike. By the time that the federal troops had arrived on July 20, 1877, the strike had spread to Baltimore. There the mobs of over 14,000 people threw stones, damaged railroad property until the local militia fired into the crowd which killed ten people. This strike in Baltimore helped the strikers to get the support of the community. A lot of the public believed that the railroads were bad and that they killed many people.

6th_regiment_copy.jpg , From Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, Printed on August 4, 1877A depiction of the militia firing into the mob at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Strike at the corner of Fredrick and Baltimore Streets on July 20, 1877.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a mob attacked the local militia and set many fires that in total destroyed 39 buildings, 104 locomotives, 46 passenger cars and over 1,200 railcars. Nearby in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, on July 20, 1877, the militia was sent to protect the railroad property. But as in West Virginia, they did not want to use force in order to stop the mobs. The National Guard Troops were called in from Philadelphia to stop the strike. They fired into the crowd and eventually killed 20 strikers and over 100 were wounded. At the end, the damage was massive. Over 1,000 railcars, 100 locomotives and many railroad buildings were destroyed leaving $4 million in damage. At the end of the strike, there were more than 40 strikers killed.
Many other strikes took place including one in St. Louis, Missouri on July 31, 1877 and in Chicago, Illinois on July 24, 1877. There, 20,000 workers were organized by the Workingmen’s Party. Which was a political party started by skilled crafts workers. At the end, the militia killed over 50 people.

View The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in a larger map

(A map highlighting the major strikes that are talked about in this chapter.)

In total, ten states mobilized their local militia and federal troops stopped the strikes in every city they were called to by the end of the week. Sadly, it was not before more than 100 people were killed. To the rest of the public, the strikers were viewed as heroes. But to the owners of the railroad companies, they could not see the strikes as any justifiable way to for workers to get their point across. As stated by John H. Noyes in his book The American Socialist, "The laborers... have no legal or moral right to insist that certain men who have been employing them shall pay them whatever wages they demand. They have a right to quit work and seek better pay elsewhere, but have no right to make war or destory property, or prevent others from taking their places at the reduced wages."

1877strike2.jpg, The use of Federal Troops to calm the rebellions during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was crucial. They were able to use force to get what they wanted, something that the local militias were afraid of.
Public Reaction

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 quickly gained the support of the public. The various strikes that erupted showed the public of all the injustices of the railroad companies. Also, farmers from the West agreed with the actions of the strikers because of the many problems that they personally had with the railroads. This is because the railroad corporations were charging the farmers more to ship their crops across the country. Farmers quickly because aggravated by the unfair treatment they were receiving and they ultimately sided with the strikers.


As result of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, railroad and interstate commerce were completely paralyzed. Once things were back to normal not many changes were apparent. Though some were fired, most workers were allowed to return back to work. There were minor gains for some such as a repeal of the wage cuts and oppressive work rules. But, most wage cuts stayed in place.

The long-term effects of the Great Strike were much more apparent. It changed the American attitude towards industrial society in a bad way and several national unions were formed to better ensure the rights of workers such as the Knights of Labor. More business regulation was also put into place after the strike. The first attempt was the Granger Movement, which sought to improve the economic position of farmers who were being taken advantage of by the railroad companies.

The Knights of Labor Union was strengthened in the aftermath of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.


"American Social History Project · Center for Media and Learning." American Social History Project · Center for Media and Learning. (accessed May 6, 2010).

"Granger Movement." ABC-Clio: American History. (accessed May 10, 2010).

"Great Railroad Strike of 1877." ABC-Clio: American History. (accessed May 10, 2010).

Noyes, John H.
The American Socialist. Vol. 1. 1878. Print. Stowell, David O.. the Great Strike of 1877 (Historical Studies of Urban America). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999.

"Panic of 1873." ABC-Clio: American History. (accessed May 10, 2010).

Rutherford B. Hayes Comments on the 1877 Railroad Strike

"Workingmen Party." ABC-Clio: American History. (accessed May 10, 2010).