The Great Rail Road War Of 1877


Outraged, the city’s populace swore revenge against the Philadelphians—and against the Pennsylvania Railroad. As night fell, armed strikers kept the troops pinned down; others systematically set the freight yard ablaze and rolled burning freight cars filled with whisky and other flammables downhill into the roundhouse. When it, too, was in flames, the soldiers shot their way out and fled the city for their lives. Behind them blazed more than twenty-one hundred freight cars—and a considerable section of the city.

Elsewhere as well, state militiamen, mostly ill-trained and generally unenthusiastic about facing off against friends and neighbors, proved ineffective, and the governors of six states petitioned President Rutherford B. Hayes for federal troops to put down what they called “an insurrection.” (The governor of Maryland’s appeal had had special urgency; he wired it from the Baltimore depot where he and other dignitaries were besieged by fifteen hundred angry strikers and their allies.) Hayes responded swiftly, dispatching disciplined regulars to the worst trouble spots. A show of federal force was usually all that was needed to quiet things: the strikers’ quarrel was with the railroads, not with Washington.

By the twenty-eighth, the Great Strike was over. It had deeply shaken conservatives: John Hay thought it had shown the country “at the mercy of the mob,” while Jay Gould declared it marked the start of a “great social revolution” that would inevitably lead to monarchy. Several states enacted strong anticonspiracy statutes that made union organizing more difficult. Many cities constructed thick-walled downtown armories just in case it all happened again. Though most railroad pay cuts were eventually rescinded as the economy improved, many strikers were jailed—and many more blacklisted.

The July uprising had failed because it had not been organized. But it had shown the workers their strength, and in the future they would learn how to use it. Years later, Samuel Gompers recalled its impact. “The railroad strike of 1877,” he wrote, “was the tocsin that sounded a ringing message of hope to us all.”