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The great railroad strike of July 1877

1877
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Library of Congress

The great railroad strike of July. , 1877. Print. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007675388/.

As the American economy industrialized, corporations exploded in size and number. In response, unions emerged to recruit and empower workers increasingly dominated by new technologies and exploited by concentrated wealth. Railroads became the first big business in American history, and their economic and political influence in the second half of the nineteenth century had no equal. The power of railroads also demonstrated the growth of large corporations in American daily life. In 1873 the United States began to descend into another economic depression, known as the Panic of 1873, which lasted for most of the 1870s. Employees of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) in West Virginia saw their wages cut repeatedly after 1873. When the B&O imposed another pay cut in July of 1877, the workers rose up to resist. As the strike escalated, President Rutherford B. Hayes sent federal troops to protect both the railroad and the nation from insurrection. This federal intervention against the workers provoked tens of thousands of other railroad workers across the country, who seized this opportunity to protest their own exploitation and join in solidarity with the employees of the B&O. The national strike that pitched working people and their supporters against large companies, rich capitalists, local police, and the federal government resulted in terrible violence and hundreds of deaths. What kind of connections do you see between labor struggles in the North and West to the process of emancipation and Reconstruction in the South? In what ways can both of these developments be considered labor struggles? President Hayes’s intervention and his use of federal troops to break up the strike also set a national precedent that would be repeated by subsequent political leaders. How does this document as well as information about the Comstock Lode (Source 2) help to answer the question, How did the country change after the Civil War?

As the American economy industrialized, corporations exploded in size and number. In response, unions emerged to recruit and empower workers increasingly dominated by new technologies and exploited by concentrated wealth. Railroads became the first big business in American history, and their economic and political influence in the second half of the nineteenth century had no equal. The power of railroads also demonstrated the growth of large corporations in American daily life. In 1873 the United States began to descend into another economic depression, known as the Panic of 1873, which lasted for most of the 1870s. Employees of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) in West Virginia saw their wages cut repeatedly after 1873. When the B&O imposed another pay cut in July of 1877, the workers rose up to resist. As the strike escalated, President Rutherford B. Hayes responded by sending federal troops to protect both the railroad and the nation from insurrection. This federal intervention against the workers provoked tens of thousands of other railroad workers across the country, who seized this opportunity to protest their own exploitation and join in solidarity with the employees of the B&O. The national strike that pitched working people and their supporters against large companies, rich capitalists, local police, and the federal government resulted in terrible violence and hundreds of deaths. President Hayes’s intervention and his use of federal troops to break up the strike also set a national precedent that would be repeated by subsequent political leaders.

 

These questions can guide a discussion with your students about the significance of railroads, labor activism, and the post–Civil War dynamics of the nation: What does this illustration tell us about the types of people who participated in the great railroad strike of 1877? Who were the victims of the violence that occurred during this unrest? Who were the perpetrators? Are there clear distinctions between the two? Based on what you see in the image, what types of tactics did workers, mobs, police, and troops employ during these conflicts? Why? Compare this illustration to the photograph of a single locomotive traveling east from Sacramento (Source 1). What do the differences between these two sources tell us about the importance of railroads during the Civil War and Reconstruction? What were the differences between the Central Pacific Railroad and railroads in the eastern United States? How are the photo of the Central Pacific and this illustration of the railroad strike completely different and yet closely related? What is missing from the photograph that is abundant in the illustration? How are the conflicts in Sources 8 and 9 different? What do these differences say about the distinct concerns of Northerners and Southerners in the years after the Civil War?

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.