130th Anniversary of the 1877 Shamokin Uprising and the Great Railroad Strike

Thanks to YT reader Hal Smith, who wrote this article for the News Item of Shamokin, and was kind enough to point it out.

This July 25th marks the 130th anniversary of the Shamokin Uprising, when desperation and starvation drove railroad workers and miners to join the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, America’s first nationwide strike.

Railroad workers and miners had perilous jobs in the late 1800’s. More than 200 railroad workers and 1000 miners died in accidents every year. The companies often forced both to buy from company stores at inflated prices and work from sunup to sundown. Companies made engineers pay for all train damages, regardless of fault. Children tore their hands picking rocks from coal in collieries.

The first recorded strike in the anthracite coal region occurred in 1842. More followed in 1849, 1869, and 1872. During the Civil War, the mine owners even used cavalry platoons to arrest 8 miners and evict them from company homes for striking in Locust Gap. At that time, the workers in Locust Gap formed the Miner’s Benevolent Society, to provide accident insurance and demand better pay. It was one of the first unions in America .

By 1872 the Reading Railroad was the biggest mine company in the Anthracite region. It used its monopoly on the railroads to take over 70,000 acres of the best coal lands. Places like Gowen City and Gowen Street in Shamokin were named after the company’s president, Frank Gowen. Gowen even bought a police force from the government called the “Reading Coal and Iron Police.” Between 1871 and 1875 Gowen borrowed $69 million to pay for his empire. But he and the other railroad barons had overestimated the demand for train service and over-invested. Debts forced them to fire many workers, resulting in a nationwide depression in 1873.

In 1874 a third of Pennsylvania’s workforce was unemployed. The Reading Railroad cut train workers’ wages by 10%, resulting in an unsuccessful strike. In 1875 only 1/5 of American workers had full-time jobs. Some people vented their frustration by damaging tracks, trains, and mines. On May 11, 1875 the trestle at Locust Gap Junction was exploded by drilling holes and filling them with gunpowder. The telegraph office at Locust Summit was burned. From 1860 to 1909 arson destroyed 25 collieries between Mount Carmel and Trevorton. Knoebel’s Amusement Park has a Mining Museum with a beautiful mural of the twice burned Locust Gap colliery.

When Gowen lowered mining wages to 54% of their 1869 level, miners began the “Long Strike” of 1875, lasting 170 days. But Gowen stored enough coal to outlast the strike and crushed the miner’s union by firing its members.

Gowen further accused leaders of the Irish community of running an alleged secret society called the “Molly Maguires” that killed mine officials. He used private police to investigate and company lawyers to prosecute. Catholics and Irish were excluded from juries. Beginning in June 1877, 20 “Molly Maguires” were executed- often despite strong evidence of innocence.

The Reading Railroad lowered miners’ wages 10-15% twice between 1876 and 1877. Many workers’ meals became bread and water. Some families ate pets.

As for the railroad workers, Gowen decreed they must leave their union and join the company’s insurance plan, which they would lose if they stopped working. In response, the trainmen went on strike in April 1877. Gowen replaced them with scabs whose inexperience caused many accidents. Nevertheless, Gowen didn’t rehire the fired workers, and destroyed the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers.

In July 1877 America was deep in the depression. The previous year the total revenues of America’s railroads fell by $5.8 million. But they raised profits to $186 million (up $0.9 million) by cutting wages. Most owners received 10% dividends. In July 1877 railroads across America conspired and lowered wages another 10%. Train brakemen and firemen’s wages came to $30 per month.

When they found out on July 16, trainmen in Baltimore left work, sparking the Great Strike. More than 80,000 trainmen and 500,000 other workers from Boston to Kansas City joined them, despite the absence of unions. In Pittsburgh when the National Guard, invited by the railroad, shot 26 unarmed strikers and bystanders, crowds burned freight cars for 3 miles. In Pittsburgh and Saint Louis , Missouri the railroad workers were strong enough to take over management, run trains, and collect tickets. In Hornellsville, New York when scabs started a train up a mountain, strikers soaped the tracks. The train went up, slowed, stopped; the passenger cars were unhooked and slid back down the mountain.

In Reading on July 22, with the Reading Railroad 2 months in arrears of paying wages, crowds of women and children watched as strikers blocked tracks. The railroad called in the National Guard. A few people threw bricks and the soldiers opened fire in all directions, killing 10 and wounding 40, including 5 local police.

That evening in Sunbury, rumors circulated that the National Guard would pass through to crush Pittsburgh’s strike. An agitated crowd gathered at the railroad junction at 3rd and Chestnut streets. The soldiers took another route, but when a freight train tried to leave, the railroad workers took it over and sent it back.

On July 23rd the trainmen met at Red Men’s Hall. They decided to join the national strike and continue blocking freight trains until the railroads took back the 10% reduction. The next morning they ordered the shop mechanics to leave work too.

In Danville on the morning of July 23, the workers appointed a group to ask the Commissioner of the Poor for bread or work. The Commissioner “passed the buck” to the mayor. At 3 PM a large crowd gathered at the weigh scales on Mill Street in the middle of Danville . One speaker said “We will give the borough authorities until tomorrow at 10:00 to devise some action to give us work or bread. If at that time nothing is done for us, we will take [explicative] wherever we can find it.” John Styer discussed their poverty and demanded government aid. The town newspaper reported unless the borough council banished starvation, “disorder would ensue. Men would take the law into their own hands.”

The next day there was almost a bread riot. Citizens were on the verge of starvation. Grocers brought their flour inside for safety, and farmers left markets with half their goods sold. At noon crowds led by Ben Bennet and former constable Frank Treas took a few old muskets from an abandoned storehouse. Next they rushed for the weapons stored in the Baldy building on Mill and Northumberland Streets. Police met them. One policeman tried to arrest Treas, for using incendiary language. But he could not get to Treas in the crowd. A sign on Bloom Street proposed a meeting of workingmen in Sechler’s Woods on July 26. Following these events, the authorities gave food to those in need.

In Shenandoah on July 25, 800-1000 workers paraded down the streets with flags and a drum corps. When they got to the baseball field at 10 PM, they could see that arsonists had set fire to the mining stables in nearby Lost Creek. On July 27, Shenandoah’s miners brought business of all kinds to a standstill.

In Shamokin on the morning of July 24, miners struck at the Big Mountain Colliery. 10 families in a row of houses had no food for 3 weeks, except a few scraps from their gardens. At 2 PM a large meeting of workers on Slope Hill demanded work or food.

The next day they repeated their demands at Union Hall on Rock Street . William Oram, the attorney for both the borough and the Mineral Railroad & Mining Company told the crowd the borough and wealthy citizens would give them street work for 80 cents a day.

The crowd appointed a Workingmen’s Committee to negotiate with the borough council that night for a higher rate. The committee demanded $1.00 a day, and the borough agreed. But when the committee returned to Union Hall, the crowd rejected the $1.00 offer.

Then 1000 men and young people marched down Rock Street and Shamokin Street . When someone threw a stone through Shuman & Co.’s Store, the crowd could restrain itself no longer. They surged into the Reading Railroad station and depot on Shamokin and Independence Streets, where the parking lot now stands. They broke the windows and doors, took the freight from the cars and everything in the building, and gutted it. Next they crossed Liberty Street toward the Northern Central Depot on Commerce Street.

Meanwhile Mayor William Douty gathered vigilantes outside City Hall in response to a prearranged signal – a bell ringing at the Presbyterian church where he belonged. Douty managed his family’s coal mines and collieries at Big Mountain, Doutyville, and Shamokin. He also participated in persecuting the Molly Maguires. Douty’s vigilantes marched down Lincoln and Liberty Streets armed with muskets and revolvers. They told the crowd to leave, and when that failed, shot into it. 12 people were wounded and 2 killed, neither one involved in the uprising. Mr. Weist was shot dead while closing his candy store on Liberty and Independence Streets; Levi Shoop was the second victim. The crowd escaped to the town’s outskirts. The vigilantes captured the train stations and patrolled the town. According to rumors, after retreating, people tore up the tracks a few miles east of town.

In November, a wounded victim named Phillip Weist was tried for leading the riot. Despite receiving serious injuries, he was imprisoned for 8 months in the Northumberland County jail. In addition, James Richards, Peter Campbell, Christin Neely, and James Ebright were imprisoned 7, 6, 4, and 3 months respectively for rioting and burglary.

Elsewhere railroads crushed the strike using coal and iron police, vigilantes, and the National Guard. Across America, these “forces of order” killed more than 100 people. It was not a complete defeat for the strikers, however. The strike showed the conflict of interests between working people and management. If corporations pushed people too far, they would react out of desperation. And it showed that if workers acted together, they could challenge the corporate system. The future growth of unions would make workers stronger than an unorganized mass.


1877 Insurrection: Excerpt from THE AGE OF BETRAYAL: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900

The Post Gazette Editors were kind enough to publish this bit from Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 by Jack Beatty.

It’s worth checking out for the pictures, alone.

I wished I’d have copied this rather than the version on the ‘about this picture‘ page.

Maybe this’ll get the Yinsurrectionary Times its first ‘cease and desist’ order? Maybe including a link to but the book offers some protection?

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, “the largest strike anywhere in the world in the 19th century,” according to one historian, was the social earthquake of the Gilded Age, bursting post-Civil War illusions of American immunity to European-style class conflict. To keep afloat during the long depression of the 1870s, the railroads first engaged in wasting rate wars; then, to recoup their losses, colluded to cut wages to $1 a day, beginning July 1, 1877. The Ohio Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that $1 a day represented “absolute poverty.”

The strike reached Pittsburgh on the morning of Thursday, July 19, when an announcement from Pennsylvania Railroad Superintendent Robert Pitcairn was posted that said all eastbound trains would “henceforth” be doubleheaders. That is, the length of the trains would be doubled without increasing the size of the crew, costing jobs and endangering train crews.

Augustus Harris, a flagman, refused to go out on the first doubleheader. A brakeman joined him. Yardmen joined them. When a brakeman, following his supervisor’s orders, started to couple a car to an engine, the strikers threw coupling pins, injuring him and making him run for his life. Engineers were warned: Stay away from the trains.

“Hice, you have a perfect right to refuse to go out,” trainmaster David Garrett told Andrew Hice and a score of strikers, “but you have no right to interfere with others.”

“It is a question of blood or bread,” Mr. Hice came back, “and if I can go to the penitentiary I can get bread and water, and that is about all I can get now.”

After a crowd blocked the eastbound switch at the 28th Street crossing in what is now the Strip District, all traffic stopped. Superintendent Pitcairn departed for Philadelphia, leaving his chief clerk, David Watt, in charge. Mr. Watt applied to Mayor William McCarthy for help, but Mr. McCarthy had no will for that. Squeezing Pittsburgh for decades, the Pennsylvania Railroad had incurred the city’s enmity.

“From the first commencement of the strike,” the Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the Railroad Riots found, “the strikers had the active sympathy of a large portion of the people of Pittsburgh.”

The mayor could spare no men; budget cuts had winnowed his day police force to 11 men. Mr. Watt could ask for volunteers among the laid-off policemen milling in City Hall awaiting their last paychecks. Ten came forward. Mr. Watt led them up Liberty Street toward the switch at the crossing.

Wading into the crowd he declared, “I’ll turn that switch,” and strode toward it. A striker stepped in front of him. Mr. Watt took the man by the coat, at which a fist “shot out” and struck Mr. Watt in the eye. The police pursued the puncher, the crowd neither resisting nor cooperating. Boys threw stones. Dispatcher Joseph McCabe turned the switch. A freight train pulled out of the yard, the last for three weeks.

In charge at the Philadelphia headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad on July 19 was third vice president Alexander Cassatt, a well-born Philadelphian and older brother of the painter Mary Cassatt. Reports of the trainmen’s walkout reached Mr. Cassatt late in the afternoon. After telegraphing the Pittsburgh office to replace the strikers with “extra conductors and engineers,” he left for Cheswold, the neo-Gothic mansion on the Main Line in Haverford he had commissioned in 1872.

When most Americans used an outdoor privy during the day and a chamber pot at night and five out of six city dwellers still bathed with pail and sponge, Cheswold boasted seven bathrooms. Mr. Cassatt was having dinner with his wife and three children when the station master at Haverford arrived with news that a rough had blacked David Watt’s eye and strikers had stopped all traffic.

When the Trainmen’s Union representatives passed their list of demands to Superintendent Pitcairn in Philadelphia on Friday morning, he handed it to Mr. Cassatt, now in charge. Mr. Cassatt read it — the union mainly wanted the wage cut rescinded and the double-headers cancelled — and handed the list back. “Have no further talk with them,” he instructed Mr. Pitcairn. “They’ve asked for things we can’t grant them at all.” Knowing that Gov. John B. Hartranft, vacationing in Wyoming in a luxurious private car supplied by Mr. Cassatt’s railroad, had called out the National Guard, he felt no need to bargain.

By late afternoon, Gen. Alfred L. Pearson, the commander of the Pittsburgh-based 6th Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard, had mustered only 130 men, a force too small, he told Mr. Cassatt, to disperse the crowd. A cannonade would do it — he had two artillery pieces — but at an unacceptable cost in lives. Mr. Cassatt said he was prepared to pay the price.

Gen. Pearson, a Medal of Honor winner in the Civil War, doubted that his regiment would fire on “their fellow townsmen.” Mr. Cassatt suggested that Gov. Hartranft’s Adj. Gen. James W. Latta “had a good regiment under arms” in Philadelphia; a special train could bring them to Pittsburgh overnight. They would shoot, if they had to. Gen. Pearson wired Gen. Latta that “to avert bloodshed, we should have not less than two thousand troops.”

In a decision a Pittsburgh paper branded “insane,” Gen. Latta called out the 1st Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard under Maj. Gen. Robert M. Brinton. Bad blood between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia extended back decades, to the founding of the Pennsylvania Railroad by “Philadelphia capitalists” and their campaign to keep competitors out of Pittsburgh. How Pittsburghers would react to Philadelphia militia marching through their streets to break a broadly supported strike against the hated Pennsylvania Railroad was foreseeable but not foreseen.

That evening the Philadelphia depot thronged with soldiers and their families. Of 1,200 troops in the division, Brinton’s summons had reached a little over 600. In cars bearing the marks of stonings by strikers in Harrisburg, Johnstown and Altoona, the Philadelphia militia pulled past 28th Street in Pittsburgh early Saturday afternoon, their long polished Springfield rifles sticking out the broken windows.

The Philadelphians were “spoiling for a fight,” the Army Times later reported, boasting en route they would “clean up Pittsburgh.” They marched up the tracks toward the 28th Street crossing, two Gatling guns pulled bumpily along behind. From a parallel street “wild and famished looking women” hissed at them. Bobbing along the tops of the cars on the adjacent track, Alexander Cassatt’s tall white hat was visible.

As they gained the crossing, the Philadelphians saw they were marching into a tight spot. A steep hill ran up from the tracks on one side. Four coal cars wedged them in on the other, with “spectators” covering the coal. Spread out on the hill were lawyers and businessmen there out of curiosity, families with small children, trainmen, millmen, miners and the remnants of the Pittsburgh militia.

Ordered to occupy the crossing during the night, by midday some of the Pittsburgh militiamen had melted into the crowd; others stacked their arms and sat on the hill with their friends or families. The crowd blocking the tracks numbered “seven to eight thousand.” The Philadelphians, having split their force to guard facilities closer to the depot, were three hundred.

They deployed in a hollow square, facing the Gatlings at the thickest knot of people a few paces down the tracks. A detachment of the “Dark Blues” lowered their rifles and charged the crowd with their bayonets. Men grabbed at the bayonets and tried to pull the rifles away from the soldiers. One “retained his piece by using his bayonet, and my impression is he run the man through,” a militiaman recalled.

From the hill boys threw stones. From the coal cars came a barrage of coal. Mr. Pitcairn, in the center of the square, said coal “clouded the horizon.” A soldier “had the whole side of his face taken off by a brick.” Others collapsed from sunstroke. “Shoot, you sons of bitches, won’t you shoot!,” a voice taunted.

The crowd surged around the Dark Blues. At least three pistol shots, one from a boy on the hill, rang out. No one gave the order, but up and down the square the militiamen opened fire, at first in all directions, then at the hillside. A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post described the scene on the hill: “Women and children rushed frantically about, some seeking safety, others calling for friends and relatives. Strong men halted with fear, and trembling with excitement, rushed madly to and fro, tramping upon the killed and wounded as well as those who had dropped to Mother Earth to escape injury and death.”

Five minutes of shooting, two or three shots a second, had left 17 dead and 60 or 70 wounded. The casualties included at least one woman, a Pittsburgh militiaman, an old man and a four-year-old girl pulled from the line of fire by a lawyer who tourniqueted her shattered knee with his handkerchief. That night the doctors amputated her leg in vain.

“FIRST BLOOD: Seventeen Citizens Shot in Cold Blood by the Roughs of Philadelphia; The Lexington of the Labor Conflict at Hand” read the headline in the Sunday Pittsburgh Gazette.

Rather than stay in the crossing and be overrun by a crowd that swelled as the news of what they had done spread, the Philadelphians took refuge in the 26th Street roundhouse. They were fired on throughout the night by rifles and shotguns their attackers had stolen from a local gun shop. Toward morning rioters ran a burning coke car topped with petroleum into the buildings adjacent to the roundhouse. Its roof caught fire. At the thought of the Philadelphians burning alive the mob let out a “savage, prolonged yell of exultation.”

Soon men began gagging on the smoke. Before the roof fell in, Gen. Brinton ordered them to evacuate. These factory workers and clerks far from their Philadelphia homes then formed up, one Gatling gun in front, another in the rear, and at a little past 8 marched out of the yards.

The sight of the Gatlings panicked the crowd, which rushed for the alleys running off Liberty Street. As the troops passed, “pistols blazed at them out of doorways and windows, from behind corners, projecting signs, crates and boxes, from cellars and other places,” and even from a police station. Caring people took the wounded into their homes, and lied for them when gunmen, looking for soldiers to kill, rapped on the door. When their pursuers switched to rifles, the Philadelphians fired back, wounding a nonstriking railroad mechanic returning from work and a plasterer and killing a saloonkeeper standing in his own door.

Approaching the Allegheny Arsenal, a major arms depot for the U. S. Army, the Philadelphians were turned away. Afraid that if he harbored Gen. Brinton’s men the crowd would storm the arsenal and make off with its 36,000 rifles and muskets, its cannon and powder magazine, the commander accepted only the wounded. With his troops low on ammunition and without food or water for 24 hours, Gen. Brinton decided not to fight his way to the depot but to march the Philadelphians out of Pittsburgh via the high bridge over the Allegheny River to Sharpsburg, camping on the grounds of the local workhouse.

The crowd now ruled the city. “Vengeance means retaliation,” Barrington Moore, Jr. observed. “It also means a reassertion of human dignity or worth, after injury or damage.”

Saturday night and Sunday, a few outraged Pittsburghers reasserted their dignity against the Pennsylvania Railroad, burning 1,200 freight cars, 104 engines, 46 passenger cars and all 39 company buildings in Pittsburgh, including the Union Depot and hotel. According to Carroll Wright, the first U.S. commissioner of labor, “a great many old freight cars which must soon be replaced by new, were pushed into the fires by agents of the railroad company … and of course the loss was included in claims on the county of Allegheny.”

The tax-paying rioters would have to pay for the damage. The committee investigating the riot found that “the actual destruction was participated in by only 30 to 50 men.” Photographs of the train yards reveal a wilderness of twisted metal and fallen brick extending two miles, not so much resembling Lexington as Berlin circa 1945.

“No parallel in the history of the world upon the strength of what we saw,” Adj. Gen. Latta wired Gov. Hartranft. “A crowd setting fire to something feels irresistible; so long as the fire spreads, everyone will join in and everything hostile will be destroyed,” Elias Canetti wrote in “Crowds and Power.”

And so it was in Pittsburgh. “The strike is over,” a New York Times correspondent wrote on Sunday night, “for there is nothing here to strike against so far as the Pennsylvania Railroad is concerned.”

(Excerpted from “THE AGE OF BETRAYAL: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900.” By Jack Beatty. Copyright (C) 2007 by Jack Beatty. Recently published by Alfred A. Knopf.)