Labor in History: Mobtown and the Stirring of America’s Unions

Bruce Vail

An illustration from an 1877 issue of Harper's Magazine depicts the bloody confrontation between state militia and Great Railroad Strike supporters that took place on the streets of Baltimore. (Public Domain)

Many his­to­ri­ans date the first great indus­tri­al upheaval of Amer­i­can labor to July 16, 1877, when work­ers on the Bal­ti­more and Ohio Rail­road began refus­ing to work in protest against a round of wage cuts ordered by the company’s senior man­agers. Bat­tered by years of eco­nom­ic depres­sion, high unem­ploy­ment and mis­er­able work­ing con­di­tions, the work­ers in Bal­ti­more and beyond had final­ly been pushed to the break­ing point.

Even with­out any broad-based union orga­ni­za­tion, the B&O strike imme­di­ate­ly seized the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion. The unrest spread rapid­ly to oth­er rail­roads before expand­ing to include work­ers at mines and fac­to­ries in wide­ly scat­tered loca­tions across the coun­try. At its height, the six-week-long Great Rail­road Strike” involved an esti­mat­ed 100,000 work­ers in more than a dozen states, and suc­ceed­ed in par­a­lyz­ing much of the nation’s trans­porta­tion system. 

The sud­den upris­ing engen­dered fear — and more than a lit­tle pan­ic — among rail­road exec­u­tives and gov­ern­ment offi­cials. With­in just a few days, the first great nation­al strike in U.S. his­to­ry became one of its first great indus­tri­al tragedies, as state mili­tia units and fed­er­al troops moved to sup­press the move­ment. Sol­diers fired on strik­ers and pro­test­ers dur­ing epic clash­es in Chica­go, St. Louis, Pitts­burgh, Bal­ti­more and else­where. More than 100 peo­ple were killed; thou­sands more were injured. In the end, the strike was crushed, set­ting a prece­dent for the vio­lent sup­pres­sion of labor unrest that would stain Amer­i­can labor his­to­ry for gen­er­a­tions to come.

These dra­mat­ic events pro­vide the foun­da­tion for an unusu­al new book that close­ly exam­ines the 1877 events in Bal­ti­more, where the strike began. The 1877 Rail­road Strike in Bal­ti­more offers a sym­pa­thet­ic view of the demon­stra­tors from author Bill Bar­ry, a for­mer union orga­niz­er, col­lege instruc­tor and polit­i­cal activist who brings his pas­sion for human rights to the union-print­ed vol­ume. Bar­ry skill­ful­ly weaves togeth­er local Bal­ti­more his­to­ry, the social back­ground of the city’s immi­grant Irish work­ers and the broad­er themes of an emerg­ing nation­al labor move­ment in a fas­ci­nat­ing nar­ra­tive of class con­flict and urban revolt. 

In ret­ro­spect, it seems almost inevitable that Bal­ti­more would be the flash­point for the nation­al strike. The city had already been unof­fi­cial­ly dubbed Mobtown, based on anti-cor­rup­tion riots in 1835 and anti-war protests in 1861. More impor­tant­ly, Bal­ti­more was the head­quar­ters of the B&O Rail­road, with shops and rai­l­yards employ­ing thou­sands of rest­less low-income work­ers, many of them first- or sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Irish. And thanks to the nation­al depres­sion brought on by the Wall Street Pan­ic of 1873, B&O had already enforced across-the-board wage cuts even before the sum­mer of 1877 began.

Two oth­er events undoubt­ed­ly added to the anger of the work­ers, Bar­ry argues, although he and oth­er his­to­ri­ans have found lit­tle doc­u­men­tary evi­dence to sug­gest a direct link. First, the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 1876 had recent­ly con­clud­ed in a cor­rupt bar­gain that saw Demo­c­rat Samuel Tilden, who had won the most votes, con­cede the White House to Repub­li­can Ruther­ford B. Hayes. Bal­ti­more was a Demo­c­ra­t­ic town, and the murky cir­cum­stances of Hayes’ vic­to­ry must have cre­at­ed hard feel­ings. Sec­ond, the strike began less than a month after the infa­mous Day of the Rope,” the exe­cu­tion of 10 Irish coal min­ers accused of lead­ing mem­bers of the Mol­lie Maguires secret soci­ety in a cam­paign of armed resis­tance to the mine own­ers of near­by east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia. The Mol­lies were linked to ear­ly union orga­niz­ing in the coal­fields, so the hang­ings were seen by some con­tem­po­rary work­ers and by lat­er his­to­ri­ans, includ­ing Bar­ry, as sup­pres­sion of both unions and the aspi­ra­tions of the Irish-Americans. 

All of this act­ed as a pre­lude, then, to July 16, the day B&O work­ers struck in protest against a 10 per­cent wage cut. It was the sec­ond wage cut with­in a year; at first, the work­ers only asked that the new reduc­tion be rescind­ed. The protests rapid­ly grew in scale, how­ev­er. On the very first day, strik­ers suc­cess­ful­ly shut down the round­house com­plex at Mar­tins­burg, West Vir­ginia; they soon stalled rail oper­a­tions all along the rest of the B&O network.

From the begin­ning, the strike was remark­able in its strong pop­u­lar sup­port from oth­er non-rail work­ers and city res­i­dents. Sym­pa­thy for the work­ers was even evi­dent among the mili­tia mem­bers called out to pro­tect rail prop­er­ty from angry pro­test­ers. The gov­er­nor of West Vir­ginia made an ear­ly call for fed­er­al troops, for exam­ple, when it became clear his state mili­tia would not use force against the strike sup­port­ers at Mar­tins­burg, many of whom includ­ed local allies who blocked the tracks to pre­vent scabs from run­ning trains.

Mean­while, in near­by Cum­ber­land, Mary­land, B&O Pres­i­dent John Gar­rett made a call of his own to elect­ed offi­cials. Con­cerned for rail­road prop­er­ty, he urged the state’s gov­er­nor to send Mary­land mili­tia units to the town; Gov. John Car­oll was quick to comply.

On the evening of July 20, troops from the Mary­land 5th and 6th Reg­i­ments began a march across Bal­ti­more from its Read Street armory to B&O’s Cam­den Sta­tion, where they intend­ed to board trains to Cum­ber­land. The deci­sion was unwise, as the down­town streets were full of angry strik­ers, sup­port­ers and bystanders deter­mined to stop the trip. Accord­ing to Bar­ry’s account, an esti­mat­ed 2,000 men massed to block the troops, out­num­ber­ing the mili­ti­a­men by about 10 to 1; the work­ers attacked with paving bricks and spo­radic pis­tol fire. Deter­mined to car­ry out their orders, the sol­diers pressed for­ward against the enraged crowd. The street bat­tle became so intense that the mili­ti­a­men began fir­ing their rifles into the crowd, ulti­mate­ly forc­ing their way to Cam­den Sta­tion. Bar­ry writes that when the streets cleared, there were 10 dead, includ­ing a 14-year-old boy. It lat­er emerged that none of the casu­al­ties were B&O strik­ers; rather, Bar­ry reports that they were local work­ers from oth­er indus­tries join­ing the protests in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Great Strike.

The deaths ignit­ed the work­ers in Bal­ti­more and in oth­er cities. Crowds of work­ers swarmed Cam­den Sta­tion — news­pa­per accounts from the time esti­mate the throngs as large as 15,000 — to pre­vent the mili­tia from mov­ing. The gov­er­nor of Mary­land appealed to Pres­i­dent Hayes for fed­er­al troops to restore order.

Sim­i­lar episodes soon erupt­ed else­where: In Chica­go, 30 men were killed in the Bat­tle of the Viaduct; in Pitts­burgh, enraged work­ers torched trains and rail­road build­ings; in St. Louis, a gen­er­al strike effec­tive­ly shut down the city. Hayes dis­patched fed­er­al troops to dozens of cities around the coun­try to bring the strike under con­trol. Ulti­mate­ly, this fed­er­al inter­ven­tion was suc­cess­ful: The strike grad­u­al­ly lost momen­tum before sput­ter­ing out completely.

Though the strike itself may have failed to achieve the B&O employ­ees’ orig­i­nal goal of wage restora­tion, it undoubt­ed­ly stim­u­lat­ed the growth of unions, par­tic­u­lar­ly among rail work­ers. The Broth­er­hood of Loco­mo­tive Engi­neers had been found­ed in 1863; while it did not yet have a con­tract with B&O in 1877, it had nonethe­less begun to take root through­out the indus­try. The top offi­cials of the engi­neers’ union actu­al­ly opposed the strike, but many indi­vid­ual mem­bers nev­er­the­less refused to work.

Mean­while, one emerg­ing local leader of the fledg­ling Trainmen’s Union, Robert Ammon, was espe­cial­ly effec­tive in orga­niz­ing job actions at the Penn­syl­va­nia Rail­road dur­ing the Great Strike. Bar­ry writes that he would lat­er tes­ti­fy in a state inquiry into the events that some work­ers were unit­ed in secret soci­eties (not unlike the Mol­lie Maguires), and that the rail strikes were far bet­ter orga­nized than appeared on the surface.

Barry’s book is full of addi­tion­al col­or­ful details of the strike action in Bal­ti­more: It offers as much for the sheer joy of read­ing as it does for the more seri­ous his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al. There exists lit­tle pri­ma­ry-source doc­u­men­ta­tion of the strike on the work­ers’ side, though B&O and oth­er rail com­pa­nies left exten­sive one-sided records of their own actions, so Bar­ry relies heav­i­ly on con­tem­po­rary news­pa­per accounts. How­ev­er, this has the ben­e­fit of pro­vid­ing live­ly mate­r­i­al from an age when mul­ti­ple pub­li­ca­tions com­pet­ed vig­or­ous­ly in the pop­u­lar press. The book is also illus­trat­ed with images from those pub­li­ca­tions and mod­ern pho­tos of impor­tant sites, both of which add more fla­vor to the rich nar­ra­tive stew.

In addi­tion, Bar­ry dis­cuss­es var­i­ous Bal­ti­more loca­tions that his­to­ry enthu­si­asts can vis­it today, such as the rel­a­tive­ly new Irish Rail­road Work­ers Muse­um or the bet­ter-known B&O Rail­road Muse­um. Bar­ry him­self added to this list with his recent lob­by­ing to add a Great Rail­road Strike his­tor­i­cal mark­er at Cam­den Sta­tion, now part of the Cam­den Yards base­ball sta­di­um com­plex. The mark­er is now vis­i­ble to most base­ball fans vis­it­ing Cam­den Yards, and it’s Barry’s hope the mark­er — as well as books like his own — will be anoth­er way to keep the mem­o­ry of the strike alive.

The 1877 Rail­road Strike in Bal­ti­more is avail­able for sale; con­tact Bill Bar­ry at billbarry21214@​gmail.​com.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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