The RR Lesson of 1881

Have we forgotten it?  Has it taught us nothing?  Life goes on.


Due to benign government regulation supported by businessmen and Presidents, the hubris of the railroad magnates then continued unabated.  There are parallels to the giant corporations of today.  Wealth inequity.  Social injustice.  The timeline for this post begins in 1876 ending in 1881.  To set the scene – think PA.  The Centennial Exhibition celebrating the prosperity of our first century and the perfection of our institutions was held from May till Nov in Fairmont Park along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.  Ten million people and thirty-seven countries visited.  Gen Custer rode to his death at the Little Big Horn on 25 Jun 1876 covering the centennial with a pall of blackness.  In Nov, Rutherford B Hayes, Republican from Ohio, won the most disputed Presidential election to date.  Precisely, Hayes won the Electoral College vote 185-184 while losing the popular vote by 3%.  My connection to steamboats. – the str Katie Stockdale was built expressly for the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Packet Line, the most luxurious packet line ever to run the Ohio River catering to the rich Pittsburgh crowd.  The nation was divided.  The working class had learned first- hand that Capitalism benefited their bosses, trading their lives for profits.  Unemployment rose.  Wages dropped.


A remarkable series of eight railroad strikes, which began during the Centennial Exposition and culminated on 16 Jul 1877 in the strike on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Martinsburg, WV. This work action spread into the greatest labor disturbance on record.  Another view described it as an American reign of terror.


The RR strike at Martinsburg was instantly felt at Chicago and Baltimore in the stoppage of shipments. In a few hours the Baltimore and Ohio, the chief commercial artery of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, was shut down. The strike spread to the Pennsylvania, the Erie, and the New York Central railroads, and then to the Great Western lines. The feeling of the railroad employees all over the country was expressed by the address of those of the Pennsylvania Railroad to its stockholders. The stockholders were reminded that “many of the railroad’s men did not average wages of more than seventy-five cents a day;” that “the influence of the road had been used to destroy the business of its best customers, packet lines and oil producers, for the purpose of building up individual interests.” [1]  Those personal interests were contrary to worker essential needs.


In 1877, freight traffic had almost disappeared from the Pennsylvania Railroad because of how it had been managed.   The PA stockholder address also refers pointedly to the abuses of freight lines, rolling-stock companies, and other railroad inventions for switching business profits into private pockets.


Other workers followed the example of the railroad employees. At Zanesville, Ohio, fifty manufacturing sites stopped work.  Baltimore ceased to export petroleum.  The rolling mills, foundries, and refineries of Cleveland were closed.  Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati had the same experience.  The grain and cattle ceased to move to market, and the large centers of population began to calculate the chances of famine.  New York’s supply of Western cattle and grain was cut off. Meat prices skyrocketed, while Cleveland telegraphed that hogs, sheep, beef and poultry billed for New York were dying on the sidetracks there. Merchants could not sell, manufacturers could not work, banks could not lend. The country went to the verge of panic.


President Garrett, of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, wrote that his “great national highway could be restored to public use only by the interposition of the United States army.” President Scott, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, telegraphed the authorities at Washington, “I fear that unless the general government will assume the responsibility of order throughout the land, the anarchy which is now present will become more terrible than has ever been known in the history of the world.” The governors of ten States — West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Kentucky — issued dispersing proclamations which did not disperse. The governors of four of them — West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois — appealed to the national government for help against domestic insurrection, which the State could not suppress. The state troops were almost useless, as in nearly all cases they sided with the strikers.  President Hayes issued two national proclamations to the insurgents.  All the national troops that could be spared from the Indian frontier and the South were ordered back. Armed guards were placed at all the public buildings of Washington, and ironclads were ordered up for the protection of the national capital. Cabinet meetings were continuous. General Winfield S Hancock was sent to Baltimore to take command, General Sherman was called back from the West, and General Schofield was ordered from West Point into active service.


Barricades, in French style, were thrown up by the workers of Baltimore.  New York and Philadelphia were heavily garrisoned. In Philadelphia every avenue of approach to the Pennsylvania Railroad was patrolled, and the city was under a guard of six thousand armed men with eight batteries of artillery. There were violent encounters between troops and voters, with loss of life, at Martinsburg, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Reading, Buffalo, Scranton, and San Francisco.


Jump to Pittsburgh – the site of the worst violence.  Production of iron and steel had dropped as much as 45%.  With the strike, there was horror of revolution.  The town left at the mercy of the workers.  Railroad cars, depots, hotels, stores, elevators, private houses, were gutted and burned.  The situation was described by a leading newspaper as one of “civil war with the accompanying horrors of murder, conflagration, rapine, and pillage.” These were days of greater bloodshed, more actual suffering, and wider alarm than experienced at any time during the civil war, except when Lee invaded Pennsylvania.  Thomas Scott, president of the Penn RR suggested that the railroad strikers should be given “a rifle diet and see how they liked that kind of bread.”  Business class versus working class.  State militia, ordered by Gov John Hartranft, bayoneted and fired on rock throwing strikers.  Twenty strikers were killed and 29 wounded.  Rather than subduing the strikers, the militia infuriated them.  The rock battered  state militia was forced to take refuge in a railroad roundhouse while the strikers set fires to 39 buildings, 104 locomotives, and untold rail stock.  To escape the militia shot their way out of the roundhouse killing 20 more people on their way out of Pittsburgh.  In Pittsburgh, local law enforcement sheriffs, deputies, and police refused to fire on the strikers.  After a month of bloodshed, President Hayes sent Federal troops to end the railroad strike.  Elsewhere in PA, state militia shot 16 in Reading, 14 in Shamokin, 20-50 in Scranton.


These RR and manufacturing strikes, paralyzing twelve States, halted the operation of twenty thousand miles of railroad and threw one million men out of work.  The RR barons of 1881 strained our PA institutions to their limits: the surrender of the Supreme Court of PA at the bidding of Penn RR, the veto by the Standard Oil Co of the enactment of a law by the PA legislature to allow everyone equal access rights on the RRs. (Think net neutrality for a current comparison.)  These attacks by the robber barons on our institutions illustrated some of the methods by which the rich were making the poor poorer. These attacks were one of the things that happened to kill the confidence of citizens in the laws and administration of justice.  The physical violence with which RR had taken their rights of way (Think Mariner East II Pipeline in central PA) caused social disorder we hoped never to see.  The RR history of violence has shown where we failed – between man and man, employer and employee, the public and corporation, the state and citizen – to maintain equities of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”




[1]  HD Lloyd, Story of a Great Monopoly, Atlantic Monthly, Mar 1881.



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