The Industry

After the Civil War, the railroad business was on the rise. By 1877, there was over 75,000 miles of track laid across the country to fill the demand of the rising industry. Transportation of goods and people across the country was made much more efficient. It opened the way to large companies such as B&O Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad who owned iron and coal mines. Various railroad companies were even larger than some state governments.

Map of railroads in the United States during the 1800s
Map of railroads in the United States during the 1800s

The Workers

The workers, however, faced many hardships while on the
Railroad workers rest for a break
Railroad workers rest for a break
job. They were in risk of losing fingers, feet, hands, and or being crushed in between two cars. As a result of the sometimes dangerous working conditions, many men died on the job. Railway workers though, despite the dangers of their occupation, typically made on average around $2.00 a day and worked 12 hours a day. After most labor unions were shut down during the Panic of 1873, the workers organized themselves into “brotherhoods”, which were basically craft unions. The brotherhoods hoped to preserve the rights of the railway workers, however many of them were disorganized or corrupt and did not accomplish much.

The Cause

Starting with the Panic of 1873, large firms on the East Coast failed, eliminated most labor unions and sending the country into an economic depressions. The depression lingered into 1877, which forced railroad companies to make wage cuts. B&O Railroad made two wage cuts that year, as well as reducing the workweek to two or three days. Pennsylvania Railroad made too 10% wage cuts early in 1877 as well. As the author of an article in The Albany Argus put it, “The more he is compelled to pay, the more he can receive, unless business becomes hopelessly depressed. When that point is reached, wages fall, not because employers wish, but because they must reduce them.” He explained how he believes that the wage cuts could not be avoided. After these wage cuts though, workers just could not afford to pay rent and feed their families. Some railway workers, with low-end positions, were now making as little as $0.90 a day. It also became apparent that they were getting paid less than mechanics in similar departments of business with no danger involved. The workers were angry at their companies for mistreating their rights to a fair salary. As a result, numerous strikes were sparked and one strike shouted “All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea—that the workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.” He believes firmly on the fact that since they helped bring about the new era of railroad transportation, they deserve a better share of railroad profits.

Strikers burn railroad property during the The Great Strike of 1877
Strikers burn railroad property during the The Great Strike of 1877

The Strike

Once wage cuts and unemployment occurred throughout Railroad Companies, many workers and ex-workers band together to express their disapproval of the newly established decisions that favored the company owners. In response to these actions, riots took place in a variety of eastern cities damaging homes and property of both the guilty and innocent.

Martinsburg, WV

The first protest occurred when Baltimore and Ohio railroad workers created a strike in response to the wage cuts and unemployment in West Virginia on July 17. The series of strikes started here and then travelled along the railroad as time went on and the strikes became more violent. In the Baltimore American from July 17, 1877 it describes how strikers attempted to stop the operation of the railroad. “The Company put new men on the engines at once, but the strikers interfered to prevent the new men from starting the trains. A large mob assembled at the depot, and a riot at one time was imminent.” In Martinsburg, strikers blocked the path of freight trains on the railroad and announced that they would not move until the company got rid of the pay cuts. The militia troops that came to assistance were little help and refused to use force to violence to weaken the riot. As this dilemma occurred in West Virginia, more strikes had occurred along the railroad such as in Baltimore, causing the National Guard and government to focus on other and more important matters.


The first violent and uncontrollable riot that broke out during this controversy arose on July 20. A large crowd of rioters assembled in order to dispute the recent wage cuts. As the protesting escaladed, the railroad called in its state militia in attempt to weaken the crowd; however, it only made the vast crowd angrier. Workers refused to work and instead prevented trains from operating, causing traffic amongst railroads. Eventually 14,000 rioters crowded the streets of Baltimore igniting havoc and destroying railroad property. Unfortunately during this disagreement ten rioters were killed due to the militia being overwhelmed by strikers causing them to fire into the large mob. The violence became so unmanageable that the governor of Maryland called for government intervention, resulting in assistance from federal troops.

Clash between militia and strikers in Baltimore


On July 24, the Workingmen’s Party, an organization of workers who strived for better conditions for workers, organized a labor strike protesting the new rights for workers. About 20,000 workers participated in this strike, which was eventually countered by the local militia. The workers efforts ended with more than 50 strikers killed. Many similar labor strikes occurred in other states, but were repressed by the National Guard and other Army units resulting in over 100 deaths.


Some of the worst violence occurred throughout the state of Pennsylvania and within some of its major cities. Mobs in Philadelphia harassed the local militia and destroyed a total of 39 buildings, 104 locomotives, 46 passenger cars and 1,200 railcars. The National Guard was called to Philadelphia, but was then needed in Pittsburgh due to its chaos. In Pittsburgh, 20 rioters were killed along with many others wounded after the National Guard fired upon them. The rioters caused $4 million in railroad damage due to setting buildings ablaze and destroying hundreds of locomotives and railcars. They also seized Pittsburgh’s local telegraph office and its armory. In this excerpt from the Pittsburgh Daily Post it describes the scene in Pittsburgh, “All the Outer Depot Buildings and Workshops Burned. One Hundred and Forty Locomotives Destroyed or Badly Injured. Over a Thousand Freight Cars Burned.”

Rioters in Pittsburgh


The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 had both an immediate impact and a long-term impact on the United States. The strikes lightened the hardships of workers, and railroad companies withdrew some of their wage cuts after the riots had diminished. To prevent these strikes some occurring again, National Guard armories were built in many large cities across the United States. In the railroad industry, the amount of railroad brotherhoods increased dramatically over the course of 23 years going from 3 to 16. In order to solve this issue, the Interstate Commerce Commission was created which would monitor each railroad company and watch for any malfunctions. Once railroad strikes broke out in the late 19th century objecting the rights of workers, many other types of strikes occurred within other industries. Miners fought for their equal working rights and many other labor strikes erupted as well. This started a period of struggles between businesses and their laborers and had a big impact on economics and industry in years to come. On a more recent note, in 1993 the American Railway Union (A.R.U.) was formed. This united all railroad workers and protected the rights and wages of all railroad employees, which was another step towards preventing strikes from occurring again. The Great Railroad Strikes were the first strikes that America and its government had to endure and had both positive and negative effects. These strikes taught a variety of Americans a lesson and were interpreted a multiple of different ways. In the end, through all the violence and tragedy, American was able to triumph and it made the nation stronger.



“Cause of a Strike and a Remedy”. Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1877.

“The Strike and the Troops”. The Albany Argus, Jul 21, 1877.

"Trouble on the Baltimore & Ohio". Baltimore American, Jul 17, 1877

"Reign of the Mob". Pittsburgh Daily Post, Jul 23, 1877


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