Original Document
Original Document
Ronald Filippelli, "The Railroad Strike of 1877 in Reading," 1972.

In the hot, mid-July 1877, with the nation prostrate in the fourth year of a deep depression, American came closer to social revolution than at any other time in its century of nationhood.

In the previous quarter of a century, the nation, spurred by a war which drained its blood even as it pumped new vigor into its industry, swept into the industrial age. The national market emerged and with it the giant railroads and manufacturing industries. Also with the massive mechanization and standardization of industry came the degradation of labor. Skill was no longer at a premium. Workers increasingly became interchangeable parts in the new dynamo.

No longer was a measure of responsibility in labor relations insured by the closeness of boss and worker and social pressure within the smaller community. The new god was laissez faire and, according to its apologists, it applied equally to the lowliest worker in the mills and the captains of industry themselves. Social Darwinism was the pseudo-scientific name. Survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle, was what it was.

The young labor movement, with most of its strength in the city central labor organizations, found itself obsolete in its infancy. National unions emerged in several crafts, but they were no match for the huge corporations and their allies in government. In the midst of the wrenching change cam the most severe depression in the nation's history. By 1877 an army of unemployed men drifted across America cut loose from the land by the new urbanization with no means of support save occasional charity. Those lucky enough to work saw their wages plummet as a multitude waited to do their jobs for even less. In conditions like these, the use of blacklists and strikebreakers flourished, and the new unions, none too hardy to begin with crumbled ad disappeared.

No one industry so typified the changing nature of America as did the railroads. Fattened on government land grants and monopoly routs, they tracked across the continent at a pace which astounded even their most ardent boosters. Whole regions lay in their economic grip. Communities flourished or disappeared at their whim. They were the spearheads of America's industrial thrust and as such they were the vehicles on which many of the gilded age's notorious captains of industry rode to prominence. In the process however they had alienated labor, farmer, and small businessmen alike. It is no wonder then, that when the first great spasm of industrial discontent struck the new order, it manifested itself in the railroad system. One component of that was the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, commanded by the legendary Franklin B. Gowen. In July of 1877, in Reading, Pennsylvania, Gowen's railroad rested seemingly impregnable amidst a hostile community. Reading was just one of the battlefields of this brief was, along with Baltimore, Martinsburg, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and many more; but its experience is rather typical. A look at the Railroad Strike of 1877 in Reading provides us with an opportunity to study the issues and events of the great strike in microcosm through the experience of one community.

By 1877, Franklin B. Gowen had established himself as the peer of such giants as Carnegie, Gould, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt. Through his control of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad he came to dominate the anthracite industry and with it place a section of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania almost totally within his economic control. He had destroyed America's first industrial union, the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, and had risen to become a national celebrity through his theatrical prosecution of the "Molly Maguires," which he was responsible for destroying through the use of an undercover Pinkerton agent. There are those who claim that Gowen created the "Molly" legend in order to tar the labor movement in the anthracite region with the brush of terrorism. Whatever the truth, when Franklin B. Gowen returned to Philadelphia from Europe on the morning of July 16, 1877, he found himself at the peak of his power and popularity, and admirable suited to command his corporate legions in the struggle to bend the nation to the new industrial reality. One of his first acts after he returned to his desk was to lay off all passenger brakemen except for one on each train. Ironically, he had picked an inauspicious time for his action. At almost the same moment the great railroad strike of 1877 began in Baltimore.

In 1877 Reading's 40,000 citizens lay tightly but restively in the economic grip of Franklin B. Gowen. The city's commercial pace depended heavily on the movement of Gowen's Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the activity of Gowen's Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. The railroad alone employed some 1,500 people in the city. On the surface, Reading appeared an unlikely place for industrial unrest. Ninety percent of the residents were native born and almost all the rest were Germans. In light of these figures, it is interesting to note that Gowen's paper, the Pottsville Miners Journal, editorialized that the likelihood of a strike on the Reading was reduced because "the men have no organization, and there is too much race jealousy existing among them to permit them to form one."

While the paper had misread the ethnic and racial character of the population, it was right about the lack of organization. Gowen had seen to that through his assault on the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in the spring. Responding to a request for a twenty percent increase in wages by the Brotherhood, Gowen countered with an edict that employees would either have to give up membership in the union or find another place to work. In light of the fact that there had never been trouble with the railroad before and also because the men had accepted two wage cuts since 1873, the ultimatum shocked the members. Obviously Gowen had decided the time was ripe to rid himself of the union. The men had no choice but to strike. By mid-May the Brotherhood had been sufficiently crushed so that Gowen could leave on a fund raising trip to Europe with assurance that his labor problems had been solved.

Reading happened to be the home of a strong branch of the trainmen's union. It was the headquarters of the striking engineers. The protracted struggle had created a sizable group of unemployed men in Reading, many of them blacklisted, who were extremely bitter about their treatment. In addition, those still employed by the railroad had not been paid since the strike had effectively been broken in May. Under these circumstances, the sentiment in the city was running strongly against Mr. Gowen and his railroad.

On July 16, the deep and accumulated industrial discontent at large in the nation spilled over. The great strike began at Baltimore and spread rapidly. Bulletins describing the violence captured the attention of the citizens of Reading. On July 20 they learned of the death of twenty-six Pittsburgh citizens at the hands of a force of Philadelphia militia sent in to restore control of railroad property to the company. Each new bulletin brought the volatile situation in Reading closer to ignition.

Credit: Ronald Filippelli, "The Railroad Strike of 1877 in Reading," Historical Review of Berks County, (Spring 1972). Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County
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