Historical Markers
Reading Railroad Massacre Historical Marker
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Reading Railroad Massacre

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
7th and Penn Streets, Reading

Dedication Date:
October 16, 1993

Behind the Marker

Located midway between Pennsylvania's rich anthracite coal fields and the port of Philadelphia, the small city of Reading was at the heart of America's rapidly developing coal, iron, and railroad industries. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, popularly called the Reading, was a corporate giant during the 1870s. The Reading's thirty-six-acre shop complex dominated the downtown area, and 1,500 of the city's estimated 40,000 residents worked for the company.
Outer Station at Reading (color postcard)
The Outer Station, Reading, PA, circa 1900.

Under the iron-fisted rule of its president, Franklin Gowen (1836-1889), the Reading gobbled up coal mines, canals, and shipping vessels. Always expanding, and taking huge risks with investors' millions, Gowen ran roughshod over workers' attempts to unionize or form benevolent societies to provide benefits for injured workers and their families. In the coal mines he controlled, Gowen manipulated workers to his advantage. For a few years, he cleverly used the months that workers were on strike to sell off surplus coal at inflated prices. An economic depression precipitated by the worldwide financial panic of 1873 assured Gowen and other industry owners of a ready supply of desperate job seekers. Scorning his labor force, Gowen proclaimed that "a man with ordinary intelligence can become a conductor, a brakeman, or a fireman after an hour's instruction."
Black and white Franklin Gowen image
Franklin Gowen. president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, circa 1885.

In the 1860s railroad workers had organized the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) and the Workingman's Benevolent Association (WBA) to advance their interests. By the mid-1870s, these organizations had become strong enough to threaten Gowen's iron-fisted control, only to see him crush the WBA through the infamous "Long Strike" during the cold winter of 1874-1875. Since his railroad controlled all coal transportation in the region, Gowen was able to prevent any individual coal operators from negotiating with the coal miners.

A few years later, Gowen undermined all coal miner unionism in the region by linking it to the small, secretive, and violent society of Irishmen called the markerMolly Maguires, which he had supposedly infiltrated with a Pinkerton spy. Although Irish traditions of violent rural resistance such as the "White Boys," the "Ribbonmen," and the "Molly Maguires" existed in the anthracite coalfields, there is no evidence of any formal organization for coordinating attacks. And there certainly was no evidence that violent acts were coordinated through the now-defunct WBA. Nevertheless, twenty "Molly Maguires" were convicted and hanged in 1877. And Gowen successfully persuaded the public that labor unions were "tyrannizing" the working man.

Fresh from vanquishing the WBA, Gowen learned from his spies that the BLE was planning an engineer's strike in Reading. They had taken earlier pay cuts, even before the Panic of 1873. In the fall of 1876, they took another 10 percent wage cut. Gowen ordered his General Manager, John Wooten, to issue an ultimatum to the engineers: resign from the BLE or be fired. As a carrot, Wootten offered a company-sponsored accident benefit program. But the Reading engineers did strike, and management filled their positions with non-union labor. Gowen had damaged a second union, but labor's confidence was building in the face of extreme conditions.
<i>THE MARCH TO DEATH</i>, depicting Molly Maguire members on the way to the gallows in Pottsville, Pa.
Molly Maguires marching to their death, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,...

In May 1877, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) also imposed 10 percent pay cuts. A few weeks later, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ordered 10 percent pay cuts for any worker making more than one dollar a day. Furious B&O workers abandoned their trains at Martinsburg, West Virginia, on July 16, sparking the Great Strike of 1877. The strike spread rapidly, becoming the first nationwide labor action and prompting governors in several states to call out their national guard units as well as, eventually, federal troops to maintain order.

The worst battles took place in markerPittsburgh, where rioters burned the PRR's station, roundhouse, shops, yards, and dozens of locomotives and pieces of rolling stock. National Guardsmen shot and killed more than two dozen people. Elsewhere around the state, mobs halted trains at Philadelphia, Columbia, Harrisburg, Altoona, Johnstown, and Scranton. In Reading, on the nights of July 22 and 23, rioters burned the Reading's Lebanon Valley Railroad wooden bridge over the Schuylkill River, severing its Harrisburg main line.
Burning Of The Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge By The Rioters
"Burning Of The Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge By The Rioters," Harper's Weekly,...

Meanwhile, a mob of strikers and sympathetic citizens gathered in the center of Reading. On the evening of July 23, the National Guard's Fourth Regiment arrived from Allentown. Brigadier General Frank Reeder of Easton ordered his men, about 253 strong, to march into a thirty-foot-deep, 300-yard-long man-made "cut," or depression, where strikers had blocked a train. The surrounding mob, estimated at several thousand people, pelted the guardsmen below with rocks and bricks. In the violence and confusion that followed, panicked troops fired into a taunting crowd at the far end of the cut, killing ten people and wounding dozens more.

Unlike the rioting workers in Pittsburgh, who avenged the shootings of their fellow workers by burning the Pennsylvania Railroad's station and roundhouse, Reading strikers resisted calls to set fire to the shops and depots in the center of their town. Early the next morning, 150 men of the Sixteenth Regiment arrived from Norristown to help the Fourth Regiment, but their attitude reflected split loyalties. "Some of the [Sixteenth] also threw away their muskets," a Reading newspaper reported, "and declared that they were workingmen themselves and would not marker fight against their fellow workingmen."

In the aftermath of the strike and massacre, Franklin Gowen pointedly avoided mention of the strike and shootings, although local sympathies for the strikers remained strong. On January 1, 1878, the city of Reading hosted the first national assembly of the Knights of Labor, which in the year that followed grew into the nation's largest industrial union, and organized national campaigns for the worker benefits and rights.
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