Original Document
Original Document
"The Great Strike," Harper's Weekly, August 11, 1877.

THE reign of terror inaugurated by the railroad strikers in Baltimore on the morning of the 16th of July, is unexampled in the history of strikes in this country. Scenes of riot and bloodshed accompanied it such as we have never before witnessed in the uprising of labor against capital. Commerce has been obstructed, industries have been paralyzed, hundreds of lives sacrificed, and millions of dollars' worth of property destroyed by lawless mobs. The story of theft and fire and slaughter is but imperfectly told in the brief space at our command, but the illustrations by our artists present a pictorial view of the chief scenes in this terrific conflict, more vivid and striking than any thing that could be conveyed in mere words.

The origin of the first outbreak, as stated in our news column of last week, was the refusal of the firemen and brakemen on the freight trains of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to submit to a further reduction of ten per cent. from their wages. On the morning of July 16 forty men in Baltimore left their trains and joined in a strike. As soon as this became known there was an immense number of applicants for the vacant positions, and the company had no difficulty in filling vacancies, generally with experienced men who had been for some time out of employment. But the strikers would not permit them to work. Assembling at Camden Junction, about three miles from the city, they stopped the trains, and refused to allow them to be run either way. The news spread with the rapidity of lightning, and soon the disaffection had reached Martinsburg, West Virginia. The men at that point, numbering about 100, left their trains in the evening, and forcibly prevented new hands from starting the cars. The railroad company appealed to the Governor of West Virginia for help, and in response seventy-five men of the Berkeley Light Infantry Guards, under command of Colonel FAULKNER, were sent the next morning to Martinsburg. Here the first conflict with the military took place. Captain FAULKNER'S company was deployed on both sides of a train which was about starting, an engineer and fireman having volunteered to work. As the train reached the switch, one of the strikers, WILLIAM VANDERGRIFF, seized the switch ball to run the train on the side track. JOHN POISAL, a member of the militia company, jumped from the pilot of the engine and attempted to replace the switch. VANDERGRIFF fired two shots at POISAL, one causing a slight flesh-wound on the side of the head. POISAL returned the fire, shooting VANDERGRIFF through the hip. Several other shots were fired at VANDERGRIFF, striking him on the head and arm. When the firing was heard, a very large crowd of railroaders and citizens collected, and the feeling became intense. The volunteering engineer and fireman of the train ran off as soon as the shooting began. Captain FAULKNER then made the statement that he had performed his duty, and if the trainmen deserted their posts, he could do nothing more. The militia company was therefore marched to their armory and ingloriously disbanded, leaving the rioters in possession of the field, and the road blocked up with standing trains on the sidings. From this point the movement quickly spread westward to Wheeling, on the main stem, and also on the Parkersburg branch. The strike having assumed such character and proportions in West Virginia that it could not be suppressed by the State authorities, Governor MATTHEWS evoked the aid of the national government. President HAYES responded promptly, issuing a proclamation ordering the rioters to disperse, and sending 250 regular troops, under General FRENCH, to Martinsburg and other points of disturbance. This force reached Martinsburg early on the morning of the l9th, armed with Springfield rifles and three Gatling guns. They found 1500 freight cars and 13 locomotives blocked on the side tracks in and about the town. Under the protection of the regular troops two freight trains were sent out from Martinsburg that day without bloodshed, one going east and the other west. Both went through in safety.

Thus the blockade at Martinsburg was partially relieved, but the strike was not ended. Indeed, it was barely begun; and before night-fall of the 10th it had become general, crossing the Ohio River, and extending as far west as Chicago. At Newark and Columbus, Ohio, freight trains were stopped by the strikers, and the wires west of Martinsburg were cut. Nor was the strike confined to one great road and its extended branches. On the morning of the 10th, the Pennsylvania Railroad freight men struck at Pittsburgh, giving as a reason that the company had doubled the number of cars on each train without increasing the number of the crew, and had also more than doubled the distance. At the morning call several freight conductors and brakemen refused to work, and assembling, to the number of a hundred or more in the freight yard, stopped every train that attempted to move. About a dozen cattle trains at the East Liberty stock yards were also stopped. At midnight fully 1400 men had gathered in the two yards, and 1500 cars were standing on the sidings, 200 of which contained perishable goods.

The next day was a bloody one in the history of the strike on the Baltimore and Ohio road. The blockade at Martinsburg had been raised, and trains were again running both ways under the protection of the national troops. But on the afternoon of the 20th, word reached Baltimore that all the freight trains leaving Martinsburg that day were stopped at Cumberland, and the crews taken from them by the strikers. Governor CARROLL at once issued a proclamation and ordered out the State militia. The sound of the fire-bells summoning the men to their amories created the wildest excitement. Baltimore and other streets of the city had been crowded during the day with throngs of citizens, anxiously watching the bulletin-boards at the different newspaper offices and discussing the situation. As the alarm pealed forth, the crowds made their way toward the armories of the different regiments. That of the Sixth is at Front and Fayette streets, and in a neighborhood which is inhabited by the poorer classes, and much of the rough element frequents it. Within half an hour after the call had been sounded, a crowd numbering at least 2000 men, women, and children surrounded the armory and loudly expressed their feelings against the military and in favor of the strikers. At half past seven the streets leading to the armory were crowded with a struggling, shouting, and cursing mob. The sight of a man in uniform endeavoring to get into the building was the signal for an outbreak, and he was rushed upon, seized, and thrown over a bridge into Jones's Falls' stream which runs through that section of the city. Others were thrown over the heads of the surging mass, and were glad to escape with slight injuries. At this juncture some one threw a brick at the soldier on guard at the door of the armory. This was a signal for a perfect shower of missiles, which soon destroyed the windows and doors of the building and injured some of the men. It was suggested by some of the officers that a bayonet charge would compel the mob to retire, but the suggestion was not acted upon by the colonel, who ordered the guards withdrawn from the door, under the impression that it would serve to quiet the mob.

On the contrary, this action was received with shouts of derision and triumph by the crowd, who continued to hurl bricks and stones and fire pistols at the doors and windows of the armory. The whole available police force of the district was promptly concentrated at this spot, but was utterly powerless to quell the tumult, which increased each moment. At 8:15 P.M. the preliminaries for leaving the armory were concluded, and Colonel PETERS decided to march his command to Camden Station, where they had been ordered to report by General HERBERT. The men were each supplied with twenty rounds of cartridges, and armed with breech-loading Springfield rifles. They numbered about one hundred and fifty men, and marched out with loaded pieces. The only means of exit was by a door which only admitted of their passing out by twos. As they reached this door the order was given, "Stoop down, boys!" which had hardly been uttered when their appearance was greeted with a renewed shower of missiles, interspersed with shots from revolvers and other small-arms. At first the citizen soldiery wavered, but promptly responding to the commands of their officers, they marched solidly out into the street, pressing before them the shouting, infuriated mob. As they filed in a westerly direction across the bridge over Jones's Falls, the crowd pressed upon them, and continued to assail them. The sight of one of their number stricken down with a paving-stone caused some of the members of the regiment to fire into the crowd. The first volley consisted of but a few straggling shots, but had the effect of causing the crowd to fall back toward Gay Street. At the corner of Gay and Front streets shots were again exchanged. When the troops turned into Baltimore Street, one block south of, Front, the firing increased. At the corner of Halliday Street and Baltimore, and in the blocks in Baltimore between Halliday and Calvert streets, where all the newspaper offices are situated, the volleys were continuous, and the scene was one never before equaled in that city. Stores were hastily closed, and frightened citizens speedily betook themselves to back streets. The regiment proceeded to Howard Street, through which it marched to Camden Station.

The Fifth Regiment was also attacked on its way to the depot, but no shots were fired by the soldiers in return. The number known to have been killed by the fire of the Sixth Regiment was nine, and many were wounded, some of whom were innocent spectators who had joined the crowd to see what was going on. At about ten o'clock at night the rioters at the Camden Station, where the two regiments were quartered, set fire to three cars attached to an engine, and soon afterward the south end of the passenger platform was also seen to be on fire, but the firemen extinguished the flames before the main building was reached.

Meanwhile the situation at Pittsburgh had grown more desperate. The sheriff of the city endeavored to suppress the disorder; but his authority was defied, and call was made upon the State for help. Governor HARTRANFT issued a proclamation and ordered the military to support the sheriff. The arrival of the military served to increase the crowd, and the excitement grew in intensity. There was no violence offered, but the freight trains were not allowed to leave the city.

The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago firemen and brakemen struck on the same day, and so did the men on the Western and Buffalo divisions of the Erie road, extending from Hornellsville to Dunkirk and Buffalo. The strike occurred at Hornellsville. The firemen and brakemen quitted work in a body, and there were no relays to take their places. No trains were allowed to go either way.

The sixth and seventh days of the revolution, July 21 and 22, were the darkest and bloodiest of all. The city of Pittsburgh was completely controlled by a howling mob, whose deeds of violence were written in fire and blood. The strikers remained at the Union Depot all through the previous night, but no demonstrations were made by them until the afternoon of the 21st, when Sheriff FIFE, at the head of the military, attempted to arrest some of the ringleaders. One of the mob approached the sheriff, waving his bat, and, calling to the crowd and the strikers, said, Give them hell." Immediately a shower of stones was hurled into the troops, and one revolver shot fired into the ranks. The soldiers returned the shots, and for three minutes a fire in all directions was kept up. There were no blanks, and the greatest havoc ensued. Sixteen of the crowd were killed and many wounded. The crowd fled in dismay, including the strikers, who sought shelter in every direction. Immediately after the firing, crowds of excited people sprang up as if by magic from all directions. Loud and deep were the imprecations against the Philadelphia troops, who were blamed by the strikers and the mob as being responsible for the trouble. Hundreds of people in no way connected with the railroad expressed their determination to join with the strikers in driving the soldiers from the city. These remarks were interspersed with loud and bitter threats that the company's shops, depots, and buildings should be laid in ashes that very night. And the rioters kept their word.

The news of the slaughter of the mob spread through the city like wild-fire, and produced the most intense excitement. The streets were rapidly crowded, and the wildest rumors prevailed. When the news reached the large number of rolling-mill hands and workmen in the various shops of the city, they were excited to frenzy, and by eight o'clock the streets of the central portion of the city were alive with them. A large crowd broke into the manufactory of the Great Western Gun-Works, and captured 200 rifles and a quantity of small-arms, and various other crowds sacked all the other places in the city where arms were exposed for sale, getting about 300 more. Among them were 1000 mill hands from Birmingham, on the south side. The different crowds consolidated and marched out to Twenty-eighth Street. In the mean time the strikers and the soldiers around the Union Depot had not been idle. At seven o'clock the Philadelphia troops, whose numbers had been swelled to over 800 men, withdrew into the large round-house at Twenty-eighth and Liberty streets, taking with them the two Gatling guns and two other pieces belonging to BRECK'S battery. The round-house was a very solid building, with double walls, the outer one of iron, and the position was the strongest possible one for the troops. The strikers began to assemble rapidly, many arriving with guns procured at the Alleghany armory. By midnight 20,000 people were upon the ground, 5000 of whom were armed men. The mob laid siege to the round-house in which the soldiers had taken refuge, and opened a brisk fire upon it, which was hotly returned by the troops. Finding, after a number of efforts, that they could not dislodge the soldiers by this means, the rioters resolved to burn them out. Accordingly, just before midnight, an oil train was fired, and run by the mob down the track and against the sand-house‚Äďa large building near the round-house. The former building caught fire and was destroyed, but the round-house was saved by the soldiers within, who played upon it from the railroad company's hydrants. The smoke of the burning oil nearly suffocated the soldiers, but they held their quarters until seven in the morning, when they vacated the building, and moved to Sharpsburg. On the way they were attacked by the rioters, and in the conflict numbers were killed on both sides. Once incendiarism was started, a new spirit of wanton destruction took possession of the mob. From the time the torch was applied to the first car, at eleven o'clock Saturday night, all night long, and the greater part of Sunday morning, car after car was taken possession of by the incendiaries, the torch applied, and the burning, fiery mass sent whirling down the track among the 2600 cars filled with valuable cargoes of freight of all descriptions, and costly passenger-cars and sleeping and day coaches, spreading destruction on every hand.

After the departure of the militia, both the round-houses beyond the Union Depot were ignited, and 125 locomotives were destroyed. All the machine-shops and railroad offices in the vicinity were also fired. The rioters planted a cannon in the streets near by, and threatened to blow in pieces any man who attempted to extinguish the flames. The firemen, thus intimidated, retired, and devoted themselves to saving private property only.

The scenes transpiring on Liberty Street, along the line of which the tracks of the railroad run on an elevation fifteen or twenty feet above the street, simply beggar description. While hundreds were engaged in firing the cars and making certain of the destruction of the valuable buildings at the outer depot, thousands of men, women, and children engaged in pillaging the cars. Men armed with heavy sledges, keeping ahead of the fire which was running west toward the Union Depot, broke open the cars, and threw the contents to the crowds below. The street was almost completely blockaded by persons laboring to carry off the plunder they had gathered together. In hundreds of instances wagons were pressed into service to enable thieves to get away with their goods. Some of the scenes, notwithstanding the terror which seemed to paralyze peaceable and orderly citizens, were ludicrous in the highest degree. Here a brawny woman could be seen hurrying away with pairs of white kid slippers under her arms; another, carrying an infant, would be rolling a barrel of flour along the sidewalk, using her feet as the propelling power; here a man pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with white lead. Boys hurried through the crowd with large-sized family Bibles as their share of the plunder, while scores of females utilized aprons and dresses to carry flour, eggs, dry-goods, etc. Bundles of umbrellas, fancy parasols, hams, bacon, leaf lard, calico, blankets, laces, and flour were mixed together in the arms of robust men, or carried on hastily constructed hand-barrows. In one place where barrels of flour had been rolled from the cars and over the wall to the street below, breaking with the fall, heaps of flour were piled up several feet in depth. In these the women were rolling and fighting in their eagerness to get all they could. In their greed they were not satisfied with aprons full, but, holding out the skirts of their dresses, they ploughed into the heaps till they had all they could carry; then staggered off, covered from head to feet with flour. Many of the plunderers pelted each other and every one else they could reach with stolen goods. One of our artists, Mr. ALEXANDER, while sketching the scene from the roof of a low building near by, was repeatedly struck with lemons, oranges, and other articles of plunder aimed at his head.

But to return to the fire. By three o'clock on Sunday afternoon the flames had nearly reached the Union Depot. But the mob was impatient. The burning cars driven under the adjacent sheds had ignited them, but the work was slow. The rioters thereupon rushed into the depot-master's office, a two-story frame building at the extreme end of the shed on the north side of the platform, and bursting open the desk and closets, scattered the books and papers over the floor, and throwing oil upon them, applied the match, and soon the whole structure was in flames.

"The Union Depot is on fire!" was an announcement that spread like a flash of lightning throughout the city, and thousands of people at once crowded all the avenues leading to the scene. The people seemed entirely reckless of the danger in their wild anxiety to see the sight. The hill-side above the depot was covered with people thick as leaves upon forest trees. Every available point of view was taken up. Hundreds climbed to the high tower in City Hall, and from that altitude had a magnificent view of the scene. As the smoke rolled up toward the sky, it attracted the attention of the people in Alleghany, and the sides of Observatory Hill were lined with sight-seers, the most of them children, who from that far-away point took in the wild grandeur of the scene almost as well as those who were nearer at hand. The crowds on Liberty Street were dense as far as Smithfield Street, while scattered groups along the street toward the river, viewed the fiend of flame as it licked up the magnificent structure. Efforts were made to save the grain elevator near by, but the crowd, thinking it belonged to the railroad company, refused to allow the firemen to come near, and it too was destroyed. It was an immense structure, 150 feet high, and about 80 feet square, built of wood and covered with slate. The Union Depot was a large four-story building facing an open square opposite the elevator. It had a frontage of about 70 feet, and extended back along Liberty Street about 200 feet. The lower floor was used as waiting-rooms, ticket offices, and the company's offices. The upper floors were occupied as a hotel. The whole building was of modem style of architecture, and was considered one of the best arranged depots in the country, and was finished about seven years since. In the rear of the depot, and extending back 500 feet, were lines of neat pine sheds, covering different tracks to protect passengers from the weather. It was under these the burning car was run.

The Panhandle Depot on Grant Street, and the locomotive shop on Quarry Street, met the same fate. When this last building was fired, the whole territory between Seventh Avenue and Mill Vale Station, a distance of three miles, was a wall of fire, and before sunset not a railroad building nor a car of the Pennsylvania and Panhandle railroads was left unburned in Pittsburgh. The total loss is not definitely known, but it can hardly fall short of from $6,000,000 to $7,000,000. Our upper double-page view of the great fire was sketched from the steeple of St. Philomena Church, near by. A dramatic incident is pictured in the illustration on page 628, where the funeral procession of one of the victims is seen passing through the burned district on its way to the cemetery.

On the 21st, President HAYES issued another proclamation, warning rioters to disperse within twenty-four hours. On the 22d, an oil train in Baltimore was fired. The Twenty-third Regiment, of Brooklyn, was ordered to Hornellsville, and soon afterward the Eighth New York was sent to Buffalo, and the Ninth to Albany. All the New York regiments were assembled in their armories. On the same day, Governor HARTRANFT, of Pennsylvania, ordered out every regiment in his State. That night there was a riot at Reading, culminating in the burning of several cars. The soldiers killed thirteen of the mob and wounded forty-three. The Lebanon Valley Railroad bridge, a magnificent structure across the Schuylkill River, costing over $50,000, was fired at the western end shortly before midnight, as shown in our illustration on page 620; it was totally destroyed. At Reading a mob tore up the tracks, and the troops fired on them, killing ten men. Strikers set fire to an oil train in Philadelphia, but only four cars were burned. The next day the strike extended to several additional lines in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and elsewhere, and broke out at many new points. The New York Central men joined, and in Pennsylvania the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western, the Delaware and Hudson, and the Lehigh and Susquehanna road men struck, but there were no disturbances.

On the morning of the 25th the strike had reached its height, when hardly a road was running, from the Hudson to the Mississippi, and from Canada to Virginia. But some of the strikers began to weaken, and before night three lines were re-opened, viz., the Erie, the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western, and the Morris and Essex. There was heavy rioting in St. Louis and Chicago on the 25th and 26th, and in the latter city fifteen were killed and many wounded by the police and military. In San Francisco an immense anti-Chinese mob attacked the Chinamen and set fire to lumber yards. A vigilance committee was formed, and the rioters were held in check. On the 27th the New York Central was again running, and the New York State militia were sent to their homes with thanks. There were still threats of trouble at some points, especially in the mining regions, but the strike, as a whole, was believed to be near an end.

Credit: Harper's Weekly, August 11, 1877.
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