Historical Marker: The Great Strike Begins
The Great Panic of 1873 set in motion unprecedented economic hardships in the United States. Railroads experienced some of the hardest economic hits after tremendous expansion. On July 11th, 1877 the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad company announced a ten cent wage reduction of all officers and employees. Animosity and tension grew quickly among B&O railroad workers in Martinsburg, WV. Three days later, on July 14th, 1877, B&O railroad employees kicked off the first national labor strike in United States history. Railroad workers in Martinsburg created a blockade allowing no train cars to leave the newly rebuilt roundhouses. The mayor of Martinsburg tried to quell the angry mob but had no success. John W. Garret, the CEO of B&O, contacted West Virginia’s governor for support of federal involvement. President Hayes authorized the use of federal troops to end the strike. The presence of federal troops did not dissuade the strikers. Though the strike by Martinsburg railroad workers was short lived their exploits acted as the first domino in a long chain of dissention. The first national labor strike spread from Martinsburg to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and St. Louis.
Backstory and Context
By 1873, when the Great Panic brought about economic despair the United States was still trying to heal from the Civil War. The implementation of Congressional Reconstruction attempted to reunify the country. However, tensions still existed, but a new horizon of difficulties brewed in the labor industry. The Great Panic of 1873 was a global depression that affected many nations. The United States felt the impact from the railroad industry that bottomed out. Resulting from this B&O CEO, John W. Garret announced a wage reduction for all employees and officers employed by the company. B&O railroad employees in Martinsburg, West Virginia angered by another pay cut went on strike.
The train yards in Martinsburg were destroyed during the Civil War and rebuilt from 1866 to 1872. Martinsburg sustained considerable damage during the war but recovered through Reconstruction. The Baltimore & Ohio Company had finished the roundhouses one year before the Great Panic of 1873 trampled the country. The railroad workers in Martinsburg kicked off their strike two days after the announcement of another pay cut. The disruption of train departures led to the mayor sending local militias to aid the Martinsburg Police. The militia and police did not dissuade the strikers from disrupting train departures. Eventually, John W. Garret contacted the governor pleading for federal troops to suppress the strike due to the police force and militia’s refusal to open fire against the strikers. Strikers were supported by the community and a July 24th article from the Martinsburg Statesmen reinforced the community support of the strikers.
The Martinsburg Statesmen article stresses the lack of violence caused by the strike as was portrayed in the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers from surrounding states. The article goes on to describe the morale of the strikers while stating scandalous business practice from the B&O Railroad Company. The strike that started in Martinsburg escalated to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and California. Strikes in each of these states witnessed diverse groups of people unified against the railroad industry. Laborers, men, women, foreign, black and white, rallied together showing support for the strikes. The media’s reaction to the strikes according to historian Troy Rondinone adopted a war-time style of reporting learned from the Civil War. “During the Great Railroad Strike, newspapers emphasized several things---the organization of the strikers, the extensive degree of disorder and violence, and (often in editorial sections) the real potential for revolution or social catastrophe.” (Rondinone 398). The Railroad Strike of 1877 lasted for 45 days ending with lackluster results. However, the conscious minds of Americans witnessed the birth of a long struggle between labor and capital.