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.
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.