July 14, 1877 – The Great Railroad Strike
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 is an excellent topic for illustrating continuity and change over time, a central theme in history.
The twelve years following the end of the American Civil War include many of the most consequential events of our country’s modern period. Three of the most significant changes to our constitution occurred within the first five years after Lincoln’s assassination. Though only two new states were added to the union, eleven, reorganized both politically and economically, were re-admitted. The Homestead Acts, enacted during the Civil War, sent thousands of Americans to the West where encroachment on lands then occupied by indigenous peoples resulted in warfare and the eventual subjugation of the Native American. On the heels of defeat, for the American Indian and the defeated Rebel came an explosion of new railroads.
Investors, speculators to be most accurate, borrowed heavily from a banking system almost entirely unfettered by federal legislation to finance new track that spanned the continent by 1869. Much of the land on which the new track was laid came from government land grants. According to a Western state’s historical society account, Between 1850 and 1870, seven percent of the land in the United States was given to 80 railroads. But it was after 1871 that America’s rail lines saw the most dramatic growth.
By 1871, 45 thousand miles of rail had been laid in the U.S. By the end of the century, that figure quadrupled to 210 thousand miles. There were, however, hard times in which the profits that drove this unprecedented growth were curtailed.
The Panic of 1873
In September or 1873, the great New York financial house of Jay Cooke unexpectedly filed for bankruptcy. The root cause was over-speculation by the bank in the railroad industry, specifically a second transcontinental rail line. Soon, other large banks failed, triggering business failures and unemployment.
Credit became practically unavailable and the lack of capital resulted in a staggering drop of railroad construction. One-quarter of the country’s railroads folded as did eighteen thousand other businesses.
Of the surviving railroads, worker wages were cut while work demands grew. With an unemployment rate of fourteen percent and a large influx of foreign workers, railroad presidents could and did take advantage of the labor glut. Those who complained were reminded of the excess pool of workers who would gladly take one’s place for less money.
1873 was coincidentally the year Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain published their novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.
1877-Federal and State Governments lend their firepower
The year 1877 is a milestone in American history. Most textbook series put the end of Reconstruction as either the beginning of a new semester’s textbook which is to say at the start of President Rutherford B. Hayes’ single term or the last chapter of the text covering the early history of our country. It was the year in which formerly enslaved Americans, now officially citizens enjoying the equal protection of the law and sufferage for most males, watched incredulously as those rights were suddenly suspended for the next ninety years.
That same year saw those railroad owners who survived the massive failures within the industry looking for help. From those who toiled on train and track, they looked for wage cuts and extended workloads. From state and local government, they looked for not only continued subsidies and overall freedom from regulation but muscle when the workers reached their limit of subservience. The end of the railroad worker’s patience came on July 14, 1877, in a railyard in West Virginia.