100 died in bloody rail strike Walkout: In 1877, Northern railroads began cutting pay, sparking an insurrection with terrible consequences.

Way Back When

September 05, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The effects of the worldwide financial collapse brought on by the "Panic of 1873" hadn't faded by 1877. Recovery was slow and the nation's railroads had been particularly hard hit, including the Baltimore & Ohio.

Baltimore would soon be swept up into a bloody nationwide railroad strike, the first general strike in the nation's history. By the time it ended, 100 people were left dead and thousands were injured, while millions of dollars of railroad property lay in ruin.

Early in the spring of 1877, Northern railroads began cutting salaries and wages, prompting a strike on the Philadelphia and Reading. The action ended quickly when the Reading replaced strikers with unemployed railroaders.

On July 13, 1877, B&O President John W. Garrett, described as "bluff, decisive, pudgy and the undisputed ruler of the B&O," cut 10 percent out of the wages of all employees making more than $1 a day. Wages for firemen and brakemen, along with other rail workers, were reduced from $1.75 to $1.58 a day, and their workweeks were slashed to two or three days.

"B&O men were the elite of Baltimore's laboring force, lightly unionized into what were largely fraternal organizations but well paid by the local standards of the day, if not by the somewhat higher wages of the Northeastern lines," said The Sun Magazine in a 1977 anniversary article. "Management was paternalistic, but it ignored some tremendous employee headaches."

Garrett was shocked when on July 16, 40 disgruntled locomotive firemen walked off the job at Camden Junction, near Mount Clare, after a brief scuffle.

Fearing the worst, Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe called out the police, and several railroad workers were arrested for "threatening a riot."

By day's end, news of the walkout had spread to Martinsburg, Grafton and Keyser, W.Va., where workers walked off the job.

B&O management struck back and telegraphed the governor of West Virginia asking for help to stem the growing insurrection. He ordered in the state militia to break up strikers who were blockading freight trains, though they allowed passenger trains to pass.

In Baltimore, news had reached the city that violent strikes had broken out in Pittsburgh, while B&O railroad officials, Garrett and Maryland Gov. John Lee Carroll meet at Barnum's Hotel to consider calling for troops to free up the stalled freight trains, relieve embattled Cumberland and protect the line.

By Friday, July 20, tensions were mounting as rumors spread throughout the city that troops were being called up to harass the B&O strikers.

Troops from the 5th Regiment, then located in the Richmond Armory on Howard Street, and the 6th Regiment housed at Fayette and Front streets, were summoned by courier and later by ringing the fire bells.

"Our officers feared that ringing the old military call on the fire bells would precipitate the violence we were organizing to prevent...but not enough men could be found by the couriers. And the result was all our officers had feared," said Charles A. Malloy, a 20-year-old 5th Regiment militia volunteer.

At the intersection of Eutaw and West Baltimore streets, the troops were confronted by a mob.

"We met a mob, which blocked the streets," said Malloy. "They came armed with stones and as soon as we came within reach they began to throw at us."

Struggling through to Camden Station, the 5th surrounded the building to protect it from the angry mobs now filling the streets.

At Front and Fayette streets, "The hardest element in town," said Malloy, gathered there to attack the armory. "When they [the 6th Regiment] flung open the doors and marched out 200 strong, fully armed and with bayonets fixed, the rioters gave way a little, but the rain of stones increased. They held them for as long as possible."

As they fought their way westward toward Camden Station, they began firing. The first casualty fell near the armory. Nine more were shot and killed including William Haurand, a newsboy, John Reinhardt, 16, a student, and James C. Williams, a baker.

At Camden, rioters learning of the shootings went on a rampage and burned a switch tower, a passenger car and sent a locomotive crashing into a siding full of freight cars. Fire hoses were cut.

At the height of the melee, it was estimated that 14,000 rioters had taken to the streets. Alarmed, the governor telegraphed President Hayes asking for troops not to save Cumberland but to save Baltimore instead.

Observers claimed that it was the orderly actions of the Baltimore city police force that broke the riot. By 1: 30 a.m., the mob dispersed and the efforts of the police were aided by the arrival of 1,000 Federal troops and an armed revenue cutter.

"The fact that not one soldier was killed, or injured by gunfire, indicates that the mobs were unarmed, or almost unarmed, agitated rowdies rather than well-organized union militants," said The Sunday Sun Magazine.

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