Spark of the Great Strike

On July 16th several firemen and brakemen on The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad refused to work the trains and caused a massive buildup of train traffic in Camden Junction just outside of Baltimore. The strikers gave their reason for striking; a 10 percent wage cut taking affect that day. (NY Times) The strikers overtook trains and there was even a report of a beating taking place of a fireman who continued to work. The company had been prepared for a strike and a force of 40 police officers was sent to disperse the strikers. Strikers refusing to go back to work were quickly replaced and the trains were quickly running again after the delay.

The town of Martinsburg, Maryland was to be the focus of many train workers in the area to make a stand. (Bruce) The town was basically built around the railroad. Most of the residents worked for the railroad and were upset that wages were not higher. Residents of the town had resentment for the leaders of the railroad. They believed that the few leaders had too much pay for themselves. This growing dissatisfaction was fueled by the new wage cut. Martinsburgs police force was very small making it the optimal spot for resistance. After news of the failed strike in Baltimore had spread, a group of workers led by Richard Zepp, a railroad brakeman who had grown up in Martinsburg, sparked a strike by abandoning a cattle train and taking a stand by saying that no trains would be allowed to leave in either direction until the 10 percent wage cut was lifted. The mayor of the town ordered the ringleaders of the strike to be arrested. The crowd had grown in numbers and had become rather excited, the police were helpless to do anything. Noone could be found who would attempt to take out the train. By nightfall the yard was surrendered to the strikers.
When morning came a few strikebreakers were found, they attempted to move the cattle train out of the yard, they were immediately met with confrontation and were stopped. The train tried to leave a second time, this time under the protection of a number of militiamen riding the train. As it was leaving there was a dispute between a striker and a militiaman over the switch on the track being thrown which would cause the train to derail. The dispute ended with both men injured and the striker eventually dying. This caused both sides to lose their excitement. The strikebreakers gave up and went home, the troops were dismissed. The strikers now had more of a reason than any to oppose the company and the militia. The next day the Vice President of the B.O., William Keyser, met with the strike leaders. The strikers were told that they company wanted them to return to work on whatever wage they would be willing to work for. Keyser explained why the wage cut as necessary and told the strikers that any man returning to work would be protected and any man still striking would be fired. After deliberating the strikers decided to continue the strike. That night strikers attacked the Governors room at the hotel he was staying at, they also attempted to free some of their fellow strikers who had been arrested. Needing no further convincing he decided to head back home the next day for safety. The strikers had been stopping every freight train that rolled through the yard. Over 600 freight cars were now accumulated there. The strikers had let all passenger and mail cars to pass as to avoid federal intervention. News of the strike was now reaching every major newspaper in the country. People all over knew of the railroad strike. 200 boatmen off the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal joined the railroad strikers on the morning of the 18th. The canal workers, who had been on strike for a month, were met with cheers as they joined the railroad strikers in Martinsburg.(NY Times) The influence of the strike was spreading to other railroads as well. Strikes were expected on the Central Ohio and Chicago divisions of the railroad soon. At this point the Trainsmens Union was considering joining the strike with the Connersville and Pittsburgh branches of the railroad.

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The New York Times released an article on July 17th dismissing the strikers, saying they were wasting their time as well as the countrys time and money. Now the newspaper was keeping the country up on the details of the situation. The Times released an article on the 19th which told of several companies of troops were on their way to Martinsburg to disperse and if necessary fight the strikers. This was by order of the President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes released a statement on the 18th of July which gave the reasons for the federal intervention. He stated that the governor of West Virginia had informed him of domestic violence in Martinsburg. The laws of the United States said the president could command all peoples causing the violence to return to their homes within a certain time limit to avoid confrontation. Hayes gave until 12:00 noon the next day. Hayes was not the first president to use federal troops to solve domestic disputes, he would become the first to be remembered for it. The strikers were warned that there would be confrontation the next day, but due to their numbers the strikers believed that they would be able to overcome the opposition. The military and the leaders of the railroad company were certain that they could crush the strike, their fear was that the strikers would cause damage to the railroads themselves, destroying the rails, breaking bridges, etc causing even more of a back in the system. When troops arrived in Martinsburg they were not met with much confrontation. The leader of the strike, Dick Zepp, was found, arrested and later released on bail. His arrest and the arrival of the federal troops seemed to kill the intensity of the strike. Dick Zepps brother, George, joined an engineer and help lead out the first freight train with a revolver in hand. Despite the train leaving with no problem the railroad officials were still unable to get anyone to bring out the trains. The next day strikebreakers were brought in and the remaining trains finally began to move out of Martinsburg. Strikes began to sprout up all over the country.
The problem was no longer focused in one spot, troops could no longer end the issue in one trip.These actions in Martinsburg soon spread across the country. Just because a train left Martinsburg did not mean that it was safe from a strike. Many trains were ceased at other stations. The very train that George Zepp had left on was attacked several times at several different towns before being ceased at Keyser, West Virginia. This was the beginning of the first nation wide strike in history. The strike spread to other towns and to the workers there as well. Eventually all were ended just as Martinsburg was. Most stopped by late July, a few continued into August. Some companies brought the railroad wages back up a little. Others advertised for more workers. The strike basically faded away. After sending troops all over to contend with the violence, Hayes ordered to have the troops pulled out of the towns. Although some said this would just cause another flare up in never did. The last day a complaint was given about striking was August 5th. All the violence had stopped, but there were still problems in the nation. Work had to be done to clean up all the damage the strikers had caused. The workers were still hurting from the wage cuts, and the families of those who had died in the strike received no compensation. Eventually those who had been striking against the railroads took a political stand against the leaders of the industry and eventually made an impact.
-Bruce, Robert V. 1877: Year of Violence (Chicago, 1959)
-NY Times The Railroad Mens War The New York Times, July 19, 1877
-NY Times Baltimore and Ohio Strike The New York Times, July 18, 1877
-NY Times Railroad Employees on Strike The New York Times, July 17, 1877
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