In the summer of 1877, the United States experienced its first multi-state railroad strike. Starting in West Virginia, the strike quickly spread to other parts of the country, and even turned into a general strike in some cities. The protest involved some 100,000 workers, making it the largest in the country’s history at the time, and brought major railroad lines to a halt.

Railroad companies and elected officials ended the strike by sending militias to attack workers, resulting in an estimated 1,000 arrests and 100 deaths. Although workers in some cities won small gains by striking or threatening to join the strike, the 1877 uprising didn’t lead to any widespread victories for railroad workers

It did, however, demonstrate the key role that railroad workers played in the United States, and the power they held if they stopped working at the same time. The 1877 strike was remarkable in that it involved no national-level organization. Rather, its spread was a spontaneous reaction to pay cuts and poor working conditions during an economic depression.

A Wave of Spontaneous Strikes

The 1877 strike took place amid the Long Depression, an economic downturn beginning in 1873 during which wages dropped and poverty and homelessness increased. It was in this desperate climate that on July 16, 1877, workers of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad station in Martinsburg, West Virginia went on strike to protest the railroad’s pay cuts.

“There’s good evidence to suggest that the railroad owners, at least informally, colluded with one another to cut workers’ pay,” says John P. Lloyd, a history professor at Cal Poly Pomona who has written about the 1877 strike in the The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History. After the B&O Railroad cut wages, the Pennsylvania Railroad and others soon followed.

The Martinsburg strike started as a local labor action, but within days, it had spread to Pittsburgh, where the Pennsylvania Railroad was already highly unpopular. Many Pittsburgh residents felt that the company had an outsized influence in the city, and supported the railroad workers who went on strike. When the government sent in Philadelphia’s militia to break the strike (Pittsburgh's militia had refused), workers set fire to the roundhouse at the railroad depot while the militia was inside.

From Pittsburgh, the 1877 railroad strike—which was really a wave of strikes—spread westward to cities like Chicago and St. Louis. In these and some other cities, the railroad strike turned into a general strike as non-railroad workers joined in to protest poor pay and working conditions.

The strike wave impacted just about every major railroad in the United States, and elected officials and railroad companies responded by deploying local and state troops and privately hired militias. In addition, President Rutherford B. Hayes deployed federal troops to attack workers.

“He actually used the provision of the constitution [regarding] insurrections,” says Troy Rondinone, a history professor at Southern Connecticut State University and author of The Great Industrial War: Framing Class Conflict in the Media, 1865-1950. “So he was basically saying this is an insurrection against the country.”

Though the strike lasted for different lengths of time in different places, it was largely over by the beginning of August.

Legacy of the 1877 Strike

When the 1877 strike ended, most railroad companies did not meet the demands workers had made. In Louisville, where white railroad workers decided not to strike, these workers ended up avoiding pay cuts by siding with the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad against a general strike by Black workers.

The L&N Railroad workers “were very threatened by this idea that the Black workers were organizing, and so a lot of white workers in Louisville actually supported the company and even formed their own militia to protect railroad property,” says Shannon M. Smith, a history professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University who has written about the 1877 strike in Louisville. “So rather than siding with other workers, they sided with the company.”

One of the major impacts of the strike was the increased presence in U.S. cities of local militias that later became the National Guard. After 1877, these militias began to construct imposing armories in working-class areas. This was because the strike had demonstrated the power of national labor organizing at a time when there was no national railroad union, only job-specific railroad brotherhoods. The size and scale of the 1877 strike rattled company executives and elected officials.

Nearly two decades later, the American Railway Union—considered the first major railroad union—played a pivotal role in the 1894 Pullman Strike and marked a turning point in national labor organizing. Still, racism remained a factor in labor activism. Although some white and Black workers organized together during the 1877 general strikes, the exclusionary racism among railroad brotherhoods continued with the American Railway Union and in many other workers unions into the 20th century.