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Retro Baltimore: The great railroad strike of 1877 stoked the labor movement nationwide

The 6th regiment fires upon the mob on the corner of Frederick and Baltimore Streets, July 20th, 1877 during the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Strike. File photo
The 6th regiment fires upon the mob on the corner of Frederick and Baltimore Streets, July 20th, 1877 during the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Strike. File photo (BALTIMORE SUN)

Unrest threatened the streets of Baltimore in 2015, and the governor was confronted with a decision freighted with enormous consequences: How much force should he use to quell the disturbance?

The uprising wasn’t the first time that a Maryland governor facing a wave of violence had mobilized the Maryland National Guard. The crisis that challenged Gov. Larry Hogan echoed one that had beset a predecessor, Maryland Gov. John Lee Carroll, 138 years before.

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Hogan’s still-controversial order sending armed troops to Baltimore has been in the news recently, with the release of his memoir, “Still Standing: Surviving Cancer, Riots, a Global Pandemic, and the Toxic Politics that Divide America.”

So perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the causes and consequences of that long-ago clash between residents and guardsmen in the streets of downtown Baltimore, a melee that set off a chain reaction of strikes along the railroad line. At its height, more than 100,000 workers supported what became the first general strike in U.S. history. The uprising claimed more than 100 lives and resulted in millions of dollars in damage to railroad property.

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Though the 2015 unrest was sparked by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray and the 1877 strike began over a 10% pay cut — the third salary reduction in as many years — some analysts have speculated that the underlying cause for both was the vast economic disparity between the classes.

The cuts that took effect July 16, 1877 reduced daily wages for firemen and brakeman from $1.75 to $1.58. That 17 cents was “easily the difference of a meal or so a day for a family,” Carleton Jones wrote in a 1977 article for the Baltimore Sun magazine.

Making matters worse, the workweek had been cut nearly in half for most laborers, who were employed on average just 15 days a month.

”It is utterly impossible for a man with a family to support himself and family,” the workers wrote in a list of demands circulated July 18, 1877.

In response, B&O Railroad President John W. Garrett proposed a concession to end the strike: He would put workers loyal to the railroad at the top of a promotion list and reward them with a medal.

In the 19th century, the railways played a role roughly analogous to the computer in the 21st century by connecting the North to the South, New England to California’s Gold Rush. Railroad barons like Garrett wielded power over their workers’ lives — and over national politics — that today it’s difficult to fathom.

”Garrett realized he must have a Governor who would be guided by him in all matters,” writes an unnamed railroad historian quoted in a 1956 article in Maryland Historical Magazine written by Clifton Yearley Jr. “To the day of his death, the word of the President of the B&O was law to Governors and state officials.”

The strikes began in Baltimore on June 16, 1877, and spread west. Though the protests were mostly nonviolent, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, a striker was killed and a member of the militia was injured.

Garrett wanted the situation resolved — quickly. On Friday, July 20, 1877, he urged Carroll to call out the National Guard and the governor acquiesced.

At the time, there were only two ways to marshal the troops, Yearley wrote: notify individuals by messengers or ring the giant bell in downtown Baltimore. Railroad officials chose the latter, alerting not just guardsmen, but everyone within earshot.

As the 5th Regiment marched down Eutaw Street towards West Baltimore Street, a crowd of 15,000 angry Baltimoreans gathered downtown.

“We met a mob that blocked the street,” a 20-year-old trooper, Charles A. Malloy later told reporters. “They were armed with stones and as soon as they came within reach, they began to throw at us.”

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Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered at the 6th Regiment Armory at Front and Fayette streets and began hurling rocks at the departing militia. It wasn’t long before the pummeled and frightened troopers began firing into the crowd.

Ten people were killed, including a barefoot newsboy in shirt sleeves, a 16-year-old photography student and a 19-year-old baker.

Baltimore police brought the riot under control later that night, even before federal troops arrived from Washington at the behest of Carroll and Garrett.

(In typical high-handed fashion, Garrett later billed the U.S. government for using B&O trains to transport the same federal troops that he had begged President Rutherford B. Hayes to supply.)

Nearly all trains had resumed running by Aug. 1, 1878. Railroad officials refused to rescind the pay cut, leaving the Baltimore strikers utterly defeated.

But the strike signaled the beginning of a shift in public sympathy for the workers’ plight. Within two years, reforms began to be introduced — even at the B&O.

Moreover, what had been a system of lightly organized trade unions before the strike gained cohesion and momentum, resulting in more sustained (and bloodier) clashes, including the Haymark Riot of 1886 and the Pullman Strike of 1894.

The first Labor Day parade was held In New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.

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