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Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor

By Theresa A. Case

Publication Year: 2010

Focusing on a story largely untold until now, Theresa A. Case studies the "Great Southwest Strike of 1886," which pitted entrepreneurial freedom against the freedom of employees to have a collective voice in their workplace. This series of local actions involved a historic labor agreement followed by the most massive sympathy strike the nation had ever seen. It attracted western railroaders across lines of race and skill, contributed to the rise and decline of the first mass industrial union in U.S. history (the Knights of Labor), and brought new levels of federal intervention in railway strikes. Case takes a fresh look at the labor unrest that shook Jay Gould's railroad empire in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois. In Texas towns and cities like Marshall, Dallas, Fort Worth, Palestine, Texarkana, Denison, and Sherman, union recognition was the crucial issue of the day. Case also powerfully portrays the human facets of this strike, reconstructing the story of Martin Irons, a Scottish immigrant who came to adopt the union cause as his own. Irons committed himself wholly to the failed strike of 1886, continuing to urge violence even as courts handed down injunctions protecting the railroads, national union leaders publicly chastised him, the press demonized him, and former strikers began returning to work.  Irons’s individual saga is set against the backdrop of social, political, and economic changes that transformed the region in the post–Civil War era. Students, scholars, and general readers interested in railroad, labor, social, or industrial history will not want to be without The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Red River Valley Books Series, sponsored by Texas A&M University-Texarkana


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pp. vi-vii

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pp. viii-x

It wasn’t quite nostalgia for nineteenth-century “boomer” railroaders or old-time locomotive engines that drew me to the subject of the “Great Southwest Strike,” although the monograph that first concentrated my mind on the pursuit of historical research and writing was Marcus Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea...

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pp. 1-16

In April 1886, national union leader Terence Powderly was in a state of utter exhaustion. The preceding weeks of labor tumult, he confided to an associate, had added “a hundred years to my life. All over . . . they are showering work on me just as if I had nine lives . . . I have had ten committees to see me to day, from everywhere.” He felt “unstrung,” as though...

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Chapter 1: Constructing a New Southwest

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pp. 17-44

The railway strikes of 1885–1886 galvanized men and women in towns and cities along the lines of the Gould system, in places as distinct as Marshall, a small town in rural East Texas with deep roots in cotton and slavery; St. Louis, a booming industrial metropolis with a large European immigrant population and a more ambiguous relationship to the Old South; and...

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Chapter 2: Labor Kinship

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pp. 45-70

Labor upheaval on the Gould system in the mid-1880s was unusual in that it brought together an array of railroad employees whose working worlds varied dramatically according to their occupation, age, race, skill, and stability. To illustrate, during the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, a white engineer would have likely designated himself and any other white, skilled, or semiskilled, full-time...

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Chapter 3: Hierarchy and Conflict

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pp. 71-96

In 1883 Steve Brown found a job as a section man on the Missouri, Kansas & Texas. He learned how to fire an engine and worked as a fireman between 1887 and 1895. While in Mississippi on a passenger run, Brown was nearly involved in a terrible wreck. The train was running late. As Brown told it to an interviewer in the 1930s, the engineer ordered, “Boy, bear down on dat shovel,” in the hopes of beating the express train...

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Chapter 4: Southwester Railroaders and the Receding "Frontier of Labor Scarcity"

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pp. 97-126

For “boomer” railroaders, migration west held out the hope of both tangible and intangible benefits in the form of higher wages, a less competitive occupational ladder for whites, some social recognition for and cultural identification with work that contributed to the nation’s economic lifeblood, and a path to manhood. “Boomers” sought the freedom to seek out someplace better, freedom from debt and unnecessary risk, and...

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Chapter 5: Testing Hierarchies

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pp. 127-150

Despite lasting only a little more than a week, the March 1885 strike had a profound effect. It created a network of railroaders committed to protecting the 1885 contract and expanding it to take on the host of other pressures they felt at work. The spring walkout also sparked a movement among railroaders to join, along with thousands of working-class people, the Knights of Labor. That organization, with its emphasis on the struggle of “producers” against “capital” and “monopoly,” ...

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Chapter 6: The Independent Path of District Assembly 101

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pp. 151-184

The 1886 “Great Southwest Strike” figures prominently in historical narratives of Gilded Age labor protest, yet debates over whom or what to blame for its collapse have eclipsed an explanation of its origins and course. Martin Irons, chief leader of DA 101, himself claimed that he was forced to sign at gunpoint what he believed at the time was an ill-fated strike order. Many historians and contemporary observers...

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Chapter 7: Blaming Martin Irons

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pp. 185-220

Martin Irons died in 1900 a disreputable, impoverished outcast in a small Texas town south of Waco. For the more renowned, longstanding labor leaders “Mother” Jones and Eugene Debs, he was not a pitiable, transitory figure; he was a martyr in the fight against forces of corporate tyranny. Historian Ruth Allen, who chronicled the “Great Southwest Strike,” also saw him as a heroic if tragic figure— a selfless visionary who carried the burden of the strike’s defeat with him...

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pp. 221-226

“Boomer” Charles Brown retired from railroading to the industrial district of Los Angeles after an accident in the yards severed both his feet. He wrote his autobiography about his work life and ended melancholically: “I can see and hear the switch engines in the U.P. yards, switching and making up trains, and when a road engine comes down through the yards from the roundhouse with her bell ringing on her way to take out a train...


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pp. 227-262


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pp. 263-274


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pp. 275-279

E-ISBN-13: 9781603443401
E-ISBN-10: 1603443401
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603441704
Print-ISBN-10: 1603441700

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 2 b&w illus. Map. Bib. Index.
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Red River Valley Books Series, sponsored by Texas A&M University-Texarkana
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OCLC Number: 680622476
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Subject Headings

  • Knights of Labor -- History.
  • Strikes and lockouts -- Railroads -- Southwestern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Railroads -- Employees -- Labor unions -- Southwestern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Gould, Jay, 1836-1892.
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