Streets, Railroads, and the Great Strike of 1877
Streets, Railroads, and the Great Strike of 1877. By David O. Stowell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. xii+181; illustrations, tables, notes/references, bibliography, index. $31 (cloth); $15 (paper).
The 1877 railroad strike, the first labor walkout to follow the transcontinental train tracks from coast to coast, was one of the few such events to draw the attention of scholars before the consolidation of labor history as a distinct discipline in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, most historians interpreted the contest strictly within the confines of an employee-employer dichotomy, although the strike manifested itself in different guises as it spread through cities and towns with divergent populations. [End Page 636]
Slimming down his award-winning 1992 doctoral dissertation, David Stowell interprets the unprecedented walkout from an entirely different perspective without abandoning the labor-management nexus. He examines three upstate New York cities--Albany, Buffalo, and Syracuse--to uncover an unsuspected irritant that mobilized crowds "with no wage relationship to railroads" (p. 88) to protest employer intransigence. These militant demonstrations usually included cross-class elements from other work sites, small businesses, and commercial establishments. Some protestors acted out of solidarity with the strikers, but many more vented militant displeasure against dangerous railroad traffic that crisscrossed urban centers in that area.
Stowell is not the first to champion the intersection of labor and urban history, but he staples his theses together as tightly as a railroad track to a tie. Railroads from their inception, he argues, penetrated the boulevards of urban America in order to reach industrial customers, freight yards, and loading platforms. As cities expanded before and after the Civil War, the train became a distressing interloper in the congested city environment. Transportation systems increased as dramatically as population during the same period, contributing to further havoc. Thirty-five-ton locomotives with six-foot driving wheels dwarfed citizens in neighborhood streets.
Railroads, the first national symbol of corporate America, engendered distrust and envy among many groups of citizens because of shifting rate structures and politically inspired routes. Trains also triggered indignation as engines of death. Pedestrians, teamsters, and children fell prey to the iron monster on urban thoroughfares. Fatalities and injuries spiraled unconscionably as trains in Albany traversed local streets every eleven minutes at the time of the strike. Noisy locomotives belched forth smoke and hot cinders, occasionally setting fire to nearby buildings. Tracks often tripped unwary pedestrians and caught the wheels of wagons. Some lines even stored freight cars on city streets overnight.
Citizens petitioned city councils and state legislatures for relief from the carnage and disruption. Protestors included housewives, workers, saloon keepers, and proprietors of small businesses. Even some large businesses felt inconvenienced by the frequent interruptions. Railroad owners hesitated to build costly bypasses, bridges, elevated platforms, and underground passages, or to employ flaggers, fearing that any submission to the popular will would only encourage more demands. A timely bribe usually provided a respite from political pressure.
At the time of the 1877 strike, Stowell demonstrates persuasively, there was a hidden army of protesters waiting to be mobilized against the haughty train masters. Although urban dwellers quickly rallied to the strikers' cause, their enthusiasm originated more from antipathy to train traffic than solidarity with trainmen. In many instances, urban protests included few strikers and targeted trains that passed over particularly lethal track [End Page 637] crossings. On several occasions strikers actually protected railroad property from the wrath of city folk who sought vengeful destruction rather than accommodation and compromise, as did strikers who would return to their jobs. Railroad workers increasingly held closed meetings away from town centers to prevent infiltration by uncompromising urbanites.
Eventually railroad capital found it advantageous to avoid public anger and circumvent urban thoroughfares or build protective barriers around the tracks. As steam locomotives retreated from busy streets a new generation of protestors targeted the electric trolley for the same reasons. Stowell proves his point that "spatial arrangements and relationships" (p. 142) between city and train contributed significantly to the violent upheavals during the great strike of 1877.
Dr. Molloy is associate professor in the Schmidt Labor Research Center at the University of Rhode Island.