The Great Railway Strike of 1877 spread quickly within the region of the eastern railroads, but as the strikers and their sympathizers gathered in Baltimore, they assumed a scale few Americans expected. The crowd that converged, for example, on Camden Station numbered over 15,000. For smaller communities in West Virginia and Ohio, the proportions were even more significant.
The great strike began on the Baltimore & Ohio and spread west along the railroads through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and eventually touching Omaha, St. Louis and the west. Many middle-class Americans saw these events as cataclysmic and deeply disturbing. A major depression settled on the nation in the 1870s beginning with a panic on Wall Street in 1873, its origins located squarely in the railroad network and economy. Doubts crept to the fore about the new nation's stability, the costs of its choices in the war and its aftermath. The violence of the Civil War was fresh, and the testing of national unity it represented equally recent. When John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, issued a 10 percent pay cut in early July 1877, B and O employees up and down the line were exasperated. Wages had been cut several times in the depression and when Garrett and his superintendent changed the operating rules for engineers to run longer trains with fewer crew members, the men went out on strike. On July 20, 1877 crowds gathered to protest the wage reduction and at 6:35 p.m. the alarm bell rang for the militia to move toward Camden Station in downtown Baltimore.
The conflict began that with a wage reduction on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad quickly escalated as the Governor of Maryland and the President of the B and O called not only for local militia but also federal troops to suppress the strike and reopen the railroads. The strike moved west on the B and O. Crowds of strikers and angry workers assembled in downtown Baltimore, destroyed rail property, interrupted service, and endangered citizens. The strike seemed to indicate the dangers that inhered in modernity's landscape. And while local authorities were tentative in the face of this threat, some of them rather sympathetic to the strikers, the modern nation-state responded with federal power and force on a scale learned in the Civil War and its aftermath. Some of the greatest violence occurred in Pittsburgh where the crowd trapped the militia and torched the Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse.
Historians have treated the strike in different ways. Allen Trachtenberg, in The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) viewed the strike as a lashing out against the rapid mechanization of American society. Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1959) treated the violence as an explosion of working class resentment against basic living conditions and inequalities. Philip S. Foner, The Great Labor Uprising of 1877 (Monad Press, 1977) saw the Great Strike as a watershed in American labor class consciousness. David O. Stowell, Streets, Railroads and the Great Strike of 1877 (University of Chicago Press, 1999) considered the event across many communities as a sharply focused street uprising among urban Americans frustrated with the railroads.
The dilemma for middle-class Americans was how far to extend sympathy for the workers and where to draw the line between legitimate social protests and anarchic violence. When Harper's Weekly assessed the aftershocks of the Great Railway Strike in early August 1877, its editors were full of praise for the Connecticut and New York militia that responded with "alacrity" and yet Harper's was also somewhat sympathetic to the strikers. "No reasonable man," they argued, "will admit any essential and necessary hostility between capital and labor." The lessons of the strike, they suggested, were that law and order depended on a strong militia. "What is the difference between civilization and barbarism, between American and Central Africa," they asked, "but law, and the redress of grievances not by individual force, but by prescribed legal methods?" In September the editor at Harper's drew a clear line on the strikes: "we frankly own that the scenes at Pittsburgh and Chicago were worthy only of the savages who in earlier years roasted and otherwise tortured the Roman priests in Canada. Riot and anarchy are mere barbarism." Harper's wrote in the language of civilization and anarchy, order and savagry, society and lawlessness.
In the local press as well, some editors adopted the language of Victorian order, but others avoided these rhetorical devices preferring to categorize the events in different terms. After the violence of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the strike appeared to middle-class Americans to be an especially ominous development. Editors focused key aspects of the strike: the role of women in the fighting, the character of the "riot," the legality of actions, and the justice of the demands. Concepts of anarchy and civilization, of the mob, the law, and social order were especially important in the Republican Party press accounts. Both parties focused on property and the city as the location of these events. Some of the widest differences in views came from city and town press accounts. The different scale of the event in local settings affected how participants and observers understood the strike.