The Situation at Martinsburg

This article in the July 18, 1877 edition of the Baltimore Sun gives an account of the previous day's confrontation in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

The Situation at Martinsburg.

This has been a day of great excitement in Martinsburg, growing out of the strike of the firemen on freight trains of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. The strike began here yesterday, when it became apparent that there was a growing understanding among the freight firemen to resist the 10 per cent. reduction. It was soon learned that all freight trains going east and west were to be stopped ,and now 75 trains, comprising about 600 heads of stock, are detained here. Large crowds of people gathered early at the railroad depot, and the excitement was at times intense.

On Monday night when it was found that not less than fourteen trains loaded with live stock had been stopped by the refusal of the striking firemen to allow them to pass, telegrams were sent to Baltimore giving the railroad company's officials notification of the situation. As stated in the dispatches of yesterday the mayor, Mr. A. P. Shutt, was appealed to, and he used ever endeavor to quiet the outbreak and relieve the embargo, but was overpowered and obliged to give it up. Gov. Matthews, of West Va., was then appealed to, and he, at about midnight Monday sent the necessary orders for the intervention by the local militia of Martinsburg.

Captain J. C. Faulkner, captain of the Berkeley Light Infantry, of Martinsburg, had his company in ranks by five o'clock this morning in obedience to the orders of the Governor of West Virginia, who telegraphed the night before to render all necessary assistance and see that the men who were willing to run trains were not interfered with. In the meantime another attempt had been made to send out a freight train, but the fireman was taken off by the rioters and the train halted. As the disturbers of the business of the road were determined to listen to no conciliatory measures the military company was marched down to the railroad, in front of the train-dispatcher's office, to clear the way for all trains desiring to pass. As a precautionary step, and to avoid if possible any collision or serious difficulty, Captain Faulkner made a very sympathetic speech to those who were engaged in the unlawful and obstructive proceedings. He kindly and temperately endeavored to persuade the disturbers not to resist longer the passage of the trains. To these appeals the crowed turned a deaf ear, and then, finding it was useless to reason with them further, Capt. Faulkner read to the assemblage the Governor's orders. At the same time he made as statement of his duty as he understood it, and ordered the company to load their pieces and resist any attempt made to stop the trains.

The militia company was deployed on both sides of a train which was about starting, an engineer and fireman having volunteered to work. As the train reached the switch one of the strikers, William Vandergriff, seized the switch-ball to run the train on the side track. John Poisal, a member of the militia company, jumped from the pilot of the engine and attempted to replace the switch so that the train should go on. Vandergriff fired two shots at Poisal, one causing a slight flesh wound in the side of the head. Poisal returned fire, shooting Vandergriff through the hip. Several other shots were fired at Vandergriff, striking him in the hand and arm.

When the firing was heard a very large crowd of railroaders and citizens collected, and the feeling became intense. The volunteering engineer and fireman of the train ran off as soon as the shooting began. Capt. Faulkner then made the statement that he had performed his duty, and if the trainmen deserted their posts he could do nothing more. The militia company was therefore marched to their armory and ingloriously disbanded, leaving the rioters in possession of the field, and the road blocked up with standing trains on the sidings, &c.

Vandergriff is lying in a very dangerous condition in consequence of his wounds. On of his arms had to be amputated.

Thomas R. Sharp, master of transportation, Frank Mantz, supervisor of trains, and several other of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad officials are here making every possible effort to conciliate the strikers and to move the trains, especially the live stock trains, in which the poor animals are suffering very much from the excessive heat. Up to 6 P.M. no freight trains had been moved either east or west, and the strikers showed no signs of receding from their position. The trouble, however, seemed to be confined to a number of men from Baltimore, some of them in now way connected with the railroad. Very few of the railroad company's employees residing in Martinsburg have engaged in the obstructive resistance, but there seems to be no doubt that the strike will become general.

All passenger and mail trains have been allowed to pass unobstructed, only the freight trains being embargoed. The idea in this is to avoid amenability to the laws of the United States for obstructing the mails. No damage has been done to the property of the railroad company or attempted. The men engaged in the strike say they do not mean to molest any person. All they ask is a living compensation for their labor. They say that at the present prices the firemen cannot pay their daily expenses, much less support their families.

Heavy convoys of freight trains are lying on the sidings east and west of Martinsburg. A train of stock shipped here has be reshipped by Mr. Mantz over the Cumberland Valley and Western Maryland railroad. Thus far the authorities have been unable to secure the passage of a single freight train. To-night the excitement had quieted down and everybody is waiting to see what will turn up.

About this Document

  • Source: Baltimore Sun
  • Date: July 18, 1877