Railroad Strike Violence at Martinsburg, WV

In this excerpt from The Story of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Historian Edward Hungerford offers an account of the violence at Martinsburg, WV during the 1877 railroad strike. This selection also includes Allan Pinkerton's vivid description of the event.

Nine o'clock came and still no trains in movement at Martinsburg.... But nine o'clock did bring the Berkeley Light Infantry, gaily uniformed and marching behind fife and drum, as if it were county muster day. The Mayor and his useless police preceded them.... A hurrah and a shout of welcome from the strikers and their friends was their greeting. Behind the soldiery walked the fireman and the engineer who had been evicted from their cab and who were returning to duty once again. They too drew a cheer. The crowd was not discerning in its applause. The engine crew halted at the depot. Let Allan Pinkerton, who made a careful study of the events of that notable day, continue the story:

"... The women threw their arms around their husbands' necks and frantically embraced them, urging that they refrain from attempting the perilous task. The angry mob... would be sure to do them injury.... Their lives would be lost if they attempted the business again.

But, fairly tearing themselves from the grasp of their families, the brave fellows started at a swift pace to the roundhouse, part of the time protected by the militia, and mounted the engine.... Soon it moved out and was attached to the cattle-train. Following the locomotive, on either side, were the soldiers, with guns loaded and bayonets fixed. Their progress was snail-like, from the pressure of the close-formed ranks of the strikers, which kept surging against the militia, but indulged in no violent acts, seeming to satisfy themselves with yelling, hooting, hissing and employing harsh and insulting language, principally heaped upon the two men in charge of the engine. When the train was, for the third experiment, made up for starting, the engineer and fireman, protected and guarded in their places by armed soldiers, with still other militiamen upon the tender, the buffers, the pilot and in the caboose, the excitement of trainmen and people rose to a white heat...."

Then it was that the civil authorities again grew cautious. How Sharp's fine old military soul must have revolted! Mayor Shutt asked Colonel Faulkner if it would not be best to argue again with the crowd. Colonel Faulkner agreed. Each was an adroit speech maker. But words had no more effect than before. And just before the Mayor ceased making his little speech, the crowd saw the cattle train finally in motion. Let Mr. Pinkerton resume:

"... As the train... drew nigh the switch, a militiaman, named John Poisal, while sitting on the cowcatcher, particularly noticed the position of the switch-ball, which indicated that the train, unless some change was made, would be thrown off the track. Immediately jumping to the ground, musket in hand, he ran forward to the switch. William Vandegriff, one of the striking firemen, stood nigh and had just swung the bar so as to send the engine in the wrong direction....

John Poisal reached the spot in time and put out his hand towards the rod when amid the general confusion, Vandegriff's voice rang out, loud and clear:

'Don't you touch that switch!'

'I'm not going to see the train run on a siding, if I can prevent it,' answered Poisal, firmly grasping the iron. He had no time to move it. Vandegriff said no more, but drew a small pocket-pistol from his belt, and before Poisal had time to change the switch, fired two shots in quick succession, full upon the militiaman, one of the bullets ploughing a jagged furrow in the side of Poisal's head, just above the ear, and the other flying wide of the mark.... The switch remained unchanged and the locomotive stopped. . . . Poisal, upon receiving the striking fireman's shot, rapidly raised his gun and discharged it, aiming at Vandegriff. Another soldier sent a missile in the same direction and both were well aimed. One bullet struck the young man in the thigh and another penetrated his arm. He fell, mortally wounded.... There followed several explosions of small arms but no other persons were seriously injured."

About this Document

  • Source: The Story of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad
  • Author: Edward Hungerford
  • Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons
  • Published: New York, NY
  • Citation: pages 138-140, Volume II
  • Date: 1928