The 6th Regiment fires upon the mob on the corner of Frederick and Baltimore streets, July 20, 1877, during the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Strike. (File photo)
When John Work Garrett, who was described as the “bluff, decisive, pudgy and the undisputed ruler of the B & O,” slashed railroad workers’ wages in 1877, his action provoked what eventually grew into a nationwide railroad strike and was the first general strike in the nation’s history.
The seeds of discontent were sewn by the worldwide financial Panic of 1873, whose effects lingered on until 1877. Earlier that year, when the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad reduced salaries and wages, workers went on strike, management quickly replaced them with unemployed railroaders.
On July 13, 1877, Garrett cut wages by 10 percent for employees making more than $1 a day — salaries for firemen, brakemen and other workers suddenly fell from $1.75 to $1.58 per diem —- along with workweeks reduced to two or three days.
John Work Garrett (Courtesy of Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum, Handout photo)
The railroaders were considered the elite of Baltimore’s workers. Garrett and other B & O executives were shocked when three days later, 40 disgruntled locomotive firemen abandoned their engines after a brief scuffle ensued at Camden Junction, near Mount Clare.
Fearing a growing conflict, Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe called out the police and had several railroadmen arrested for “threatening a riot.”
By day’s end, word of the workers’ action had spread across the B & O to Martinsburg, Grafton and Keyser, W.Va., where like their Baltimore comrades, workers walked off the job.
B & O officials telegraphed the governor of West Virginia and asked that he order the state militia out to break up the strikers who had stopped freight trains, while allowing passenger trains to keep moving.
On July 20, Maryland Gov. John Lee Carroll and Garrett agreed to call out troops from the 5th and 6th Regiments to get stalled freight trains moving, relieve Cumberland that was under siege, and protect the B & O’s property.
At the intersection of Eutaw and West Baltimore streets, troops were confronted by an angry mob, and as they fought their way through the rioters to Camden Station in a hail of paving stones, they opened fire.
The first casualty fell near the armory, with nine more shot and killed. When rioters at Camden Station learned of the casualties, they went on a rampage, burning a switch tower, a passenger car and sending a locomotive that careened into a standing freight train. Fire hoses were cut.
At the height of the melee, it was estimated that 14,000 rioters, who were unarmed, had taken to the streets, and with the riot seemingly out of control, the governor telegraphed President Rutherford B. Hayes who sent 1,000 Federal troops to the city, to help quell the riot with the aid of city police.
By Aug. 1, 1877, the strike on the B & O ended while continuing to spread across the country. Refusing to back off the pay cut, B & O railroaders were promised fuller employment under one condition, they had to take loyalty oaths. Engineers convicted of mob violence were either fired or blacklisted.
With trains moving again, in an ironic move, Garrett billed the federal government for the cost of moving the troops that saved his railroad.
By the time the nationwide strike ended, 100 people were left dead with millions of dollars of railroad property in ruin.
The B & O strike, which eventually spread to the West Coast, set the stage during the 1880s and 1890s for armed intervention in order to break strikes with the Homestead, Haymarket and Pullman Co. strikes as notable examples.