130th Anniversary of the 1877 Shamokin
Uprising and the Great Railroad Strike
by Hal Smith, printed in THE NEWS ITEM of Shamokin,
mid-eastern Pennsylvania on July 25, 2007
In July 1877, desperation and starvation drove Pennsylvania's
railroad workers and miners to join America's first nationwide strike- the
"Great Railroad Strike of 1877."
Railroad workers and miners had perilous jobs in the late 1800's. More than 200
railroad workers and 1000 miners died in accidents every year. The companies
often forced both to buy from company stores at inflated prices and work from
sunup to sundown. Companies made engineers pay for all train damages, regardless
of fault. Children tore their hands picking rocks from coal in collieries.
The first recorded strike in the anthracite coal region occurred in 1842. More
followed in 1849, 1869, and 1872. During the Civil War, the mine owners even
used cavalry platoons to arrest 8 miners and evict them from company homes for
striking in Locust Gap. At that time, the workers in Locust Gap formed the
Miner's Benevolent Society, to provide accident insurance and demand better pay.
It was one of the first unions in America.
The Workers' Benevolent Association, founded in St Clair in 1868, expanded to
Northumberland County, including Locust Gap, on October 19, 1869. It built on
the efforts of previous unions like the Miners Benevolent Society.
By 1872 the Reading Railroad was the biggest mine company in the Anthracite
region. It used its monopoly on the railroads to take over 70,000 acres of the
best coal lands. Places like Gowen City and Gowen Street in Shamokin were named
after the company's president, Frank Gowen. Gowen even bought a police force
from the government called the "Reading Coal and Iron Police." Between 1871 and
1875 Gowen borrowed $69 million to pay for his empire. But he and the other
railroad barons had overestimated the demand for train service and
over-invested. Debts forced them to fire many workers, resulting in a nationwide
depression in 1873.
Rock Street, Shamokin - location of the 1877
strike marching toward the Reading depot
In 1874 a third of Pennsylvania's workforce was unemployed. The
Reading Railroad cut train workers' wages by 10%, resulting in an unsuccessful
strike. In 1875 only 1/5 of American workers had full-time jobs. Some people
vented their frustration by damaging tracks, trains, and mines. On May 11, 1875
the trestle at Locust Gap Junction was exploded by drilling holes and filling
them with gunpowder. The telegraph office at Locust Summit was burned. From 1860
to 1909 arson destroyed 25 collieries between Mount Carmel and Trevorton.
Knoebel's Amusement Park has a Mining Museum with a beautiful mural of the twice
burned Locust Gap colliery.
The 1875 Officers of the Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Association for
Northumberland County include:
Pres. John N. Evans Mt. Carmel ; VP Dennis Coming Locust Gap ; Sec. Ben Ressler,
Excelsior ; Tres. John L. Shanahan Mt. Carmel
Mt. Carmel District: Pres. Lewis Dietrich ; VP Pat Donnal ; Sec. John L.
Shanahan ; Tres. Julius Maure ; Trustees Patrick Donlan, Patrick Nowlan, and
When Gowen lowered mining wages to 54% of their 1869 level, miners began the
"Long Strike" of 1875. It started in January 1875 and lasted 170 days. But Gowen
stored enough coal to outlast the strike and crushed the miner's union by firing
In July 1875, Gowen presented ďA List of Outrages in the Schuylkill and Shamokin
Regions" to Pennsylvania's legislature, including:
March 25, 1875- Locust Summit telegraph burned, 32 coal cars dumped on tracks at
March 26- 29 coal cars dumped at Locust Gap Junction
March 29- coal trains stoned near Locust Gap
March 31- between Locust Gap and Alaska station, men stoned, and fired upon a
train. Then the men boarded the train, drove out the crew, damaged the engine,
and blocked tracks
April 29- provisions stolen from Mount Carmel freight depot
May 1- flour and feed stolen from freight car in Locust Gap
May 6- attempt to blow up trestle in Locust Gap
May 7- hose cut from water columns at Locust Gap and Summit
Gowen further accused leaders of the Irish community of running an alleged
secret society called the "Molly Maguires" that killed mine officials. He used
private police to investigate and company lawyers to prosecute. Catholics and
Irish were excluded from juries. Beginning in June 1877, 20 "Molly Maguires"
were executed- often despite strong evidence of innocence.
The Reading Railroad lowered miners' wages 10-15% twice between 1876 and 1877.
Many workers' meals became bread and water. Some families ate pets.
Reading Depot 1910's photograph - Click to
As for the railroad workers, Gowen decreed they must leave their
union and join the company's insurance plan, which they would lose if they
stopped working. In response, the trainmen went on strike in April 1877. Gowen
replaced them with scabs whose inexperience caused many accidents. Nevertheless,
Gowen didn't rehire the fired workers, and destroyed the Brotherhood of Railroad
In July 1877 America was deep in the depression. The previous year the total
revenues of America's railroads fell by $5.8 million. But they raised profits to
$186 million (up $0.9 million) by cutting wages. Most owners received 10%
dividends. In July 1877 railroads across America conspired and lowered wages
another 10%. Train brakemen and firemen's wages came to $30 per month.
When they found out on July 16, trainmen in Baltimore left work, sparking the
Great Strike. More than 80,000 trainmen and 500,000 other workers from Boston to
Kansas City joined them, despite the absence of unions. In Pittsburgh when the
National Guard, invited by the railroad, shot 26 unarmed strikers and
bystanders, crowds burned freight cars for 3 miles. Troops shot more, raising
Pittsburgh's dead to over 40. In Pittsburgh and Saint Louis, Missouri the
railroad workers were strong enough to take over management, run trains, and
collect tickets. In Hornellsville, New York when scabs started a train up a
mountain, strikers soaped the tracks. The train went up, slowed, stopped; the
passenger cars were unhooked and slid back down the mountain.
In Reading on July 22, with the Reading Railroad 2 months in
arrears of paying wages, crowds of women and children watched as strikers
blocked tracks. The railroad called in the National Guard. A few people threw
bricks and the soldiers opened fire in all directions, killing 10 and wounding
40, including 5 local police.
That evening in Sunbury, rumors circulated that the National Guard would pass
through to crush Pittsburgh's strike. An agitated crowd gathered at the railroad
junction at 3rd and Chestnut streets. The soldiers took another route, but when
a freight train tried to leave, the railroad workers took it over and sent it
On July 23rd the trainmen met at Red Men's Hall. They decided to join the
national strike and continue blocking freight trains until the railroads took
back the 10% reduction. The next morning they ordered the shop mechanics to
leave work too.
In Danville on the morning of July 23, the workers appointed a group to ask the
Commissioner of the Poor for bread or work. The Commissioner "passed the buck"
to the mayor. At 3 PM a large crowd gathered at the weigh scales on Mill Street
in the middle of Danville . One speaker said "We will give the borough
authorities until tomorrow at 10:00 to devise some action to give us work or
bread. If at that time nothing is done for us, we will take [explicative]
wherever we can find it." John Styer discussed their poverty and demanded
government aid. The town newspaper reported unless the borough council banished
starvation, "disorder would ensue. Men would take the law into their own hands."
The next day there was almost a bread riot. Citizens were on the verge of
starvation. Grocers brought their flour inside for safety, and farmers left
markets with half their goods sold. At noon crowds led by Ben Bennet and former
constable Frank Treas took a few old muskets from an abandoned storehouse. Next
they rushed for weapons stored in the third story of the "Danville National
Bank" on Mill and Northumberland Streets. Police met them. One policeman tried
to arrest Treas, for using incendiary language. But he could not get to Treas in
the crowd. A sign on Bloom Street proposed a meeting of workingmen in Sechler's
Woods on July 26. Following these events, the authorities gave food to those in
In Shenandoah on July 25, 800-1000 workers paraded down the streets with flags
and a drum corps. When they got to the baseball field at 10 PM, they could see
that arsonists had set fire to the mining stables in nearby Lost Creek. On July
27, Shenandoah's miners brought business of all kinds to a standstill.
In Shamokin on the morning of July 24, miners struck at the Big Mountain
Colliery. 10 families in a row of houses had no food for 3 weeks, except a few
scraps from their gardens. At 2 PM a large meeting of workers on Slope Hill
demanded work or food.
The next day they repeated their demands at Union Hall on Rock Street. William
Oram, the attorney for both the borough and the Mineral Railroad & Mining
Company told the crowd the borough and wealthy citizens would give them street
work for 80 cents a day.
The crowd appointed a Workingmen's Committee to negotiate with the borough
council that night for a higher rate. The committee demanded $1.00 a day, and
the borough agreed. But when the committee returned to Union Hall, the crowd
rejected the $1.00 offer.
Then 1000 men and young people marched down Rock Street and Shamokin Street .
When someone threw a stone through Shuman & Co.'s Store, the crowd could
restrain itself no longer. They surged into the Reading Railroad station and
depot on Shamokin and Independence Streets, where the parking lot now stands.
They broke the windows and doors, took the freight from the cars and everything
in the building, and gutted it. Next they crossed Liberty Street toward the
Northern Central Depot on Commerce Street.
Meanwhile Mayor William Douty gathered vigilantes outside City Hall in response
to a prearranged signal - a bell ringing at the Presbyterian church where he
belonged. Douty managed his family's coal mines and collieries at Big Mountain,
Doutyville, and Shamokin. He also persecuted the Molly Maguires. Douty's
vigilantes marched down Lincoln and Liberty Streets armed with muskets and
revolvers. They told the crowd to leave, and when that failed, shot into it. 12
people were wounded and 2 killed, neither one involved in the uprising. Mr.
Weist was shot dead while closing his candy store on Liberty and Independence
Streets; Levi Shoop was the second victim. The crowd escaped to the town's
outskirts. The vigilantes captured the train stations and patrolled the town.
According to rumors, after retreating, people tore up the tracks a few miles
east of town.
In November, a wounded victim named Phillip Weist was tried for leading the
riot. Despite receiving serious injuries, he was imprisoned for 8 months in the
Northumberland County jail. In addition, James Richards, Peter Campbell,
Christin Neely, and James Ebright were imprisoned 7, 6, 4, and 3 months
respectively for rioting and burglary.
Elsewhere railroads crushed the strike using coal and iron police, vigilantes,
and the National Guard. Across America, these "forces of order" killed more than
100 people. It was not a complete defeat for the strikers, however. The strike
showed the conflict of interests between working people and management. If
corporations pushed people too far, they would react out of desperation. And the
stirke showed that if workers acted together, they could challenge the corporate
system. The future growth of unions would make workers stronger than an
Montour County newspapers, Danville library
Sunbury Gazette, Northumberland County Historical Society
Reading Eagle, Berks County Historical Society
Pottsville Miners Journal
Bell's "History of Northumberland County."
Phillip Foner's "The 1877 Uprising."
Posted by: rakovsky Jan 10 2008, 06:45 PM
An excellent site on the strike in Pittsburgh with maps and historical markers: