B&O Railroad Strike of 1877

F. Vernon Aler Aler's History Of Martinsburg And Berkeley County, West Virginia (Hagerstown: The Mail Publishing Company, 1888), pp. 300-313


The incidents bearing upon the beginning of trouble with the Baltimore & Ohio Railway began about the 16th of April, 1877. All along the line tramps, communists and turbulent organizatious had given rise to much dissension among the railroad employes. John W. Garrett, a business man of acquired reputation, was made president of the company in 1856. He found its stock quoted low, its dividends small, and the road in a very poor condition. Mr. Garrett proved to be the right man in the right place, and displayed splendid executive ability during the civil war, which came on shortly afterward. He surrounded himself with capable assistants, and having considerable influence with the Secretary of War, secured the most profitable contract that, in a short while, fully restored the credit of the corporation and extended the road until it became one of the largest and most prominent lines in the country. However, about the month of July clouds began to hover about the president's head. A storm was impending which, before it could be controlled, would involve the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Pennsylvania to Texas, in untold loss and misfortune. At a meeting convened on the 11th of July, '77, by means of an official circular, the president informed the employes that a preamble and resolutions had been adopted to the effect that all officers and operatives of the road receiving sums in excess of one dollar per diem would be reduced ten per cent., and after the 16th of the same month the change would take effect. Every man engaged upon the main line and branches east of the Ohio River was embraced in this rule, including the trans-Ohio division and the roads leased by the company. It was stated in the notice that action in this direction would be postponed until after their competitors had made similar retrenchments, hoping that business would revive in a short while and a decrease of expenses be avoided. They were disappointed in this, and the principal reason brought about the action taken, which was on account of general depression of business interests over the country. The earnings of all railways were unavoidably and seriously affected. A change had to be made - in fact the call for it was imperative.

Persons superior to those of the ordinary observer, by means of information, supposed that the low wages movement was undoubtedly canvassed along the great trunk lines and decided upon by representatives of various roads directly after the close of Vanderbilt's freight war in the spring. During the month of May the Pennsylvania road put it in force, and the reduction of ten per cent. was accepted by the employes. This was followed by the Erie and New York Central roads, to take effect July 1st, and in both cases they were duly informed beforehand of the changes to be made. As asserted in its circular, the Baltimore and Ohio road was nearly the last to take action in this matter, and several days before the rule was to be enforced a number of the firemen at once decided to strike. They declared their intention that they could not and would not stand any reduction from their wages. The Trainmen's Union was in full blast all along the line, which had been effectively instituted previously by a traveling delegation from the Pennsylvania road, and taking advantage of affairs, a real strike began.

The workingmen claimed that their grievances were unbearable - that the treatment received at the hands of merchants and boarding-house keepers along the route, for such necessities as trainmen were compelled to have, was inordinately rash. Their belief was that whatever turn made in affairs could not make them much worse off. Their earnings were low, rents high, and for their heavy demands at the scanty stores at the stations, extravagant prices were charged. Extortion pressed them on every side, and coupled with compulsory credit purchase from month to month, they began to nurse a hatred and antagonism against the company and general public. At this time the road carried a moderate amount eastward, but owing to competition were unable to get sufficient to the westward to load its cars. This caused a large reduction of the hands employed, and created much discontent.

President Garrett, Vice-President King, and second Vice-President Keyser, upon learning of the strike, and the movements of the Brotherhood of Engineers and the Trainmen's Union, pronounced it untimely, ill-advised, and fated to meet no great success. The road, like all others, was now passing through the darkest days of its experience. A financial stringency was staring it in the face, and business falling off where an accession had been calculated upon - the results of competition and unproductive extensions of line. The officials stated that a reduction had to be made for the curtailment of expenses, and when the demands of the strikers were made known, they promptly refused them. Knowing that a stoppage would lead to heavy losses, yet they preferred to let the road stand idle, rather than be dictated to and cause a reinstatement of the former rates of wages. On account of this, the strike was simply suicidal on the part of those engaged in it. Meetings were held by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers - advice given and received, and many were led to believe that they would take no part in the strike. With the consent of this organization, the Trainmen's Union assisted in starting the important movement all along the line. On the 16th of July, 1877, the day that the reduction of wages on the B. & O. R. R. was ordered to take effect, the strike was commenced, in our city and the first actual violence committed. Here occurred the first important incidents of the great strikes of '77, on the night of July 16th. Notice had been given ihe crews of all trains, by the strikers, that after a certain hour no person should move an engine under penalty of death. Engineers on the road were paralyzed, - while the managers hastened to make good their usual trips and secure men to take the places of the strikers. However, they met with only partial success.

It was in our happy neighborhood, which had rested in peace and quietude since the war, that the combination of railroad men imbued their hands in blood and met their first loss of life, in attempting to carry out their communistic ideas. On Monday morning, the 16th of July, a large number of train hands left Baltimore, and with those coming in from the West, began to concentrate at Martinsburg. Near the dispatcher's office could always be found a number of locomotives on the tracks, and it was no unusual occurrence for employes to congregate there. But at this time it was noticed that something more than ordinary was transpiring, or about to transpire, when the men collected in groups at the depot, the machine-shops, the switch-stands, along the tracks and other localities. An explanation of these mysterious gatherings was, in a short while, made very plain, when a fireman notified the dispatcher that a cattle train was compelled to stop there, as the entire crew had struck and no one could be found to take the vacant places. The fireman also stated that he thought no more trains would be allowed to move from this point in either direction. The news soon spread, and in a short while people began to collect from all directions to see what was going on. The policemen put in their appearances, and sauntered leisurely around, waiting to see if their services would be called for. In a short while the engines were detached from the trains, and run into the round- house. When questioned by the officials concerning their action, the strikers replied that no more trains would be run over that road, in any direction, until the company withdrew the ten per cent. reduction of trainmen's wages. They intended to refrain from work, and would not allow their places to be filled by a new set of men. The freight trains were kept on a stand-still, while the mail trains were allowed to pass, but eventually they were stopped. The increased crowd of spectators, by this time, was stirred with interest, and the news spread until it reached every citizen. It was taken up by the press and soon scattered broad-cast over the country.

The Mayor, Captain A. P. Shutt, and the policemen were sent for, who promptly put in their appearance, and backed by a trio of municipal guardians, held a conference with the railroad officials. Mayor Shutt, willing to do all in his power, proceeded to speak to the strikers, using mild and temperate language, and advised them to return to their work and trust to the fairness of the company in the settlement of their grievances. But the mob, following the general rule, had reached that point where reason ceased to be a virtue, and their madness and violence had only been increased. The Mayor was hooted at, derided, and his good counsel turned to ridicule. He failed to impress the strikers with any of his mild-mannered notions, and could not make them understand that it would be best to run their locomotives to their destinations. In fact, his speech only served to add fuel to the fires already fiercely burning, and, giving it up as a hopeless task, he ordered his policemen to arrest the ringleaders. Frantic efforts to obey were made by the powerless policemen, while the strikers laughed in their faces. The Mayor's appeals were equally fruitless - the men refused to work - and the engineers found an excuse for refusal by saying they dare not enter their cabs. The firemen and trackmen would not allow others to take their places, holding back with all their strength. Finally the Mayor and. policemen withdrew from the scene, leaving the situation at the undisputed command of the strikers. The machine shops, depot and round-houses were all deserted by midnight, except by a number of Union men who were left to guard the tracks and see that no trains were allowed to pass that point. The strangers from Baltimore were provided for by their fellow-strikers, and a number lodged at the hotels. The telegraph manager communicated, the information of the strike to President Garrett and Vice-President King, of Baltimore, and after midnight Capt. Thos. B. Sharp, General Master of Transportation, was brought to the spot. After carefully surveying the condition of affairs, which was in no wise difficult of comprehension, a full report of his investigation was telegraphed to the principal office. The matter was duly considered by the Baltimore officials, who prepared a telegram and at once dispatched to Governor Mathews, stating the facts as here given, and asking him to provide some method to abandon violent measures and allow trains to move in safety. Through the promptness of the Governor, a telegram was sent to Col. C. J. Faulkner, at Martinsburg, dated at Wheeling, about midnight, ordering him if necessary, to call out his command, the Berkeley Light Infantry, to aid and protect the civil authorities, and to make due report to the executive office of the existing state of affairs and his operations.

Col. Faulkner was informed of the Governor's wishes July 17th, about 12:30 A. M., and returned answer by telegraph, stating that the strikers would not allow trains to move either east or west from Martinsburg, and asked if his instructions extended any further than merely protecting the peace - if so, he desired an answer in full. Meanwhile the Colonel issued, orders for an immediate assemblage of the militia command, prepared, for active duty, at their armory. The call was promptly responded. to by the militia, among whom were many railroaders, and possibly connected with the Trainmen's Union. A number of the militia, as well as numerous citizens, felt a deep and hearty sympathy with the men engaged in the strike. In a short while Col. Faulkner received another message from Governor Mathews, advising him if possible, to avoid using force, and at the same time give all necessary aid to the civil authorities, and see that the laws were duly executed. At the conclusion of the message the Governor stated: "I rely upon you to act discreetly and firmly."

Mr. Sharp, Master of Transportation, fixed upon 5 o'clock as the hour for moving trains on Tuesday morning, and secured an engineer and fireman, who agreed to take the stock-train through to its destination, if properly protected. A request was then made of Col. Faulkner, his command of militia, Mayor Shutt and police, County Sheriff and posse, to be present and see that the strikers did not interfere. Col. Faulkner, before retiring from the scene, asked Governor Mathews by telegraph: "Must I protect men who are willing to run their trains, and see that they are permitted to go east and west?" In a short while the Governor answered: "I am informed that the rioters constitute a combination so strong that the civil authorities are powerless to enforce the law. If this is so, prevent any interference by rioters with the men at work, and also prevent the obstruction of the trains."

Upon receiving this communication, Col. Faulkner at once repaired to the armory to take charge of his command, knowing plainly what his duty was. The known orders for the gathering of militia, the marching of uniformed men on the streets bearing arms, accompanied by the excitement of the strike, caused such a restlessness that there was but little sleep visited the eyelids of the citizens on that eventful night. Groups of persons, white and colored, could be seen gathered on the corners in knots, discussing the unusual state of affairs, and wondering what the morrow would bring forth. The city has never experienced, such a sensation since the close of the war.

At about five o'clock the next morning, W. H. Harrison, Master Mechanic of the company, with Mr. French, arrived here from Cumberland. A consultation was held with Capt. Sharp and the remaining local force of the road, after which a locomotive was fired up and attached to a cattle train, and with an engineer and fireman they were ready to start matters anew. At about sunrise the attempt was made to set the driving wheels once more in motion, but was prevented by the strikers guard from the round-house, who swept down upon them and ordered the non-striking men to hold hard or they would be killed. The throttle was promptly shut and the engine brought to a stand-still, which probably saved their lives. However, the men remained, with the train for a short time, expecting to rush it through, but finally left. Up to this time the militia and town officials had not made their appearance. The president and officers of the company were informed of the circumstances, and at once instructed Capt. Sharp to make the attempt until his efforts were crowned with success. The consequent sounding of the shrill steam whistle, in the early dawn of the day, startled the excited inhabitants of the city, and in a short while the streets were flocked, all anxious to learn what was going on. Among the citizens were the strikers belonging to the city, and reinforced by those from Baltimore and the West. They congregated about the basement doors of the present depot, and gathered in small squads over the surrounding ground. It seemed, as though the railroad men, by agreement, separated from the others, and concentrated a formidable force near the company's buildings. Mr. Harrison, the Master Mechanic, conversed, with them and endeavored by every means in his power to influence their minds peaceably, and bring about an amicable adjustment of the prevailing troubles. A number of employes were well disposed towards Harrison, but exhibited no change of heart. Harrison finally returned to Sharp, after exhausting his arguments, and reported that the rioters would not change their decision in regard to stopping all freight trains, and if anything, their resolution had become more firm than ever. Mr. Sharp was a cool, determined man, of iron will, and upon receiving this information, concluded that no favorable or peaceful solution of the surrounding difficulties would be reached. The strikers had accused Sharp of being at the bottom of the rough treatment to which they were subjected, and believed him to be the cause of the reduction in wages. In truth, he was bitterly opposed to the cutting-down system, and in favor of restoring the pay to its original amount. The enemies were ignorant of this, and when they saw him walk up to a locomotive and order the engineer forward to his destination at all hazards, they cast scowling glances upon him and were greatly enraged.

The engine had not moved a single length of rail, before the mob swarmed upon the foot-board, over the coal in the tender and thence into the cab, driving the newly-engaged men from their positions. The locomotive was uncoupled from the train and run into the round-house, leaving the cars on the track no nearer their destination than before. By this time their numbers had increased several hundred, and no further damage was done. The crowd then gathered nigh, in almost a solid mass, to watch the proceedings. The engineer and fireman had escaped, and again Sharp was defeated, of which he informed the company as before. Meantime the crowd of spectators and array of strikers continued to increase. At about 9 o'clock, four hours later than the appointed time, the sound of fife and drum was heard, and presently the gleaming arms and accoutrements of the Berkeley Light Infantry were seen advancing towards the depot, headed by Col. Faulkner. Loud hurrahs and shouts of welcome went up as the militia filed down the steep steps and marched to the round-house unopposed. The engineer and firemen had again been discovered and brought to the spot, and another cheer went up. They were closely followed by their wives and children, who threw their arms around their husbands necks, frantically embracing and urging them to refrain from the perilous attempt. But they tore themselves from the grasp of their families, and started on a swift pace to the round-house, where they mounted the engine, which had already been fired up. The engine was then moved out, with soldiers on either side, bayonets fixed and guns loaded, and proceeded in the direction of the distillery. Squads of the militia had been arranged and several placed on the engine. Their progress was slow and snail-like, owing to the pressure of the close forward ranks of the strikers. At this moment the rioters rose to white heat, when the third experiment was made for starting with the trainmen guarded. At the suggestion of Mayor Shutt, Col. Faulkner then proceeded to address the mob, and if possible stay further violence. In a courteous, firm and impressive manner, he warned them of the result if they interfered any further, and if they touched the engine it would be at their own peril. They only laughed at him, as though they would accept none other than brute force to obtain their rights.

The engine was moved in the direction of the distillery, where it was attached to a cattle train on the siding. A switch led this track upon the main road, which, it seems had been tampered with by the strikers. The train was made up about 10 o'clock, and squads of militia were placed on the engine, and on either side of the train. John Poisal, a militiaman was sitting on the cow-catcher, and as the train steadily and slowly drew near the switch, his attention was attracted by the position of the switch ball. Unless some change was made, Poisal knew the train would be thrown off the right track. With musket in hand, he immediately jumped to the ground, and ran to the switch. Just as he was in the act of reversing it, William Vandergriff, a striking fireman, who had tampered it and was standing near to see the result, yelled out :

"Don't you touch that switch!"

"I'm not going to see the train run on a siding if I can prevent it," replied Poisal, as he firmly grasped the iron. Before Poisal could change the switch, Vandergriff had drawn a small pocket-pistol from his belt, and fired two shots in rapid succession upon him. One of the ballets plowed a jagged furrow on the side of Poisal's forehead, just above the ear, while the other flew wide of its mark. Upon receiving the shot, Poisal quickly raised his gun, and with a steady aim fired on Vandergriff. Another soldier near by fired at the same time, and both balls lodged in Vandergriff's body, one in the arm and the other penetrating the thigh. He fell, mortally wounded, which was followed by the explosion of several small arms, but no injury done. At this onslaught the mob pressed closer on the soldiers, while a lively scattering was made among the woman, children, and more peaceably disposed citizens. Poisal and Vandergriff were taken to their homes, and medical aid procured. In a short while the strikers again had things all their own way, completely overpowering the militia. The sound of fire-arms drew larger crowds from the city, and the excitement was more intense than ever. By this time the fireman and engineer had escaped from the train, and left the locality.

Col. Faulkner fully appreciated in a minute, that his militia, however brave and trustworthy, under these circumstances would not attempt to kill their relatives and friends. He at once reported to Capt. Sharp, stating that his men were powerless and many in sympathy with the strikers, and that he would have to march them back to the armory. They were then ordered home, and the road left blocked up with trains of loaded cars, subject to the caprices of the infuriated and angry mob.

For several days afterward Vandergriff lay upon his bed, suffering terrible agony. The best nurses and physicians the country afforded attended him, and everything possible was done for his recovery. However, on the 28th of July he breathed his last, and on the Sunday following was buried in Green Hill Cemetery. Poisal, whose injury was slight, made his appearance on the street in a few days, appearing as well and hearty as usual. The story of this incident was spread abroad by the press, and if credit was given them, one would suppose that civil war surely reigned in Martinsburg. The actual number of strikers was estimated to be upwards of seventy-five or eighty, but were backed by many citizens and other working classes. The press greatly exaggerated this strike, and in a few days the torch of communism was burning brightly throughout the whole country.

After the militia had left the scene, the confusion ceased, and the railroaders retired to their former position at the shops. The locomotive, as before, was uncoupled and returned to the round-house. Col. Faulkner became disgusted with the part he had been forced to take in the riots. He had given his men no orders to fire, and therefore run no risk of his commands being disobeyed. His desire was to perform his duty and enforce the law without shedding blood, but met with no success. Information was at once furnished Governor Mathews of the proceedings and results. Later on Col. Faulkner telegraphed the Governor that it was impossible for him to do anything further, and that a number of his command, being railroad men, would not respond. The Governor, in response, dispatched that law-abiding citizens must be protected, and the peace preserved, by whatever means was necessary to accomplish it. He also stated that he could furnish a company from Wheeling, who would be used in the suppression of riot and execution of the law, and also spoke very highly of Col. Faulkner's appeal to the rioters.

The mob had full possession of all the railroad property from Monday night until the succeeding Wednesday morning, July 18th. At aboat 7:30 o'clock, the Mathews Light Guard arrived from Wheeling, under command of Col. Delaplaine, and a conference was held between Attorney-General White, Wm. Keyser, Second Vice-President, Col. Sharp, and others.. During this time the rioters made no further demonstration, but remained quiet and apparently content with the work they had done. The Trainmen's Union at Baltimore, Grafton, Cumberland, Pittsburgh, and other points were kept posted by the strickers concerning their doings.

The strikers visited the railroad shops on the evening of the 18th of July, and ordered the laborers then at work to stop, which they refused to do. In the meantime the mail trains were allowed to pass unmolested either way. Finally the cars loaded with cattle were arranged for by Mr. Mantz and shipped over the Cumberland Valley and Western Maryland roads. The Wheeling Light Infantry had charge of the town for several days, encamped at the Court House and railroad, and no action was taken by them with the strikers, as it was deemed best to await reinforcements. On the 18th of July Governor Mathews, at the urgent request of Mr. Garret, telegraphed President Hayes, and after explaining the situation, asked for United States troops. No freight operations were started until Brevet Major General W. H. French, Colonel of the Fourth U. S. Artillery, arrived with two hundred men armed as infantry, and no sooner had they reached the town than quiet and order reigned supreme.

President Hayes issued, previous to this, his proclamation, and directed it to the citizens of West Virginia. He admonished all good citizens in the United States and within its territory of jurisdiction, against aiding, countenancing, abetting or taking part in such unlawful proceedings. A warning was given those engaged in or connected with said domestic violence and obstruction of the laws, and orders given them to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes on or before 12 o' clock meridian, of the 19th day of July. It bore the signatures of President Hayes and F. A. Steward, Acting Secretary of State, accompanied by the great seal of the United States. This permanently settled affairs at Martinsburg, and the rioters had to retire, as they could not fight the Government of the United States.


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