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
This July 25th marks the 130th anniversary of the Shamokin
Uprising, when desperation and starvation drove railroad workers and
miners to join the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, America's first nationwide
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
damages, regardless of fault. Children tore their hands picking rocks from coal
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
formed the Miner's Benevolent Society, to provide accident insurance and demand
better pay. It was one of the first unions in America .
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.
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.
Knoebels Amusement Park has a Mining Museum with a beautiful mural of the twice
burned Locust Gap colliery.
When Gowen lowered mining wages to 54% of their 1869 level,
miners began the "Long Strike" of 1875, lasting 170 days. But Gowen stored
enough coal to outlast the strike and crushed the miner's union by firing its
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
The Reading Railroad lowered miners' wages 10-15% twice between
1876 and 1877. Many workers' meals became bread and water. Some families ate
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 Engineers.
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
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. 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 back.
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
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 the weapons stored in the Baldy building 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
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 participated in persecuting
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 wounds, 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 it showed that if workers acted together, they could
challenge the corporate system. The future growth of unions would make workers
stronger than an unorganized mass.