Camden Yards and the Strike of 1877

Camden Yards and the Strike of 1877

This article is an abridged version of Chapter 1 of the Baltimore Book(1991, Temple University Press) In the summer of 1877, crowds gathered at Camden Yards to challenge the power of the nineteenth century railroads. Here began a protest that signaled the start of one of the most significant strikes in US history, an event that was to bring Baltimore and the country as close as they have ever come to a breakdown of the social order. Hard Times In 1877 the people of the United States found themselves in the midst of a severe depression. Industry sought to weather the storm by cutting wages for workers by 25 percent and by throwing an estimated 1 million people out of work. Working class people grew increasingly desperate and angry, and nowhere more so than in Baltimore. Here, in the early summer of 1877, about 150 box makers and 700 ran makers in the city’s second largest industry had gone out on strike. Their protest followed a severe winter in which numerous groups of workers demanded that Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe provide employment because their families lacked even bare necessities. Investigators confirmed that more than 200 families in northeastern Baltimore had little or no fuel and food. Worse yet, nearly 400 of the city's homeless sought shelter each night at the Baltimore Police Station. An uprising seemed almost inevitable, since the families of workers as well as the unemployed suffered the effects of hard times. Trouble on the Railroad One of the city’s and the nation's preeminent industries, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was an obvious target for the resentments deepening in 1877. Working conditions on the line were bad, even by industry (and depression) standards. Wages for B&O workers averaged $400 a year, $200 less than the wages for workers on other railroads. Many workers received only two or three days’ work per week, while short handed crews handled the extra cars. Overtime pay had been eliminated. Furthermore , the railroad refused to allow workers who had ridden out as part of the train's crew to return home at the railroad's expense. Instead, they were forced to pay their own way back or remain many miles from home also at their own expense until they could find a job on a returning train. Safety conditions on the B&O were woefully inadequate. The Railroad Men Railroad men lived near their place of work. In Baltimore they clustered around the Camden Yards and Mt. Clare Shops in the area of South Poppleton, James, Ramsey, Amity, McHenry, Herkimer, and Glyndon Streets. They dominated their communities, socializing almost exclusively with one another, worshipping in the same churches, shopping in the same neighborhood stores, marrying each other’s daughters, helping one another in times of need. The saloon was the center of the railroader’s social life. Sparking the Protest As the economic situation worsened during the 1870s, problems of railroad workers and their families became increasingly acute. By 1877, only a spark was needed to ignite their grievances into protest. It came in July when John Garrett, B&O president, simultaneously increased stockholders’ dividends 10 percent while cutting workers’ wages by 10 percent -the second such cut within eight months. On July 16, the day the pay reduction was to take effect, trainmen in Martinsburg, West Virginia, went out on strike, refusing to allow trains to leave their stations until Garrett rescinded the pay cut. Almost the entire populace of this one industry town rallied to defy first the local strikebreakers, then the state militiamen from the Wheeling and Berkeley Light Brigades. Garrett responded by urging West Virginia’s governor Henry M. Matthews to send for federal troops. On July 19, 300 federal soldiers arrived in Martinsburg to quell what the secretary of war had called an “insurrection.” In Cumberland, Maryland, a crowd of strikers and sympathizers- disgruntled miners, Chesapeake & Ohio canal men, unemployed and migrant workers, and young boys gathered in support of the Martinsburg strike. Numbering 500 or 600 and allegedly armed with rude and improvised weapons, they succeeded in stopping virtually all trains en route to Baltimore. Confronted with the growing success of the protest, President Garrett met with Governor John Carroll of Maryland at the Camden Street Station on Friday, July 20. Garrett and Carroll acted with unanimity of purpose that demonstrated how state government served and protected private railroad interests. Both the city and state governments had a financial stake in the B&O’s success. Recognizing the railroad as key to the economic life of the region, both had given considerable amounts of public money and land to the railroad in an effort to encourage the development of Baltimore City. In addition, Mt. Clare Station and the Mt. Clare Shops just west of Camden Station were built on land that was part of the Carroll estate and was initially donated to the B&O by the Carroll family. Thus, when the Cumberland blockade disrupted operation of the B&O, Governor Carroll needed little urging to call up the Fifth and Sixth Regiments of the Maryland National Guard in Baltimore under the command of General James R. Herbert. In issuing the call, Carroll seemed to anticipate citizen disagreement with his view that what was good for private entrepreneurship was also good for the general public. The Crowd Gathers The mood was tense when the new riot alarm sounded to call the troops to their armories at 6:35pm on Friday, July 20. Governor Carroll had at first insisted that the alarm not be used for fear that it might incite the crowd to riot. But General Herbert, eager to try out the alarm and concerned that not enough militiamen could be summoned by courier, had his way. When the 1 5 1 signal rang out at 6:35 pm, the time could hardly have been more propitious for a spontaneous demonstration. City streets, the setting for much of working class life during any hour of the day, were especially crowded in the early evening because many workers were just leaving the factories. About an hour earlier, the evening newspapers had heralded the news of Governor Carroll’s call up, and a small crowd of strikers and sympathizers had already begun to gather at Camden Station. Within 15 minutes, thousands more joined them. Others gathered outside the Fifth and Sixth Regiment armories. Among the throngs of angry and curious spectators were many of the railroad men's families and neighbors, who lived in the area around the station. The Mt. Clare Yards to the west also housed many railroad workers, particularly the Irish, whose homes lined Pratt and Lombard Streets. Also among the crowds gathered in the streets on this balmy July evening were many of the neighborhood’s small shopkeepers, as well as workers who hauled goods between the Baltimore port and the B&O lines. They, too, had grievances to express about the railroad. In 1877 the Fifth Regiment Armory was located on the second floor of the old Richmond Market between Linden and Read Streets, current site of the buildings belonging to the Maryland General Hospital. On this summer evening in 1877, however, several thousand men, women, and children gathered in a spirit of excitement that at first appeared almost festive as troops from the armory began to march south on Eutaw Street toward the station. Some in the crowd broke into applause. But soon their good cheer changed to insults and verbal abuse. Anger Deepens, Then Explodes Today’s Eutaw Street offers access to Lexington Market and makes a gentle descent toward old Camden Station and Oriole Park. Militiamen of the Fifth Regiment, beginning that descent, must have felt a simultaneous descent into the crowd’s deepening anger. When they got to the comer of Eutaw and Lombard Streets, they were bombarded with bricks and stones, many thrown from windows overhead. Even though 25 militiamen were injured by the crowd, the regiment maintained discipline until it arrived at its destination. Meanwhile, the Sixth Regiment gathered at its armory on the second floor of a large building at the corner of Fayette and Front Streets. On that corner today stands the Central Post Office Building, across the street from the historic Baltimore Shot Tower. Not too much farther west, Baltimore’s poorer citizens crowd into low income housing in a neighborhood of squat brick buildings and littered sidewalks. To the east lies Baltimore Street with its strip joints and sex stores, next door to the Baltimore City Police Station. Into this area in 1877 jammed an angry crowd of thousands. By coincidence, the streets were filled with loose bricks and cobblestones torn up for the laying of some gas pipe as part of a public works project. The crowd began to stone the armory, shouting “Hurray for the strikers!” By 8:00pm, they had broken every windowpane on the Front Street side of the armory. Inside, officers made a fateful decision to lead separate companies out piecemeal along different routes toward the station. As three of the companies, fully armed and with bayonets fixed, left the armory, they were pelted with stones, brickbats, and pieces of iron. The soldiers fired into the air and then directly into the crowd. One man was killed and the crowd temporarily dispersed. Troops marching toward Baltimore and Holliday Streets faced still further assaults, and the frightened militiamen began to fire indiscriminately into the crowd. Nine civilians were killed and more than 20 were seriously injured. As the crowd continued its resistance, many of the troops fled from the scene in panic and changed to civilian clothing. Of the original 120 who set out from the armory, only 59 actually arrived at the station. At the depot, a major confrontation was brewing. Inside the station were between 300 and 350 militiamen, city policemen, and a number of officials among them General Herbert, Governor Carroll, Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe, members of the Board of Police Commissioners, and a vice president of the railroad, John King, Jr. Outside stood a crowd estimated at 15,000, reaching from Camden Street on the north to Lee Street on the south. The troops could not embark for Cumberland because the crowd had driven away the troop train’s engineer and firemen. They had also torn up tracks. Three passenger cars and the south end of the passenger platform were in flames. Firemen arriving at the scene were mobbed by the crowd. Governor Carroll responded to events at the station by wiring President Rutherford B. Hayes to send the U.S. Army. He claimed that the rioters had “taken possession of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad depot, set fire to the same, and driven off all firemen who attempted to extinguish flames.” Accounts by the press and eyewitnesses tell a different story. The press claimed that the militia and policemen “awed” the crowd and that firemen had, in fact, been able to put out the flames. By 3:00am, less than five hours after the governor had appealed for federal troops, most of the crowd had dispersed and order had been declared. By this time, however, federal troops were already being summoned from Fort McHenry and from stations in the New York harbor. Carroll let his order stand, a decision no doubt reflecting a belief that federal troops were more reliable than the local militiamen who, as workingmen themselves, might harbor sympathies for the strikers. On Saturday afternoon President Hayes declared Maryland under martial law. Saturday evening, July 21, brought another confrontation between strike supporters, the militiamen, and police. The Battle Ends, the Protest Spreads By Sunday, between 1,200 and 2,000 federal troops were stationed in the vicinity. The agitation in Baltimore had been quelled by a show of force designed to discourage further insurrections by workers. Sensing perhaps that events in Martinsburg and Baltimore might lead to widespread violence, public officials brought the full force of the government to bear against the strikers. But despite Garrett’s apparent victory in Baltimore, the protest spread to other cities and towns and to other railroad lines, as workers united in a struggle for better working conditions and higher wages. In some cases, their anger was fueled when frightened troops fired indiscriminately into the assembled crowds, killing more than 100 civilians and wounding scores of others. In other cases, local troops and police refused to oppose the protesters but instead disbanded and joined them. In Pittsburgh, for example, members of the local militia and city police force joined the crowds in destroying locomotives, train cars, and railroad buildings and in routing the troops from Philadelphia who had fired on the crowd. In the neighboring town of Allegheny, workers briefly took over management of the railroad line. Perhaps the most successful strike took place in St. Louis, where workers from many industries formed an executive committee that closed down almost all the city’s manufacturing operations. The strikers had the strength inherent in their numbers and in the fervor of their anger. Ultimately, however, they lacked the sustained organization to prevail against powerful companies backed by the state. By August, less than three weeks after it began, the largest single industrial uprising in U.S. history had ended. The Strike’s Legacy The protest had forced public awareness of the grievances of railroad workers and the intransigence of Garrett’s railroad. In Baltimore and elsewhere, an aroused public pleaded for reform of the industry and for government supervision. Perhaps in response to the strike and this public outcry, in 1880, the company established the Baltimore and Ohio Employees’ Relief Association. Under this program, the B&O provided a large initial endowment and assumed all administrative costs. Employees were required to pay monthly premiums equivalent to a day’s wages and, in return, received benefits commensurate with their contributions. Coverage included 52 weeks of sickness and indefinite time for recovery from accidents. In addition, employees were eligible for death benefits. In 1884, the B&O also established the nation’s first pension plan, which permitted men at the age of 65 who had worked for the railroad for at least 10 years to retire and receive benefits ranging from 20 to 35 percent of daily earnings. Both programs served as models for the industry. In the broader political arena, agitation for reform led to significant public support throughout the country for reform and workingmen’s candidates in the years following the strike. In Baltimore, for example, the Workingmen’s Party, formed as a result of the strike, received a third of the popular vote in the October 1877 mayoral election. Even more important, the strike revealed the deep divisions between labor and capital and signaled a new era in labor management relationships. The spontaneous uprising demonstrated labor’s determination to say no to management and revealed labor's potential strength. The sense of class consciousness and potential for concerted action lives on as the greatest legacy of those who gathered there in 1877 to challenge the financial empire of the nineteenth century railroads.

A