Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Nineteenth century Harrisburg’s most rousing labor disorders erupted in July 1877 as part of the wave of spontaneous railway strikes sweeping the nation. The rioting that disrupted the quiet city overlooking the broad Susquehanna River was part of the country’s first wide­spread labor upheaval. The Great Railway Strikes, in turn, were a product of the Panic of 1873, then in its fourth year. Early in the depression, the trunkline railroads of the northeast had at­tempted to forestall losses by ending rate wars with one another and agreeing to reduce workers’ wages. At the same time, most continued to pay pre-depression dividends. Lower wages, re­duced hours, increased work loads, and layoffs led to rebellion among the employees of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Before the unhappy affair ended, strikes and disorders spread to most rail centers, except those in New England and the South.

The first outbreak occurred Monday, July 16, at Martinsville, West Virginia, following the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s grim announcement of a wage cut. Workers refused to move trains through the yards or allow others to do so. At the company’s request, government officials first dispatched the state militia, which proved ineffective. The United States Army was sum­moned next. By the time Martinsburg was unblocked, riots were raging against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Baltimore, Maryland, and against the Pennsylvania Railroad in Pittsburgh. Again both state and federal forces sprung into action. Hostile throngs of workers in Pittsburgh proved too much for local forces of law and order. When militia units from the Philadelphia area arrived, angry crowds drove them from the city amidst consider­able bloodshed. Mobs roamed the streets looting and pillaging on Friday and Saturday, July 20-21. By the time federal troops arrived on Monday, July 23, troubles in the Iron City had burned themselves out.

The difficulties at Harrisburg, an important rail center, were due in part to contagion, as residents imitated their counterparts elsewhere. Curiosity, too, played a part, considerably swelling the mobs of gawking spectators. As elsewhere that summer, mischievous teenagers were especially prominent among the troublemakers. However, at the heart of the troubles in Pennsyl­vania’s capital city – as in other communities – lay the bona fide complaints of workers and their families. Since 1873 they had repeatedly endured slashed wages, decreased hours, and dismal periods of unemployment. Although suffering and frustration had not made activists of all, many did tolerate attacks by others on employers. The city’s leading industrialists, who saw the whole affair as a rebellion against them and an assault on prop­erty rights, hurriedly organized to restore order.

Most of Harrisburg’s railroad employees belonged to one of two unions: either the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers or the Trainmen’s Union. Organized nationally in 1863, the Brother­hood of Locomotive Engineers limited membership to an elite corps of engineers. Because they “generally patched things up for themselves” and “didn’t look after anything else,” conduc­tors, firemen, brakemen, switchmen, and a few rebel engineers joined together in June 1877 to form a more inclusive organiza­tion, the Trainmen’s Union. Relations between the two were not always harmonious. Trainmen arrested during the troubles in Harrisburg later complained that the Engineers started the affair, alleging that once the members of the Brotherhood had won the Trainmen’s support, they retreated and let the Trainmen’s Union “stand the racket.”

Accounts of the strikes and rioting at Pittsburgh between Thursday, July 19, and Saturday, July 21, “kept the excitement at fever heat in this city,” breathlessly reported a Harrisburg Tele­graph journalist the following Monday. “Excited crowds of men thronged the streets discussing the situation, and nowhere was anything else but the strike talked about.” Railroaders, appar­ently forewarned of an imminent general strike, began to grow uneasy as early as Saturday. That evening the first crowd, esti­mated at more than three thousand, assembled at the depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad. “Demonstrative but not unruly,” they attempted no violence. At nine o’clock the Pittsburgh Express arrived from Philadelphia carrying three hundred militiamen. The troopers disembarked and marched to an ammunition car on a nearby siding where each picked up forty rounds. Return­ing to the train, they discovered that the crew had deserted. An “extra engineer” was found to operate the train and, in the ab­sence of firemen willing to help, a “roundhouse cleaner” filled in and the train departed for Altoona. The crowd jeered and hooted and called “vile names” at the soldiers who pointed guns out the windows to halt the throwing of stones. An hour later Harris­burg Mayor John Patterson, a former railroad clerk, learned of the disorders and dispatched a police officer and his men to the scene.

Authorities wanting to load ammunition for shipment to Pittsburgh were concerned at the threat posed by the crowd. To draw them from the depot, the police devised a ruse. It involved a young man named Finch – described by the Telegraph as “intoxi­cated and not a railroad man” – who began inciting “a first class riot.” Two police offers arrested him and took him to the mayor’s office. As the officials hoped, several hundred people accompa­nied the small contingent, hurling stones at the police (until the latter drew guns) and shouting “Bread or Blood!” and “We Will Not Starve!” Those who clamored, declared the Telegraph, were not railroad employees but “turbulent spirits bent on raising a ruction.” Mayor Patterson, after the hearing, appeared at the door with Finch, who, he said, was not employed by the rail­road. He had been arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Finch corroborated the mayor’s remarks and was taken to jail as the crowd departed for the depot.

In the meantime, a special train had been loaded with about five hundred guns. Although a sizable crowd remaining at the depot had witnessed the loading, no one had interfered. At 10:50 P.M. a freight train halted in the yards to let the special pass. “Half-grown boys who wished to cause a disturbance” removed its pins, but after several false starts, it too cleared the yards. When the Cincinnati Express arrived at 12:55 A.M., mem­bers of the crowd immediately stormed it, searching for Black troopers rumored to be enroute to Pittsburgh. Only a few white militiamen were found and the train was allowed to proceed. Except for a few “watchers,” the group broke up at three o’clock in the morning.

Fearing that conflict loomed imminent, authorities were anx­ious to keep guns from the crowd. Officers of the Harrisburg City Grays, a local militia unit, ordered all armaments and am­munition removed from their armory and taken to the State Arsenal just outside the city Limits. The militiamen carried out their instructions during the night, then took turns standing guard at the facility. Gov. John F. Hartranft, traveling in the far west, hastened back to Pennsylvania. His adjutant general, James W. Latta, ordered Gen. J. K. Seigfried of the National Guard to put his regiment, the Eighth, on duty at the State Arse­nal where the Commonwealth’s ammunition was stored. So as not to incite the crowd in the city, Seigfried, with troopers from the Pottsville area, debarked from their train two miles above Harrisburg and marched to the arsenal, arriving at dawn on Sunday, July 22. Additional units arriving from other areas also skirted the city in making their way to the arsenal. To prevent strikers from seizing and using Mexican War cannons that stood on the grounds, officers ordered them spiked.

Three hundred railroaders assembled later on Sunday morn­ing and voted to strike. Apparently following instructions that accompanied the warning of a general strike, they refused to move (or allow) any freight trains through the yards. On the other hand, they were not to block through passenger trains, especially those carrying the mail. For the most part that policy was followed by local railroaders throughout the affair. Seeking to avoid trouble, “the better class” of railroad employees called upon at least one Harrisburg attorney, urging him to use his influence to keep authorities from calling in the military. They feared the appearance of military forces would spark violence.

The first incident involved a train attempting to depart for Altoona later that day. Strikers mounted the locomotive, per­suaded the engineer and fireman to quit, then drove the engine to the roundhouse. In the confusion another freight train loaded with coal tried to leave for Philadelphia. Strikers halted it, too, talked the crew into quitting, and moved both that engine and a “shifter engine” to the roundhouse. At 1 P.M. the crowd moved to block a passenger train, but “cooler heads” prevailed and it was allowed to proceed to Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Mayor Patterson, although uncertain of his powers, took steps to keep matters in check. He requested the city’s newspaper editors to print no extras as they would only serve to agitate the anxious citizenry. He also closed all saloons, not allowing them to reopen until the following Wednesday. Concerned that weapons might fall into the hands of dangerous elements, he directed merchants who sold guns to take all arma­ments and ammunition discreetly from their stores. That evening he issued a proclamation urging all citizens to return to their homes and remain there until the excitement ended and differ­ences between the railroads and their employees could be “ami­cably and satisfactorily adjusted.”

Later that evening at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot, Mayor Patterson beseeched the crowd to bring a halt to the disorder. An express train arrived about eight o’clock, and troublemakers, who allegedly included no railroad workers, surrounded it and pulled the pins connecting cars to prevent it from leaving. One of several Philadelphia troopers who guarded the train said the unit he belonged to was being sent home because they were unwill­ing to fight fellow workingmen. Members of the crowd “kindly relieved” them of their weapons but did not harm them. Patter­son climbed atop a railroad car to address the “great gathering” of “nearly all of our own citizens – good, bad, and indifferent:’ If any were “ready to assist the police;’ he urged them to step forward. With their help he would disperse the crowd. However, there had been “no violence done as yet,” he later testified, and no one stepped forward. “I presume the great majority of the people were in sympathy with the strikers-looking upon it as a strike or dispute between the employees and officers of the road – and their sympathies were with the employees.” Only violence and destruction would alter attitudes. Patterson sig­naled the train to move but the engineer declined because of reported obstructions on the track ahead. Finally, about three o’clock on Tuesday morning, after the Mayor had left, the train departed and the crowd drifted home.

Monday, July 23, marked the turning point. A crowd, some­what smaller than the previous day’s, again gathered to watch the action. With no one attempting to run trains, however, all remained quiet. Elsewhere in Harrisburg, the strikers were mov­ing to settle their dispute with the companies. During the night they organized to protect railroad property. Careful to avoid the crowd at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot, they held a general meeting of their own at the Broad Street Market. They adopted resolutions calling for restoration of wages to the 1873 scale, an end to the classification of employees by different grades, the reinstatement of all workers to their pre-strike positions, and the dismissal of local railroad officials whom they disliked. The strikers also called for a definition of a train as forty-five empty cars westward, and forty-five loaded cars eastward. Every train was to have an engineer, a fireman, and fuJl crew. They called for the removal of troops and promised no violence or destruction of property “providing we can prevent it.” Until their demands were met, they would allow no freight or troop trains to move through the yards. Harrisburg newspapers praised the responsi­bility of the trainmen, contrasting it favorably to that of the “tramps” and “strangers” who were at the forefront of the disor­ders and who “would delight to see a general insurrection.”

General Seigfried later attributed the continuing difficulties at Harrisburg to the failure of residents to stand firm against the rioters. The railroads ran no trains because they were in the hands of the mob, business and factories were at a standstill (either voluntarily or involuntarily), citizens sympathized with or were terrorized by the strikers, the sheriff was vacationing at the New Jersey seashore, and other officials were “powerless and inactive.” Two events, however, soon galvanized the citizens into protecting their property and restoring law and order.

The first involved a number of militiamen from Philadelphia who were straggling into Harrisburg. Some were in the Marys­ville area, across the Susquehanna River and about eight miles north of the capital city. Others were at Rockville and Progress, villages on the Harrisburg side of the river north and east of the city. The troopers had been en route to Pittsburgh when a threat­ening crowd at Altoona blocked their train. Now the men were trying to get home. Fearing that they would be attacked if they entered Harrisburg, those at Marysville apparently sent word that they wished to be escorted into the city. On Monday after­noon, a crowd estimated between one hundred and fifty and three hundred, ignoring the protests of the toll collector, stormed across the bridge to “interview” the troopers. Many of the militiamen thought they were under attack and fled to the moun­tains above Marysville. Two hours later they crowd recrossed the bridge, “fetching” with fife and drum some twenty to thirty disarmed soldiers. “Half grown boys and negroes,” bearing the bedraggled militiamen’s weapons and forming a hollow square around them, paraded the dispirited troopers into Harrisburg, and along Market Street to the railroad depot.

Several militiamen in the east also reached Harrisburg. Most were picked up singly or in small groups. They, too, surrendered their arms without protest. Upon Learning of these incidents, military officers were dismayed. According to General Seigfried, “the humiliating spectacle of the troops, prisoners to a motley crew of boys and roughs, paraded through the principal streets of the town, guarded by their own arms, which had been taken from them, aroused the indignation of the better class of citizens, who naturally became thoughtful and asked if that strange guard, which surrounded the troops of the State, were the mas­ters of their lives, honor and property.” On the other hand, ac­cording to the Harrisburg Patriot, the captors took the troopers from Marysville to the Boyer Railroad Hotel, supplied their wants, and promised them aid in returning home. Not long after, troopers from Rockville and Progress straggled into the city and were promptly surrounded by railroaders. With assurances from Mayor Patterson that their arms would not be used against them but be boxed and shipped to Philadelphia, that group, too, turned over their weapons and were taken as guests to the homes of railroaders.

The second event of consequence was an attack on Harrisburg gun shops that night. Apparently concerned that troopers at the arsenal had to be stopped there or “we’ll have a second Pitts­burgh,” a crowd with “regular leaders at their head,” proceeded to a gun shop on South Second Street. There men and boys, “yelling and cursing like fiends” Liberated weapons. Mayor Patterson and several police officers arrived, and persuaded them not to rob the “worthy mechanic” who owned the store. Except for a few pistols “stolen, it is supposed, by boys who are thieves by nature.” the guns were surrendered. Later the troublemakers descended upon a second gunshop (whose stock had been previ­ously removed), and to a pawnshop where they seized the guns on display.

Concerned citizens, weary of the disrespect for law and order, organized to halt the disobedience. Early Monday morning, Mayor Patterson had called on “many of the prominent citizens.” warned them of probable violence that night, and declared that action must be taken at once. He dispatched police officers to notify “the better class of citizens” that their services would likely be required; they were advised to be ready to report to the may­or’s office if two taps were sounded on the courthouse bell “at any time, day or night.” At seven o’clock that evening Dauphin County Sheriff William Jennings (an ironmaster who had risen to the rank of colonel during the Civil War) returned and promptly took charge. The strike had delayed train movements from At­lantic City where he was vacationing. After consulting his attorney regarding the powers and authority of his office, he met with a number of prominent citizens and prepared a proclamation for Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, the mayor reported the prepara­tions that had already been made, graciously surrendered au­thority, and with his small police force worked closely with the sheriff.

While dealing with the scattered assaults on the gun stores, Mayor Patterson received word of a greater threat. A mob was organizing to burn the offices of the Telegraph because of its posi­tion against the disorders. The alarm was sounded and a large force turned out. Patterson estimated the “law and order posse” at between three to five hundred, but the sheriff’s estimate was much more conservative – about half of what the mayor thought. Sheriff Jennings did not want them carrying rifles so vigilantes were outfitted with clubs, even though they carried concealed pistols. Jennings, accompanied by Patterson and one police officer, approached the crowd and attempted to speak. Ignoring Sheriff Jennings, some began to break into stores. The sheriff and mayor returned to the posse and led it against the sizable mob.

The confrontation occurred at the foot of Market Street near the railroad depot. Jennings approached the crowd and told them what he proposed to do. One man in the line had a loaded gun. Jennings confronted him, seized the gun, and, when the man responded with “some impudence;’ seized him by the neck and tossed him into the crowd. “We cowed them;’ Jennings later said, “and the parties who replied and gave us impudence, we arrested them at once.” The crowd broke and ran. Although clubs were used on resisters, not a single shot was fired and no one was killed. The sheriff organized his force into companies and directed squads to patrol the streets through the night. Since it was common knowledge that the posse would arrest any sus­picious individuals, the city’s streets and alleys emptied.

The following day Sheriff Jennings organized his companies into a regiment numbering about a thousand, and marched them through the principal streets. “We ran the town on military prin­ciples for about one week,” he later testified. “We had an officer of the day detailed to patrol the town at night, and we had the fire department under command, and everything in readiness if there should be any further trouble.” Rounding up trouble­makers began as soon as the streets were cleared Monday night. The sheriff “sent squads out to arrest and take these men out of bed who had been prominent and active as rioters.” and put them in jail. Eight or ten were arrested that night and nearly fifty more during the days immediately following. Of those, forty were indicted, tried in the county courts, and either fined be­tween twenty dollars and five hundred dollars, or sent to jail for between three and eight months. Others were held for a while and eventually released. Although the tramp of Jennings’ patrols could be heard through the following several nights, the troubles ended by Tuesday, July 24. Once more trains ran without inter­ruption, factories reopened as vital raw materials resumed their flow, and business returned to normal.

Both newspaper accounts and testimony heard during a legis­lative inquiry ultimately identified the parties responsible for the disorders at Harrisburg. Just as at other trouble spots across the nation, local railroad workers for the most part only tied up trains, and did not encourage or engage in violence. The looting, pillaging, and destruction of property allegedly was the fault of strangers and tramps, half-grown boys, and local riff-raff who were never known to have held a job. According to Mayor Patter­son, a third of those arrested were railroaders whose crimes were limited to interfering with the operation of railroad locomotives. He attributed violence to “outsiders and strangers,” and to “boys fourteen and to twenty-one years of age – boot-blacks and all classes.” Sheriff Jennings agreed. Harrisburg’s mill laborers, furnace operators, and factory workers did not take part in the rioting, at least “not the men that worked.” In his opinion, “the parties who were most active and violent were those who did not work at any time.” When asked if that element belonged to the city, Jennings replied that many did: “it brought our worst char­acters to the surface, of course.” Attorney David Mumma said of those who took guns from the militiamen he knew only one, “a loafer who does not do anything and never did a day’s work when he had it.” Others belonged to a “lawless class of men, mostly strangers. I did not know them, though I know a great many of our citizens.”

It is not difficult to believe that a large number of teen-aged boys joined the crowds or played a significant role in the strikes that summer as many were idle. The alleged number of strangers and outsiders is less convincing, however. If strangers constituted a large – if not major – part of the crowds at the nation’s many rail centers during the strikes, from where did they come? How could they travel to those centers when trains were not running? It seems unlikely that very many would have been rural residents who rushed to the cities to witness or join in the excitement. Neither does it seem probable that they were the unemployed who traveled from one rail center to the next as the strikes spread across the country.

In most instances they more likely were local residents un­known to newspaper reporters, lawyers, public officials, or the “better class of citizen.” Given the high rate of mobility in Ameri­can society, rarely more than half (and often far less) of a city’s population lived in a single community as long as ten years. A good part of most urban populations consisted of relative newcomers who would be regarded as strangers by established resi­dents. Moreover, the failure of reporters, lawyers, public officials, and prominent citizens to recognize an individual did not mean that that person was an outsider. Because of the nature of their jobs, Harrisburg factory workers had few occasions to go to the center of the city, to visit the courthouse or Market Square, or to promenade along the principal streets. After working ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, relatively few spent their evenings or Sundays in areas frequented by “the better classes.” During the strike, however, many were unemployed and they were free to gather and watch the excitement. Some may even have participated in the disorders. The fact that, following the confrontation on Monday night, the authorities knew where the supposed unknowns lived and sent police to arrest them in their beds undermines the official contention they were complete strangers.

Harrisburg’s crowds of three to four thousand constituted more than a third of all the male residents of the city between the ages of thirteen and sixty-nine. Although a large percentage, they probably were not strictly representative of the whole male population. Those who assembled probably included more of the idle, the unemployed, and the adventuresome young than of the hard-working, the prudent, and the property-owning older men of the community. The large gatherings, in spite of their presumed bias against wealth and power and their sympathy for the cause of the strikers, avoided or opposed violence and the destruction of property. Whenever events threatened to get out of hand, the great majority either stood watching, left the scene, or willingly supported public officials when called upon to re­store law and order.

Industrialization had undoubtedly sharpened class distinc­tions in Harrisburg, which the depression of 1877 exacerbated. Very little in the city’s events that summer lends support to the notion that the Great Railway Strikes brought the nation teeter­ing on the brink of revolution. Harrisburg’s strikers sought a redress of grievance, fair wages, decent working hours, and job security, not social upheaval. They halted far short of insurrec­tion against the system. Even the crowds did not appear to have been part of a downtrodden and alienated laboring class, seeth­ing with revolt against their wealthy oppressors, who joined with strikers to paralyze the transportation system until sup­pressed by the military. At most, the crowds seem to have sym­pathized with the railroad workers in their quarrel with their companies. A majority, including the railroad strikers, wanted to resolve the difficulties without resorting to violence, destroying property, or showing disrespect to public officials, law officers, or militiamen. Although they disarmed the few militiamen who fell into their hands, they wanted only to prevent the weapons from being turned against them. And this they accomplished by show of numbers, not by force of arms.

Harrisburg’s leading newspapers, Mayor John Patterson, Sheriff William Jennings, and others in authority, acted responsi­bly to maintain law and order, yet showed remarkable restraint. Although they vehemently decried violence and the destruction of property, as well as harbored sharp biases against the “lawless classes,” they were careful not to inflame the situation. Militia officers ordered troops to march around rather than into the city. When the disorders reached their worst, local officials did not summon the state militia or federal troops to restore order, but relied on the sheriff’s posses and local police. Although the mayor and sheriff took steps to keep arms from falling into the hands of the mob, they also saw to it that the “law and order posses” carried dubs rather than rifles. Business and community leaders who strongly supported the mayor and sheriff did so quietly to avoid rankling protesters. The city’s employers, espe­cially those who had served as officers during the Civil War, spoke rhetorically of “rebellion” and “insurrection” – of quelling troubles with a little grapeshot. But even the majority of them shared the consensus of Harrisburg’s residents that the differences should be resolved without armed conflict.


For Further Reading

Burgess, George H., et al. Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 1846-1946. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 1949.

Clarke, William Packer. Official History of the Militia and the National Guard of the State of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Charles J. Hendler, 1909.

Ent, Uzal W. The First Century: A History of the 28th Infantry Division. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1979.

Kelker, Luther Reily. History of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1907.

Steinmetz, Richard H., and Robert D. Hoffsommer. This Was Harris­burg. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1976.

Wilson, William Bender. History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates and Company, 1895.


The editor acknowledges the generous assistance of Peter Swift Seibert, executive director, Historical Society of Dauphin County, Harrisburg, in locating and providing illustrations for this article.


Gerald G. Eggert, State College, is professor emeritus of American history at The Pennsylvania State University, where he specialized in business and labor history. He is the author of Railroad Labor Dis­putes (1967), Richard Olney (1974), and Steelmasters and Labor Reform, 1886-1923 (1981). His newest book, Harrisburg Industrial­izes: The Coming of Factories to an American Community, will be released by the Penn State Press in January 1993.