By: William P Shannon, IV
Curator, St. Clair County Historical Society
"We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us." - Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854.
Thoreau, in one line, crystallized the fraught relationship between nineteenth century Americans and the rapid expansion of the railroads, a relatively new technology that was fundamentally reshaping lives the world over. Railroads shrank space, redefined time, and changed the way people worked and lived.
Such a momentous change would surely bring tensions with it, tensions in society, economics, and culture. One such area of tension involved the masses of workers required to keep the trains loaded, running, and on time. Railroad workers, especially in the decades after the Civil War, fought for higher wages, stable employment, and safer working conditions. Their adversaries were some of the richest men in America, men who had profited handsomely from the expansion of these roads of iron. As labor organized, notably through the Knights of Labor, and railroad owners dug in their heels, these tensions often erupted into strikes and occasionally violence.
One such incident began on March 1, 1886, when a brakeman was fired by the Union Pacific Railroad in Texas for allegedly attending a union meeting on company time. The Union Pacific was but one railroad in the great Southwestern System controlled by Jay Gould. The Knights of Labor argued that the brrakeman was fired without investigation. This confrontation led to a strike that, within a week, involved over 200,000 workers in several states (1).
Among these workers were eighty-six switchmen employed by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad at the Relay Depot in East St. Louis. They walked off of the job on March 25th in sympathy with their colleagues, but also in protest of the low wages they earned compared to workers in the vast rail yards of Chicago. These striking workers stopped trains in the yard, harassed trainmen, and sabotaged equipment (2).
Leadership of East St. Louis Assembly #4242 of the Knights of Labor ordered the strikers back to work on March 31st. With no agreement or settlement locally or nationally, these workers continued their strike. On April 7th, approximately 300 railroad workers and East St. Louisans marched through the rail yard and were confronted by mounted temporary sheriff's deputies at Broadway Crossing (3).
The trains were under orders to clear the crossing, "at all hazards." When the crowd stopped the train at the crossing, they proceeded to pelt the engine with stones and debris. In the afternoon, Sheriff Ropiequet gave the order to a group of deputies to clear the crossing. As the posse approached the crossing, stones again filled the tense air. As the situation grew more chaotic, one of the deputies fired into the crowd. As the shots rang out, the scene shifted from chaos to death.
At the end of the bloody fray, six people lay dead: Oscar Washington, John Boner, Patrick Driscoll, Richard Ryckman, Mrs. L. Pfeuffer, and C.E. Thompson. The auxiliary deputies retreated along the Louisville and Nashville tracks, only to meet East St. Louis Mayor Maurice Joyce, City Clerk Canty, and two East St. Louis police officers. These officials tried to arrest the posse, but they fled across the river and surrendered in St. Louis. They were eventually released and disappeared (4).
Back in East St. Louis, the crowd reacted to these shootings by setting fire to rail cars and harassing the fire department when they came to attend to the blaze. In all, $75,000 in damage was done, $2.02 million today (5).
Sheriff Ropiequet asked Governor Oglesby to send the state militia. On April 9th, eight companies arrived, one armed with a Gatling gun. By then, the riot was quelled and rail traffic moved once again (6).
The strike was ultimately unsuccessful and was called off on May 4th. The strike helped lead to the collapse of the Knights of Labor, moved onward further by events in Chicago on the same day that the strike ended. The Haymarket Riot erupted in Chicago when a bomb was thrown during a rally, killing several police officers. Among other results, this further complicated the position of organized labor and marked an ending of its formative years in America (7).
In the years that followed, the tension between worker and employer, between labor and capital, continued. The events of the restive year of 1886 became symbols and rallying cries of this struggle.
The questions raised by Thoreau and by the strikers of 1886 still reverberate today. Do we control technology? Does it control us? What is the most just and equitable relationship between worker and employer? History, at its best, informs these questions, relating past to present as we face the future.
- Case, Theresa A. The Southwestern Railroad Strike and Free Labor. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2010.
- Missouri Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Official History of the Great Strike of 1886 on the Southwestern Railway System (Jefferson City: Tribune Publishing, 1886), 25, 63.
- Ibid., 79, 101.
- Ibid., 102-103.
- "An Appeal to Arms," Bismarck Weekly Tribune, April 9, 1886.
- Official History, 105.
- James Green, Death in the Haymarket (New York: Knopf, 2007), 153-154.
This article was originally published in the SCCHS newsletter, The Advocate
Reprinted by permission.