Blood on the Tracks: East St. Louis and the 1886 Southwestern Railway Strike
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.