Railroad Strikes

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

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.

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Belleville Guards (1874-1883)


“The Belleville Guards”

In the last years of the nineteenth century Bellville had it's very own militia force. The Belleville Guards often served under the direction of the St. Clair County Sheriff and the Belleville Police Department. Sheriff James W. Hughes and Sheriff Herman G. Weber both activated the guards to stop the violence associated with striking coal mine and railroad workers.

By Jon Stacy

The History of the Belleville Guards began in November 1874; during an unruly coal miners strike. East St. Louis mine owners agreed to pay Union miners four cents per bushel.  Non-Union workers known as “Blacklegs” would work for three cents a bushel & mine owners in Belleville and Freeburg refused to pay four cents and brought in the blacklegs. 

St. Clair County Sheriff James W. Hughes found himself with his hands full throughout the county, with the miners uprising.  On 10 November 1874; Sheriff Hughes, requested a shipment of arms from Springfield, and called for a one hundred man militia to be formed; and it’s volunteers comprising of former Civil War Soldiers.  Once the arms were received the Citizen Militia was sent to patrol the streets of Belleville, to assist the small Belleville Police force, so the Sheriff’s deputies could focus their efforts elsewhere in the county.  The militiamen were deputized during this ordeal and flyers were placed around the city, basically stating: Hostile actions will be met with hostile force.  Needless to report, with an armed deputized militia force patrolling the city, there was no further violence; and the strike subsided.

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Deputy W. G. Hill - “a one armed man and also minus and eye.”

The Belleville Daily Advocate for Friday, April 16, 1886, has a long article detailing several nights of violence during the railroad strike of 1886. In the article Deputy W. G. Hill is described as, “a one armed man and also minus and eye.” A portion of the article is transcribed here:

“A north bound freight train under charge of conductor Mike Whalen, and a freight train from East St. Louis met here on Tuesday evening and a large crowd of men who had gathered as on the previous evening , commenced to interfere with the switching, and also drove the brakemen from their posts.

Deputy Sheriff W. G. Hill was there, but was unable to prevent the men from interfering. The mob at last succeed in so disarranging the train that the main track was blocked and north bound mail train which arrives here about 6 o’clock was delayed quite a while.

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