St. Clair County Historical Society

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

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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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Summons 1807

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From the collection of the St. Clair County Historical Society

This is a summons sent to the sheriff in 1807.

The sheriff at the time was John Hays.  Hays was, interestingly, the only recorded Jewish resident of Illinois before statehood (he came to Cahokia in 1790).
 
You can also see that they are using an old form.  They crossed out "Northwest Territory," and wrote in, "Indiana Territory."
 
John Hay and John Hays are two different people.
 
 

 


John Messinger Tax Receipt 1831

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The document is a property tax receipt from 1831, signed by Sheriff John D. Hughes
 
Sheriff's were charged with 'Civil Process' including the collection of taxes.
 
John Messinger was paying taxes on land that he owned in Monroe and Fayette Counties.
 
Photos courtesy, William Shannon, Curator, St. Clair County Historical Society