The Railroad Strike of 1877 in Reading
By RONALD L. FILIPPELLI
In the hot, mid-July of 1877, with the nation prostrate in the fourth year of a deep depression. America came closer to social revolution than at any other time in its century of nationhood.
In the previous quarter of a century, the nation, spurred by a war which drained its blood even as it pumped new vigor into its industry, swept into the industrial age. The national market emerged and with it the giant railroads and manufacturing industries. Along with the massive mechanization and standardization of industry came the degradation of labor. Skill was no longer at a premium. Workers increasingly became interchangeable parts in the new dynamo.
No longer was a measure of responsibility in labor relations insured by the closeness of boss and worker and social pressure within the smaller community. The new god was laissez faire and, according to its apologists, it applied equally to the lowliest worker in the mills and the captains of industry themselves. Social Darwinism was the pseudo-scientific name. Survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle, was what it was.
The young labor movement, with most of its strength in the city central labor organizations, found itself obsolete in its infancy. National unions emerged in several crafts, but they were no match for the huge corporations and their allies in government. In the midst of this wrenching change came the most severe depression in the nation’s history. By 1877 an army of unemployed men drifted across America, cut loose from the land by the ‘new urbanization’, with no means of support save occasional charity. Those lucky enough to work saw their wages plummet as a multitude waited to do their jobs for even less. In conditions like these, the use of blacklists and strikebreakers flourished, and the new unions, none too hardy to begin with, crumbled and disappeared.
No one industry so typified the changing nature of America as did the railroads. Fattened on government land grants and monopoly routes, they tracked across the continent at a pace which astounded even their most ardent boosters. Whole regions lay in their economic grip. Communities flourished or disappeared at their whim. They were the spearheads of America’s industrial thrust and as such they were the vehicles on which many of the gilded age’s notorious captains of industry rode to prominence. In the process however they had alienated labor, farmer and small businessmen alike. It is no wonder then, that when the first great spasm of industrial discontent struck the new order, it manifested itself in the railroad system. One component of that system was the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, commanded by the legendary Franklin B. Gowen. In July of 1877, in Reading, Pennsylvania, Gowen’s railroad rested seemingly impregnable amidst a hostile community. Reading was just one of the battlefields of this brief war, along with Baltimore, Martinsburg, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and many more; but its experience is rather typical. A look at the Railroad Strike of 1877 in Reading provides us with an opportunity to study the issues and events of the great strike in microcosm through the experience of one community.
By 1877, Franklin P. Gowen had established himself as the peer of such giants as Carnegie, Gould, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Through his control of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad he came to dominate the anthracite industry and with it place a section of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania almost totally within his economic control. He had destroyed America’s first industrial union, the Workmen’s Benevolent Association, and had risen to become a national celebrity through his theatrical prosecution of the “Molly Maguires,” which he was responsible for destroying through the use of an undercover Pinkerton agent. There are those who claim that Gowen created the “Molly” legend in order to tar the labor movement in the anthracite region with the brush of terrorism. Whatever the truth, when Franklin B. Gowen returned to Philadelphia from Europe on the morning of July 16, 1877, he found himself at the peak of his power and popularity, and admirably suited to command his corporate legions in the struggle to bend the nation to the new industrial reality. One of his first acts after he returned to his desk was to lay off all passenger brakemen except for one on each train. Ironically, he had picked an inauspicious time for his action. At almost the same moment the great railroad strike of 1877 began in Baltimore.
In 1877 Reading’s 40,000 citizens lay tightly but restively in the economic grip of Franklin B. Gowen. The city’s commercial pace depended heavily on the movement of Gowen’s Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the activity of Gowen’s Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. The railroad alone employed some 1,500 in the city. On the surface, Reading appeared an unlikely place for industrial unrest. Ninety percent of the residents were native born and almost all the rest were German.
In light of these figures, it is interesting to note that Gowen’s paper, the Pottsville Miners Journal, editorialized that the likelihood of a strike on the Reading was reduced because “the men have no organization, and there is too much race jealousy existing among them to permit them to form one.”
While the paper had misread the ethnic and racial character of the population, it was right about the lack of organization. Gowen had seen to that through his assault on the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in the spring. Responding to a request for a twenty percent increase in wages by the Brotherhood, Gowen countered with an edict that employees would either have to give up membership in the union or find another place to work. In light of the fact that there had never been trouble with the railroad before and also because the men had accepted two wage cuts since 1873, the ultimatum shocked the members. Obviously Gowen had decided the time was ripe to rid himself of the union. The men had no choice but to strike. By mid-May the Brotherhood had been sufficiently crushed so that Gowen could leave on a fund raising trip to Europe with assurance that his labor problems had been solved.
Reading happened to be the home of a strong branch of the trainmen’s union. It was the headquarters of the striking engineers. The protracted struggle had created a sizeable group of unemployed men in Reading, many of them blacklisted, who were extremely bitter about their treatment. In addition those still employed by the railroad had not been paid since the strike had effectively been broken in May. Under these circumstances, the sentiment in the city was running strongly against Mr. Gowen and his railroad.
On July 16, the deep and accumulated industrial discontent at large in the nation spilled over. The great strike began at Baltimore and spread rapidly. Bulletins describing the violence captured the attention of the citizens of Reading. On July 20 they learned of the death of twenty-six Pittsburgh citizens at the hands of a force of Philadelphia militia sent in to restore control of railroad property to the company. Each new bulletin brought the volatile situation in Reading closer to ignition.
Still, there appeared little cause for undue alarm. Mayor Charles F. Evans departed the city on Friday for a vacation in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. The day passed uneventfully. Nevertheless, the company, perhaps becoming uneasy, decided to pay its workers on Saturday, July 21. Many of the men were hostile to the paymaster, remarking that the money would immediately go to cancel debts incurred during the past two payless months. Ironically, the fact that they had been paid may have actually made the men freer to strike.
Indications of the community’s agitated state of mind were apparent throughout the day. The Eagle editorialized, calling President Hayes’ proclamation ordering the Martinsburg, West Virginia, rioters to disperse or be proceeded against by the land and naval forces of the United States ludicrous. The central point of excitement became the area outside of the Eagle offices on Penn Square where a large crowd awaited the bulletins from Pittsburgh. On top of the already exacerbated situation, some 150 machinists had been laid off from the various railroad gangs shortly before four o’clock in the afternoon. Most were paid for May and told not to come back until sent for.
As a result of the spreading threat of strike across the state, all militia companies in Eastern Pennsylvania were put on alert. Included were the Reading Rifles, Company A, Fourth Regiment, of the Pennsylvania National Guard. By this time the news of the Army’s activity in Martinsburg and Pittsburgh had reached Reading and in various sections of the city the feeling against the military ran high. Captain A. P. Wenrich’s call to the Reading Rifles received a mixed response from the members. Some refused to come, ridiculing the idea of poor men in soldiers’ clothes fighting poor men in overalls. Wenrich himself was at pains to explain that he was not opposed to the workingmen of the country, but as a sworn officer of the National Guard he had determined to do his duty and obey the call of the Governor.
About a hundred people, mostly men and boys, gathered at Fourth and Penn Square to watch the militia assemble. A number of the bystanders insulted the soldiers, some asking mockingly for a lock of their hair. Tensions between the militia and the crowd increased until early evening when it took police intervention to keep the two groups apart. Later that evening the weary troops disbanded and returned to their homes. As in Pittsburgh and other cities, the use of local militia against their fellow townsmen proved of dubious value. The Reading Rifles’ participation in the crisis of their own city ended with that desultory muster in Penn’s Square.
That evening, the first of a confusing series of events took place. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, still technically on strike, and with most of its members dismissed and blacklisted by the company, held a meeting in Columbia Hall. It was their second gathering of the day. What transpired at the evening meeting is subject to varying interpretations. The Eagle reported that the tone of the meeting, while calm, was strongly in favor of the strike. Union officials, on the other hand, claimed that they had not discussed the strike officially. What happened after official business had been transacted they did not say. According to later prosecution witnesses, the strike was indeed the topic of discussion and several actions, including the dynamiting of the Lebanon Valley Bridge, were discussed. Alan Pinkerton, whose operatives were to play a significant role in the subsequent events, charged that the union meeting consisted mostly of disgruntled ex-employees of the railroad led by one William Strunk, a discharged engineer. Pinkerton viewed the meeting as a planning session where practically all of the destruction of the succeeding days was planned.
All in all, Reading remained reasonably quiet as Saturday drew to an end. There were scattered incidents, but none of them extraordinary. A soldier was assaulted on his way home, a fight resulted in the beating of two members of the crowd at the rear of Dunkle’s Cigar Store at 661 Penn Street near Seventh, and a group of young men attacked a special policeman after a concert by the Ringgold Band at Lauer’s Garden. In the next few days the citizens of Reading would long for a return to the relative calm of July 21.
The crowds remained in front of the Eagle office well into Sunday morning, still reading the bulletins from Pittsburgh. The local Halls, cigar stores and restaurants were filled with men discussing the strike. At about two o’clock a party of men passed up Franklin Street singing:
“Theres an army of strikers,
Determined you’ll see,
Who will fight corporations
Till the Country is free.”‘
On Sunday the Eagle exploded with news of the strike. The coverage was highly critical of the actions of the Philadelphia Militia which had fired into the Pittsburgh crowd. The paper reported that the sympathies of almost the entire population of Pittsburgh were with the strikers. The crowds continued to grow throughout the day. In the afternoon, Chief of Police Peter Cullen ventured out to talk with the men. He found them agitated about the Pittsburgh situation. His suggestion that the crowd disperse met with the retort that, “that was not bread and butter.” The Chief’s walk through the crowd led him to believe that the center of the discontent was the dispute between the Brotherhood and the Company, and that some two-thirds of the city seemed to sympathize with the men.
At about 8:30 on Sunday evening the storm, which had been brewing, boiled over. A car loaded with shingles was set on fire at the railroad siding at Seventh and Elm Streets. It caused a crowd of curious onlookers to gather, but little excitement. A larger group of some five hundred marched out Fifth and Sixth Streets in a body, creating a lot of noise and bringing out many people along the way. Rumors spread that the Reading Rifles were marching on the depot [Outer Station] and the crowd, now numbering several thousand, converged on the new structure.
The last train from Philadelphia passed through, and the crowd greeted it with shouts and menacing gestures. Then the real trouble began. At 10:30 the first train was stopped, an Allentown to Harrisburg freight. The crowd warned the crew not to proceed. A jittery company Policeman fired several wild shots with no effect. The train moved no farther. Thus began a night of arson which included the burning of two cabooses, seven freight cars, and the watch house at the Reading and Lehigh Railroad junction at Bushong’s Furnace.
As the climax of the evening’s work, a crowd of several hundred set out for the Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge, armed with a can of coal oil and a bundle of cotton waste. The new bridge, a four span timber truss with an iron skin, rested on stone piers set in the Schuylkill, about a mile and one half above Reading. The new wood proved to be no obstacle to the arsonists; and by two o’clock Monday morning the charred remains had lost their fascination and the crowd drifted away.
Throughout the hectic evening, Chief Cullen was the only official on the scene. Mayor Evans remained at Ocean Grove, oblivious to the events in his city, and Sheriff George R. Yorgey was spending the weekend at his Douglass Township farm near Pottstown. Significantly, the Mayor and Sheriff were the only officials empowered to raise a posse.
Chief Cullen proceeded to the scene of the fires as soon as word reached him. He found the crowd calm and observed no fighting. With all the activity, no one had been injured as a result of the crowd’s actions. Nevertheless, he recognized the danger of the situation. Rumors spread that the destruction had been the work of strangers. “Baltimore Men” were reported to be in the city, and one rumor had the town infested with Molly Maguires, being tracked, naturally, by their old Pinkerton nemesis, James McParlan.
Though the rumors were false, the problems facing Cullen were real enough. The crowd had refused to allow the fire department through to the burning cars. For the first time Cullen asked the company officials for advice. The decision was made to muster the small police force and attempt to escort the firemen. Before the plan could be implemented, word reached the chief of police that the railroad bridge was in flames. He immediately telegraphed Mayor Evans and set out to find the Sheriff. Discovering Yorgey’s absence, he requested the company to dispatch a special engine to pick up the Sheriff. The company gladly complied. With an uneasy calm settling over the city, the police and fire departments, with a small force of railroad police, settled down amidst the flickering fires to guard the depot during the night. With all of the city’s police at the depot, the remainder of the city was left totally unprotected. Either Cullen owed his first loyalty to the company and not to Reading, or, more likely, he interpreted what was going on in the city as an industrial dispute between a company and its workers, and not a general uprising which threatened the general community.
Through the early morning hours, feverish activity continued at the depot. Gowen’s top aide, John Wooten, general manager of the Philadelphia and Reading, spent Sunday evening and Monday morning communicating by telegraph with Gowen in Philadelphia. Arrangements were made with General Pleasants, chief engineer of the Coal and Iron Company, to call the Coal and Iron Police from Pottsville. They were to be met in Reading by Captain Linden, a Pinkerton, who was to assume command.
In the meantime, Mayor Evans attempted to return to the city in response to Cullen’s wire. After reaching Allentown, he learned that the train had been taken off the East Penn road and he could not reach Reading. He then telegraphed Wooten who ordered a special car and engine to bring Evans to the city. The delay prevented the city’s highest public official from playing any role in the tragic Monday’s events.
Monday’s newspapers were almost wholly taken up with vivid descriptions of the events of the preceding day. The Eagle decried the destruction of property, but still noted that the strikers had the sympathy of most of the city. Police Chief Cullen agreed with this appraisal.
With the Mayor unable to reach Reading, the chief law enforcement official present was Sheriff Yorgey who had reached the city at daybreak. He informed reporters that he was ready for an emergency. One bystander cautioned that the Sheriff would have trouble raising a posse. Another took issue with this opinion, claiming that one ought to be able to find “more than enough good citizens in a town of 40,000 inhabitants to march out and prevent incendiarism. The wisdom of the pessimist was not long in manifesting itself.
Chief Cullen advised Yorgey early Monday morning that he would have to raise at least 500 men. Shortly thereafter Mr. Wooten called on the sheriff and demanded that he “call out a force for the suppression of violence and incendiarism.” At the time of the request, though no traffic moved on the railroad, the city was quiet and there were still no deaths or injuries attributable to the strike. Yorgey replied that it would be impossible to raise a posse considering the temper of the town. Wooten then offered to furnish him with an armed and sufficient force, undoubtedly the Coal and Iron Police. Yorgey again refused, replying that “the rioters also have arms.” At that point a Reverend B. R. Miller entered the office and offered to raise fifty men if the sheriff would supply him with arms and ammunition. He received the same answer as Wooten.
Thwarted at the Sheriff’s office, an angry Wooten then informed the Chief of Police of what had transpired; and set out immediately for Philadelphia to confer with Gowen. The conference resulted in a telegram from Wooten to General William S. Bolton, Commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard, informing him that Reading was entirely without protection.
It is interesting to note, in light of the Sheriff’s decision, that while Gowen and Wooten conferred in Philadelphia, two prominent Reading citizens, Harry S. Eckart and Captain E. P. Boas, called upon Chief Cullen and offered to pay and equip two hundred men with pistols and cartridges. Cullen, without any authority whatsoever, and in contradiction to the wishes of the responsible official, Sheriff Yorgey, agreed. However, when his officers attempted to recruit members for the posse, only one man could be persuaded to join. The men replied that they didn’t want their heads shot off, they wouldn’t go against their friends, it was a workingman’s fight, and so on. The sheriff had apparently read the temper of the citizenry correctly.
All day Monday the strikers worked in earnest. Coal, freight and passenger trains were prevented from running, and the company’s operation remained at a standstill. There was, however, no violence. At about mid-afternoon Yorgey went out to observe the crowd. What he saw apparently did not unduly trouble him. He contented himself with issuing a proclamation to disperse. His actions were superfluous anyway. By this time the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had begun to assume effective control of the city of Reading.
Almost as Yorgey’s proclamation was being posted, the Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia under command of General Franklin Reeder was ordered to Reading. Included in the force of approximately 300 men were Company B, Allen rifles of Allentown, Company D, Allen Continentals of Allentown, Company E, Blue Mountain Legion of Hamburg, Company F, Easton Grays, Company H, Slatington Rifles, Company I, Catasauqua, and Company K, Portland. The Easton Grays had recently performed guard duty at Mauch Chunk during the Molly Maguire executions. Conspicuous by its absence, was Company A, Reading Rifles. Apparently the lesson of Pittsburgh and other communities where the local militia had sympathized with the strikers was not lost on General Bolton and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.
When the troops arrived in the early evening, thousands of curious citizens, men, women and children, had assembled to view the work of the strikers. Many of the strikers themselves had dispersed to other points in the city. The Coal and Iron Police arrived from Pottsville just before the troops, at about six p.m. Shortly thereafter the express from Philadelphia, after attempting to ram the blockade was stopped at the depot. At this point Wooten, George F. Baer, company counsel, and Captain Linden met and decided that Linden should take his Coal and Iron Police and make an effort to guard the company’s most valuable property, the car shops.
When the militia arrived, General Reeder conferred with the company officials. The decision was made to march to the depot and, in the process, free the stalled Philadelphia express. The railroad tracks occupied Seventh Street for a long distance through Reading. North from Penn Street the road dropped below grade for some four blocks, with a stone wall twenty-five feet high at its highest point on both sides. Viaducts crossed from wall to wall at Court and Washington Streets. The citizens of Reading had long referred to the depression as the “cut.” When Reeder, in consultation with Wooten and Baer, made his decision, he decided on a course which would lead him down the main tracks and directly into the “cut.”
At approximately eight o’clock the troops moved out marching to a tap of drums so gentle that it could not be heard a block away. The tracks were jammed by an excited crowd and the walls and streets on both sides were filled with strikers and sightseers, men, women, and children. The crowd began to ridicule the troops and pelt them with various missiles. At this point confusion reigned. When the smoke had cleared the troops had fired two volleys. Six citizens of Reading lay dead and many more wounded, five of them mortally. Five of the wounded were Reading Policemen who had been engaged, with little difficulty, in keeping the pavement and sidewalks at Seventh Street clear. Chief Cullen got off lightly with a ball through his vest.
A vicious, brief fight ensued. Approximately seventy soldiers took refuge under a freight car near the Penn Street end of the “Cut.” Above them, women stoned the troops with missiles supplied to them by small children. Reporters wrote that the women fought like “tigresses.” A number of soldiers were taken out of the ranks by the strikers and marched into Court Street where they were made to drill without muskets, coats and hats. Considering the carnage, the response of the crowd was remarkably restrained. In Pittsburgh the crowd had trapped the Philadelphia militia in the roundhouse which it besieged and finally put to the torch.
The scene must have been one of incredible confusion. All along Seventh Street, people had been enjoying the cooler evening air. When the shooting began, men, women and children ran for their lives. The pavements and streets in the vicinity of Seventh and Penn were awash with blood. Neighboring drug stores became hospitals and operating rooms. Fourteen soldiers were also injured, mostly from the stoning, although one trooper received a bullet wound from unknown quarters. After the brief flare-up of rage, both sides seemed stunned. The killing had a tranquilizing effect on the city. While sporadic vandalism continued throughout the night, no more blood flowed.
An eerie quiet engulfed Reading on Tuesday morning. The Philadelphia Express still stood in the “Cut.” The militia had been drawn tip in formation at Seventh and Penn Streets in anticipation of a crowd that never came. Mayor Evans issued a proclamation requesting the saloons to stay closed.
The military situation remained in a state, of flux. Between five and six o’clock, the Sixteenth regiment from Norristown and Conshohocken arrived in the city. Instead of having a stabilizing effect, the Sixteenth added to the explosiveness of the situation.
In their first joint action, the Sixteenth and the Easton Grays along with two other companies of the Fourth Regiment attempted to escort a construction train through the “cut.” The crowd, supported by members of the Sixteenth Regiment, began pelting the Grays. When the Easton troops wheeled to respond, the men of the Sixteenth threatened to fire on their comrades in uniform. With this, the railroad officials wisely called off the venture.
This incident simply reinforced what was becoming obvious to all concerned. Militia was useless in a situation of this kind. A member of the Sixteenth summed up a common attitude when he announced that he was not going to fire on his fellow workmen, after all he was a workman himself. There were even unconfirmed reports that members of the regiment had been supplying the strikers with ammunition.
By late afternoon of the twenty-fourth, all militia troops had been withdrawn from the city. Their places had been taken by three hundred regulars of the First United States Artillery armed as infantry. The Eagle noted that they had come to remain “as long as the railroad officials consider their presence necessary.”
The federal troops ensured order and shortly thereafter the rails through and below the city were repaired by train hands guarded by Captain Linden and his Company Police armed with sixteen shot Spencer rifles. From this point on the Coal and Iron Police were in control of the city. Chief Cullen’s force, decimated by Monday’s disaster, had practically ceased to function as an organization. On Wednesday the arrests began. City police were accompanied on their rounds by the armed Coal and Iron Police. Outside agitators were blamed for the troubles and by Wednesday fifteen men had been arrested. Caught in the dragnet were one policeman, a highway commissioner, two drunks, and a Frederick Le Maitre of “Paris,” described as “one of the most polite and gentle of tramps,” who claimed to have been attending a camp meeting. Some of the charges were also interesting. One poor fellow had been incarcerated for “lying on the pavement dead drunk” and two others for “hanging around Seventh Street for the past few days.” Twelve more were arrested the following day. Any semblance of civil authority ceased to exist. The city rested in the hands of a private army supported by United States Army soldiers. By July 27, in Reading the great upheaval was over.
In retrospect, there are four elements which are central to an understanding of the disaster. First is the extraordinary fact that at no time did the company attempt to talk to anyone to negotiate or mediate the differences. From the beginning its response was to search for a force with which to put down the strike. Of course, the only organization with which the company could have talked was the Brotherhood. This possibility had been precluded long ago when Gowen decided not to recognize it as a legitimate entity. To negotiate with the union would have been to recognize it de facto, a step the company apparently was unwilling to take regardless of the seriousness of the situation.
Second is the conduct of Sheriff Yorgey. Yorgey has been painted as the culprit in the affair. A Coroner’s Jury condemned him for dereliction of duty and blamed him in part for the riot and deaths. There is little question that Yorgey took practically no action during the disturbances. However, in light of what happened in Pittsburgh and other cities, the Sheriff’s actions become more understandable. He did not arrive in Reading until after the strike had taken effect. The worst of the vandalism had occurred the previous night. There is no indication of violence during the day, Monday, when the Sheriff was theoretically in charge of the situation. It should not be forgotten that Yorgey knew of the tragic events in Pittsburgh, including the false report of the murder of the sheriff of Allegheny County.
Yorgey correctly gauged that the sympathy of most of the citizens was with the strikers. There is ample proof that it would have been impossible to raise a posse. The city’s own militia unit had proved ineffective and, in some cases, openly sympathetic to the strikers. It is also possible that Yorgey had decided that while the destruction of Sunday night was serious, there had been no loss of life or serious injury. Therefore, he might have reasoned, why risk the imposition of an armed force into the volatile situation. He may have decided that the worst seemed to be over, there was no way to undo the work of the arsonists, and the best thing to do at that point was to let it die out of its own accord since the resources available to the local law enforcement officials were clearly inadequate to affect a decision in the dispute between the railroad and its worker The only other option open to him would have been to call for soldiers, but the Pittsburgh experience may have convinced him that the possible benefits were not worth the risk.
Whatever his motives, in the absence of the Mayor, Yorgey was the highest ranking law enforcement official on the scene at the time and as such should have been in charge of whatever actions were taken. This is clearly not what happened.
Third, when Wooten received no satisfaction from the Sheriff in regard to the raising and arming of a posse, he set in motion the series of events which led to disaster. From that point on the governing of the city rested in the hands of the management of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Remarkably, not one city or county official, not the mayor, the Sheriff or the chief of police requested troops. In fact, all three claimed no knowledge that the troops were even coming. From all indications, Gowen and Wooten requested the troops after their conference in Philadelphia on Monday. They did so on the pretext that the city of Reading was without protection. There seems to be no evidence to support this appraisal. There was no violence, no looting, no panic, no general disorder in the city at large. Even on the tragic Monday evening, Chief Cullen and his men were apparently able to direct traffic at the center of the crowd at Seventh and Penn Streets in such a way as to keep the sidewalks and pavement clear.
The Fourth Regiment, under the command of General Reeder, was ordered to Reading by General William S. Bolton, Commander of the Second Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Wooten later admitted telegraphing Bolton following his conference with Gowen. Gowen, on the other hand, denied any knowledge of who requested the military. It is straining the imagination to believe that Gowen was unaware that Wooten had requested troops. In any event the company had requested and received troops to defend its property in a dispute with its worker. It did this without even bothering to cloak its actions with propriety by including a city or county official in on the decision. By General Reeder’s own admission, he was ordered to report to the railroad officials when he got to Reading.
Fourth, when the troops did arrive, their tactical deployment resulted from discussions between their commander and company officials. With all else that had transpired, at that point there still remained the possibility that order could be restored without bloodshed. That possibility evaporated when the decision was made for the troops to march down the main track and directly through the “cut,” instead of covering both sides above the track as well. By any standard the decision was a blunder. The troops were at all times at the mercy of the hostile crowds above and beside them. Trapped with no avenue of escape and no room in which to maneuver, they panicked and fired wildly into the crowd. The Eagle described it as “the old story of military blunder over again, blunder where absolute law is and has been for all time that the innocent are shot and the guilty escape.”
While there is no certainty that bloodshed would have been avoided had the officials not chosen to commit the entire force to the “cut,” both the Eagle and Alan Pinkerton believed that the tactics employed were in error. Why then, did Reeder choose that course? The General gave two explanations. One was tactical. Reeder noted that raw recruits run greater risks of having their formation destroyed and had this happened the regiment might have disintegrated into a mob. In the “cut,” since their flanks were protected by the walls, their formation would be preserved. This supposedly would allow the men to use their rifles with reasonable effect. Reeder claimed that the wisdom of this approach could be verified by the fact that the regiment emerged from the cut without the loss of a single soldier. That no soldier died could also be attributed to the fact that the unorganized crowd fought with sticks and stones and not firearms. As for the discipline enforced by the cramped space, it was hardly evident when the troops opened fire on the crowd without any order from their superior officers.
One thing the first explanation does indicate is that Reeder viewed himself as a commander of troops in a battle situation rather than as commander of a peace keeping force.
The second explanation is even more revealing. The General explained that he marched through the “cut” at the request of an official of the railroad to liberate a train in the possession of the strikers. The pattern of events at Reading is generally in keeping with those in many other communities directly affected by the Railroad Strike of 1877. For the first time on a massive scale, the frustrations of a people in transition to a new industrial order burst forth. The next sixty years would see other such nationwide struggles as industry and its workers groped toward a normalization of relations. The companies learned the lesson of 1877. Until the 1930’s their alliance with the political power structure gave them almost unbridled power. Reform movements led by farmers, laborers and small businessmen were swept aside. It was a period of such colossal graft and swashbuckling business practices that Mark Twain dubbed it the “great barbecue.”
But all that was in the future in July of 1877. In Reading, as in most of the other affected communities, the evidence seems to indicate that many of the citizens viewed the new industrial order as something of a mixed blessing.
The aftermath of the tragedy indicates that Reading’s citizens did not necessarily share the company’s interpretation of the events. It is true that a Coroner’s Jury did exonerate the soldiers involved in the shooting, claiming that under the circumstances the shooting was understandable. The citizens of Reading, while showing compassion for the soldiers. were also reluctant to blame their fellow towns people for the affair. Franklin Gowen, in an attempt to repeat his success in the Molly Maguire trials, joined the Berks County district attorney to prosecute the Reading strikers. Samuel Humphreys and Edward Smith were indicted with five others for burning the Lebanon Valley Bridge, but they had pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison for five years. Hiram Nachtrieb, a discharged engineer and accused as a ringleader by Allan Pinkerton, was the man Gowen most wanted. In his trial, Gowen’s oratorical skills fell on deaf ears. On October 6, 1877, Nachtrieb was acquitted. In a second case one week later, thirteen out of fourteen men accused of inciting to riot were acquitted. The convicted man received a light sentence. There was to be a third case on October 22, with forty-one defendants, but it was never held. In January, 1878, five more men were convicted of taking part in the riots; but they were let off with a one dollar fine and a sentence of six months, computed from the time of arrest, so that it came to only a few days.
So it ended, even though, as the Eagle editorialized, “The corporations have the law on their side, they own the legislatures, they retain the ablest lawyers, they control most of the newspapers, and manufacture public opinion.” The people of Reading knew that the behavior of the workers was the anguished cry of ordinary men, their neighbors, asserting their rights as human beings and free American citizens in the face of a corporate monopoly which in 1877 still seemed alien to the American spirit.
This article appeared in the Spring 1972 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.