Trouble on the railroads in 1873–1874: Prelude to the 1877 crisis?

Herbert G. Gutman
1961 Labor History  
LABOR HISTORY quently sided with them. Though the railroad operators put down almost all the strikes, they faced difficulties that they were unprepared for and that taxed their imaginations and their energies. Even though the railroad industry was probably the largest single employer in the country when the 1873 depression started, most railroad workers were without unions of any kind. 3 The track hands, switchmen, firemen, and brakemen had no union. A small number of machinists employed in
more » ... ain repair shops belonged to the Machinists' and Blacksmiths' International Union, but the large majority of shopmen and stationary hands were not union members. Most conductors also were free of union ties, for the Locomotive Conductors' Brotherhood was a weak union. Founded in 1868, it had only 21 locals five years later. 4 Only the engineers had an effective union in 1873, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Almost 10,000 engineers, employed on nearly every major trunk line, belonged to the Brotherhood. Led by Grand Chief Engineer Charles Wilson, the Brotherhood enforced written contracts on a number of lines, published a monthly magazine, and maintained a well-managed accident and insurance program. 5 At the same time, the absence of trade unions 3 The railroad system had grown enormously by 1873. Only 9,201 miles of track were used in 1850, but in the next ten years this figure had more than tripled. By 1873 slightly over 70,000 miles existed. In the four years between 1869 and 1873 more than 24,000 miles were built. Not counting clerks, Pennsylvania had about 18,000 railroad workers in 1870. Nearly 30,000 men worked for the
doi:10.1080/00236566108583874 fatcat:ophogcqokjbkvhym65eddold5a