Friday, July 28, 2017

Chariton and railroading's "Great Upheaval" of 1877

The tracks were rusty and all was eerily quiet around Chariton's 1872 C.B.&Q. Depot for a few days during late July 1877.

"It looks a little odd to see the iron tracks about the depot covered with rust," The Patriot editor wrote in his edition of Wednesday, Aug. 1, 1877. "It is the first time since the rail was built but what the tops of the rails were bright from the moving trains."

Those trains had begun moving into Chariton on newly completed Burlington & Missouri River Railroad tracks 10 years earlier, during early July 1867. In the intervening years, the B.&M.R. line had been taken over by the Chicago Burlington & Quincy. The tracks across southern Iowa to the Missouri River by 1877 were  among the busiest in the nation.

But as the nationwide railroad strike of 1877 --- sometimes called the Great Upheaval --- spread into southern Iowa, the freights stopped rolling on Wednesday, July 25, and the last passenger train, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, July 26.


The Long Depression, which had commenced with the financial panic of 1873, had among other things resulted nationwide in layoffs and wage cuts within the nation's burgeoning railroad industry.

The Great Upheaval began on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, after officials of the Burlington & Ohio Railroad announced the third round of wage cuts that year. Striking workers blockaded the trains at Martinsburg, the governor called out the state militia to restore service but soldiers refused to fire on striking workers and so the governor appealed for federal troops.

In the days that followed, the strike spread west. In this instance, the largely rural population was in general supportive of the striking workers; business leaders had mixed feelings --- many felt they were being taken advantage of by the railroads but also realized that they couldn't remain in business without them.

The strike in Iowa began with large meetings of C.B.&Q. workers in Creston, Ottumwa and Burlington on July 23. The workers drew up demands and launched the strike on July 25 when freight traffic was halted.

Charles E. Perkins, then the C.B.&Q. vice-president in charge at Burlington, ordered an end to passenger service the next day to put the squeeze on both the rail workers and those who supported them across the state.

Perkins was a skilled strategist and, working in conjunction with influential business interests in Burlington and elsewhere, engineered an end to the strike using a combination of cajolery and threats. The strike ended at Creston on Aug. 1 and, after that, rail traffic flowed freely again.

Perkins' effort was aided by the fact that the strike was collapsing nationwide at the time. He was skillful enough to head off long-term hostility between worker, rail and business interests. There was no violence either --- and up to a hundred people had died in strike-related violence elsewhere in the country.


Here's how The Patriot reported "The Strike in Chariton" in its edition of August 1:

"The present railroad strike has affected all parts of the country. We dougbt whether there is any remote area of the Union that has been free from a shortage of goods lost or some other reminder of the strike that has doubtless come to every cross road and post office and store in the land.

"In Chariton, the effect was equal to bringing together some three or four Sundays.

"From Thursday last week, at 2 p.m., until Monday of this week at the same time not a wheel rolled over the track nor a whistle or engine bell was heard in our town. The freight trains all stopped on Wednesday of last week and up to time of going to press not one car for the transportation of goods has passed through or even been moved on the side track, although the mail trains are now running about as usual.

"The Branch train (southwest to St. Joseph) was off Friday and Saturday. The mail train on Monday was in charge of a United States Marshal and it is said that at Ottumwa he had to threaten arrest before the engineer could be induced to run from there west.

"The section men were stopped from work by a squad from Woodburn and various rumors were put afloat during the quiet days that caused more or less excitement.

"The train going west on Monday night last remained here some ten hours, fearing that trouble would befall it if it attempted to push past Woodburn, Creston and other rebellious towns west of this place.

"During the whole time, however, not an angry word was heard nor any species of violence attempted at Chariton ---- it was all distressingly quiet. The engineers are still holding out for rmore wages and it is not known when the freight traffic will be resumed.

"Later --- The freight trains have begun to move."


The Patriot also published on Aug. 1, the following order that had been issued by the C.B.&Q. management:

"After today, Monday, July 30, all employees who have not reported their willingness to resume work at once will be deemed to have severed their connection with the company and others will be employed in their places. Ample time for sober reflection has been given and it is hoped that the men will generally resume their places. No one will be discharged for having participated in the strike, in case they signify their readiness for duty by twelve (12) o'clock tonight. After the business of the road has resumed its regular channels, the company will be ready to consider any grievances."

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