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Strikers, Octopi, and Visible Hands: The Railroad and American Capitalism

The railroad company remains a site for Americans to grapple with key questions about the nature of American capitalism.

As passenger trains began to chug across the American landscape, Americans vigorously debated access to this wondrous new form of transportation. In theory, paying for a ticket should give anyone equal access to rail travel and many rail boosters preached about the democratizing potential of the new technology. In reality, a combination of corporate policies and state legislation quickly segregated cars along the familiar American fault lines of race, class, and gender. In a world defined by a separate spheres ideology, railroad companies labored to ease anxieties about female travelers removed from the comforts of home. [2] Before the Civil War, northern states debated segregation on rail lines, but the efforts of African American activists forced railroads to end these policies. Antebellum debates – in states like Massachusetts and New York – provided a preview of battles over segregation in the postwar South, in which activists like Ida B. Wells pressed railroad companies to stop relegating black travelers to segregated “smoking cars.” Again, the outcome of these debates reverberated across American economic and social life. Plessy v. Ferguson, a court case initiated on a Louisiana railroad, established the “separate but equal” precedent that was used to uphold segregation across the South. The term “Jim Crow,” which came to symbolize this regime, even had its origins with white railroad workers in the antebellum north, who used the slur to deny access to African American travelers. [3]

In the decades after the Civil War, railroads were the site of intense labor struggles that spilled into the broader economy and sparked new national anxieties about labor relations. The most famous of these were the Great Strikes of 1877, initiated when West Virginia railroad workers, confronted with a pay cut, quit their jobs and took to the tracks to stop all rail traffic. This spontaneous protest quickly spiraled out of control and spread through the veins of the national railroad network, touching off new work stoppages and mob actions where sympathetic workers joined the railroad men. Occupying key nodes in the national network, like the B&O corridor that carved through the Appalachian Mountains, crowds of strikers ground the nation’s commerce to a halt. Legions of unemployed “tramps” and sympathetic workers – such as anthracite miners in eastern Pennsylvania – joined in the strikes and swelled the size of urban mobs. Militias and strikers battled in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago, and it only took the effort of the US Army to end the strikes and get the trains moving again.

Railroad property burns in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the Great Strikes of 1877.Harper’s Weekly, Journal of Civilization Vol XXL, No. 1076 (August 11, 1877): 624-25, Wikimedia Commons