In the summer of 1877, the United States descended into chaos as the Great Railroad Strike gripped the nation’s circulatory system. Railroad workers, tired of wage reductions and terrible working conditions, rose up and stopped trains across the Mid-Atlantic from Baltimore to Pittsburgh and across the Midwest to Chicago.
In Pennsylvania, the strike raised the working class to a fever pitch – years of labor frustration and near starvation during the Long Depression had left them in a desperate condition and primed to revolt. On July 21-22, 1877, workers in Pittsburgh rose up and attacked the Pennsylvania Railroad’s infrastructure in the city. They destroyed more than 30 buildings, destroyed more than 1,000 locomotives, and caused millions of dollars in damage. The uprising left an estimated 40 people dead.
These events sent an electric shock through the Keystone State’s working class, prompting strikes and revolts in industrial towns and cities across Pennsylvania. On July 25, 1877, the events came to the Coal Region community of Shamokin.
A day earlier, mine workers gathered in Shamokin and demanded “Food or Work.” Workers were also protesting a 10 percent reduction in wages thrust upon them by management in the surrounding anthracite mines.
By the 25th, the workers were in a fevered state. Events across Pennsylvania, and the nation as a whole, motivated them to action. After meeting in Shamokin’s Union Hall, a march began in the evening toward the city’s railroad depots. The crowd “hissed and hollered” as they moved toward the Reading Railroad’s depot in Shamokin. The crowd was estimated at more than 1,000.
The workingmen marched unarmed and, as was noted at the time, “without riotous intentions,” but when someone threw a rock through a window at E. Shuman and Company’s store, events took an ugly turn.
The crowd marched on toward and tore into the Reading depot, sacking the adjacent warehouse completely.
As the crowd coursed through the Reading Railroad buildings, a citizens militia gathered as the bell of the Presbyterian Church rang out the alarm. More than 70 armed citizens came together. As the crowd moved on from the Reading depot towards the Northern Central Railroad station, the militia blocked their path. The citizens militia ordered the crowd to disperse. The crowd refused. The militia opened fire on the unarmed crowd on the streets in the center of Shamokin.
The musket fire riddled the crowd, wounding at least 14. This sent the crowd of workers scattering in every direction. By 11 PM, quiet descended on Shamokin and a militia patrolled the streets.
Over the following weeks, two separate militias were created by local residents to patrol their city, keeping a watch out on the city’s buildings and railroad infrastructure. The crowd never returned.
Thus ended what became known as the Shamokin Uprising, a brief affair that came amid a summer of violence and destruction. By comparison, the toll in blood in Shamokin was slight. More than a dozen wounded paled in comparison to the violence on the streets of larger American cities and towns. Yet, the violence had a long-lasting impact on Shamokin and the surrounding Coal Region.
In the weeks after the Uprising, “rioters” were arrested and put on trial. Dozens of men were arrested for their part in the events on July 25, 1877. Ultimately, the vast majority escaped without jail time or with light sentences. Shamokin wanted to get forget its brief foray into class violence.
The 1877 strikes marked a change in the history of labor relations in the Coal Region. The disorganization of disaffected mine workers led to a renewed interest in a union. The previous union had been shattered by the Reading Railroad earlier in the 1870s, setting the stage for the Shamokin Uprising by allowing companies to impose their conditions upon the miners at will.
Little remains today to tell the story of the Shamokin Uprising, but the event left a lasting impression on the history of the Coal Region.
Featured Image: Reading Railroad Depot in Shamokin (Wikimedia Commons)