United States and American History: 1877

About the history of the United States in 1877, capitalist Vanderbilt dies, Rutherford Hayes becomes president, end of Reconstruction, Great Upheaval and railroad strikes.


--The largest puffball mushroom ever recorded was discovered in a New York pasture. At a distance it was mistaken for a sheep.

Jan. 4 Cornelius Vanderbilt died, having made a $100-million fortune in his lifetime. The wily captain of industry began his career as a captain of a ferryboat, then went on to make $10 million in the steamboat industry during the Civil War. After the war, he increased his profits with railroad investments. Vanderbilt provided the capital to build the New York Central Railroad, which opened in 1873 with the 1st train route between New York and Chicago. He also financed the 1st female-managed stock brokerage firm in history, the Wall Street concern of Woodhull and Calflin. Vanderbilt met the young Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennie shortly after their arrival in New York, and he helped them capture the public's eye, supplying them with capital and inside market tips. Woodhull and her associates used the profits to publish an anti-capitalist "free love" news weekly, and to launch an anarcho-feminist presidential campaign. Vanderbilt, his wife later apologized, had a strange sense of humor and was a great admirer of spunk.

Feb. 27 The Electoral Commission announced Rutherford Hayes as the winner of the Hayes-Tilden presidential contest.

Apr. 10 President Hayes began withdrawal of Federal troops from the occupied South, signaling the end of the Reconstruction Period.

July 16 What became the 1st American general strike started in the little railroad town of Martinsburg, W.Va. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced a 10% wage cut, the 2nd in 8 months and the 4th such reduction since 1870. Railroad workers countered the measure by blocking the passage of trains through Martinsburg pending rescinding of the order. Local police were called in to disperse the strikers but were forced to withdraw. Railroad officials requested that the governor of the State send in State militia. The Berkeley Light Guards were ordered to the occupied station, but as most of them were railroaders, they joined with the crowd of strikers instead of dispersing them. A new shipment of State militia was rebuffed.

When news of the success at Martinsburg was circulated, the shutdown rapidly spread to all other divisions of the B. and O. In response, President Hayes ordered 300 troops to suppress what his Secretary of War was publicly labeling "an insurrection." Local people--working men as well as the unemployed--came to the aid of the strikers. The Pennsylvania Railroad ordered a doubleheader (a speedup) and resistance increased. In Pittsburgh, 26 strikers were killed and an angry mob retaliated by tearing up railroad tracks and burning down machine shops and the Union depot. Police stood by as hundreds of people broke into the idle freight cars in the yards and distributed their contents to the crowd. Nine workers were killed in further rioting in Martinsburg. The general strike spread through Chicago, New York, and St. Louis, where the employees of a beef cannery joined the railroaders. Then workers in steel foundries, flour mills, bagging companies, sugar refineries, chemical and lead works also joined in. In many cases, workers resumed production for themselves and distributed the goods they produced.

The Great Upheaval was finally put down by the use of military force. Wage concessions were won in a number of cases. The vast, spontaneous, and cooperative effort was the 1st occurrence of worker occupation of businesses and blue-collar self-management in the U.S.

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