Streets, Railroads, and the Great Strike of 1877. – Review

Streets, Railroads, and the Great Strike of 1877. – Review – book review

Richard Schneirov

Streets, Railroads, and the Great Strike of 1877. By David O. Stowell. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. xii, 181. $15.00.)

In this short and thoroughly researched book, which is accessible to general and academic audiences, David Stowell revises the standard interpretation of the 1877 National Railroad Strike. Historians have generally treated the rail strike and its spread via crowd actions into other sectors of the economy as a labor event, the first national revolt of the industrial working class. In this detailed study of the strike in Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo, Stowell argues that the railroad was more than a target for the workplace-centered grievances of workers. Because railroads were routed through cities at grade level, they significantly encroached on streets, thereby affecting a variety of urban interests. Railroads obstructed and delayed travel, injured retail commerce, and, most grievously, caused an appalling number of deaths and injuries. In 1880, railroads killed 238 people in New York state, and the number of fatalities increased throughout this period.

Stowell documents a large number of conflicts between residential property owners and railroads, often involving city councils, over use of the streets in each city during the mid-1870s. He then recounts the strike in detail, using comparative analysis to explain why the crowd actions involved more people in Buffalo than in the other cities. Critical to his argument is the point that, in Buffalo, rail lines were routed through the central city and that residents had only to step out of their homes to be among strikers. Based on an insightful reading of arrest records, he contends that there were two kinds of crowds: labor crowds, which tried to start and maintain strikes on the railroads and nearby factories, and residential crowds, which gathered in neighborhoods to attack and stop trains.

Stowell admits that his evidence is “far from conclusive” in demonstrating that significant numbers of crowd members were motivated by a desire to defend urban communities against railroad encroachment. Indeed, the attempt to infer motivation of crowd members from their backgrounds and actions is the weak link in this highly suggestive work. Stowell could have strengthened his case by taking a somewhat different interpretive strategy. He could have argued, consistent with his evidence, that the widespread support given to antirailroad struggles before 1877 by local authority figures–newspapers, city councils, prominent merchants–legitimated antirailroad sentiment among the population at large, thereby creating a political climate in which extralegal actions precipitated by the strike could become a broader community revolt. Notwithstanding this flaw, Stowell has largely succeeded in convincing the reader that the 1877 upheaval had important urban community as well as class determinants.

Richard Schneirov Indiana State University

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