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Rise of Industrial America
Railroads in the Late 19th Century
The Great Railroad Strike of 1894

Frank A. Leach published the Vallejo Evening Chronicle from 1867-1886 and the Oakland Enquirer from 1886-1898. He retired from journalism to become superintendent of the San Francisco Mint, 1897-1907. In the following excerpts from Part 13 of his autobiography, he describes the great railroad strike in 1894 and the impact that it had on the nation and on California. What was the cause of the great railroad strike of 1894? In what ways did the strike impact the nation? What do you think people learned from the great railroad strike of 1894?

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When I look back and review all the stirring incidents attending the more than thirty years of my newspaper life, there is one incident standing somewhat head and shoulders above all the rest for the worry, anxiety, and hard work it caused me. I refer to the Enquirer's dealing with the news and incidents of the great railroad strike in 1894. . . .

The great strike grew out of a disagreement between G. M. Pullman and the workmen employed by him in building and repairing the Pullman sleepers in the town of Pullman, near Chicago. On May 10 of the year heretofore mentioned, 2500 out of 3100 of the workmen struck and walked out of the repair shops, and on the day following the shops were closed and the remainder of the workmen were dismissed. After more than a month of idleness and failure to secure any concession from Pullman, the workmen appealed to the organization of railroad employees of the United States to aid them in bringing the great car builder to terms. In response to this request the national organization ordered the railroad employees, from Chicago to the Pacific, not to handle any Pullman sleepers after 4 P.M., June 27. As a result no trains with sleeping cars left the yards or mole at West Oakland after that date, as the men refused to make up trains with sleeping cars. For the two or three days following, all other trains were operated as usual, but the railroad company made no attempt to send out or move trains ordinarily made up with sleepers. There was some clamor in the newspapers and by the public for the company to operate such trains without the Pullmans, but the request was refused. Thereupon an order came from Eugene Debs, the head of the national organization of the railroad employees, on June 28 to tie up the entire system of the Southern Pacific. The Santa Fe and Western Pacific railroads had not yet reached the state. . . .

The seriousness of the situation as affecting the public was apparent. The stopping of every passenger train and all mail and freight movement meant the paralyzation of business. Up to this time the people generally had been looking upon the contest as from a disinterested standpoint, but now the situation was changed, and considerable pressure was put upon the railroad company to have it yield to the demand of the employees. The attitude of the railroad was denounced by the San Francisco Examiner as "stupid and blundering." Another newspaper said: "The luxurious conveyances are not essential to the wants of business. People will gladly submit to temporary discomfort while the dispute is being settled." A local paper said: "The party most injured is in no way a party to the controversy. The people, who know nothing and care less of the merits of the dispute between the railroad companies and their employees, are being ruined by the warfare, throttling industry and commerce." Notwithstanding this, and the fact that it was in the midst of the fruit shipping season when millions of dollars to the fruit growers were at stake, the railroad company refused to operate any passenger train unless allowed to run the Pullmans. . . .

For four or five days there was but little change in the conditions. The company had difficulty in finding men to operate the local lines and ferry system, but they managed to make a number of irregular trips daily. Some few trains had been sent out on the main lines, and some few came into Oakland. No act of violence or mob action took place prior to July 4, but on that day the West Oakland men gathered for desperate work, which had evidently been carefully pre-arranged. The railroad yards were rushed by mobs of strikers, engines were stopped and killed, and engineers and firemen were lucky if they escaped a beating. The mechanics in the shops were made to quit work. One of the first acts of lawlessness was disregarding the orders of the United States Marshal, who tried to stop the men from entering the yards. He was brushed aside, with yells of derision. The mobs swept through the yards, doing some rough work in "persuading" the men to quit work. Local trains were killed on the way to and from the ferries and the passengers made to leave the cars. One train was killed on the mole and a big crowd of holiday passengers was compelled to walk back to Oakland. A wagonload of policemen and a lot of Deputy Sheriffs responded to the call of the railroad superintendent, but they arrived on the scene too late to be of any great service.

A similar display of force was made by the strikers at all points in the West from Chicago to the Pacific. Not a wheel in all this territory was allowed to turn. The most gigantic strike known to history was now on. . . .

The first destruction of property to be reported was the burning of a 200-foot trestle in the Shasta Canyon. Rails on the lines leading out of Sacramento were spread, preventing the use of the tracks. . . .

As soon as the soldiers were ordered out and distributed to the points ordered, the railroad company began to prepare to move trains under protection. Neither the engineers nor the conductors had joined the strike movement, and as it was not a very difficult matter to get men to perform the services of firemen, the railroad company thought that, with the protection of the soldiers at the points of arrival and departure, they could operate the trains with some show of regularity. . . .

On July 11 the company managed to get a train started out of Sacramento for Oakland, but about eight miles out from the city it met with a terrible disaster. It was wrecked while passing over the trestle at that point by an explosion of dynamite. Clark, as well-known engineer in charge of the train, was killed, as were four soldiers who were on the train, and several other people were injured. Subsequently, the parties guilty of this outrage were caught and convicted after a hard-fought trial in the courts of Yolo County.

Other deeds of violence were being committed in the Eastern railroad centers, which were taken account of by President Cleveland in ordering federal troops to such places in sufficient numbers to enforce law and order. Public opinion underwent considerable change when the strikers resorted to violence, and the public mind was being wrought up to a pitch that added seriousness to the situation. On the 13th of July, Debs, who was the head of the whole affair, sent out a telegram ordering the strike off, "under conditions," which the railroad companies refused to accept. The order had a demoralizing effect on the strikers' organizations and there was some wrangling among the strikers as to what should be done. Many of the rank and file wanted to give up the struggle and go back to work, but the leaders refused, with the hope that they could by so doing influence the railroad to take all the strikers back unconditionally.

Within a day or two the company began to give evidence of making headway against the strike, in sending out a few trains from Oakland and other points. The strikers now rallied in further attempt to block the operation of trains. On the 16th a freight train was started out of the West Oakland yards which was attacked by a mob, but before the strikers succeeded in accomplishing anything to stop the departure of the train the soldiers and police were on the scene and quickly put the mob to flight. . . .

On the 23d the Fifth Regiment of state militia was sent home, but the Second Artillery and a naval force of 650 men, all federal troops, were continued on duty for a few days longer.

Some little show of keeping up the contest was continued by the extremists, but by the 1st of August even this ceased and peace reigned again after an entire month of a bitter struggle.
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View the Book Navigator for Leach's Recollections of a Newspaperman from California As I Saw It, 1849-1900. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.