The Matthews Monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Hail the Rail, Brother, and Join Me On the Footboard

Easton Cemetery, Easton, PA

Sunnyside Cemetery, Tunkhannock, PA

For anyone born in the last half of the twentieth century or later, railroads and the trains that travel on them may seem to be almost a peripheral part of our world of transportation.  Sure, we still have trains that carry freight, and mass transit systems, and of course, there is Amtrak, the last true passenger train.  But I will bet if you asked a young person to name a current mode of transportation, a train would probably not be the first or even second answer.

But one hundred and fifty years ago, railroads were the primary means of movement of passengers and freight in the country, next to a horse and carriage.  Automobiles and aircraft were merely ideas until after the turn of the twentieth century.  Railroad track and steam locomotives debuted in the late 1820’s with the B&O Railroad connecting Baltimore with the Ohio River.  By the 1850’s, the country had 9,000 miles of track; by the 1870’s, it boasted 52,000 miles of track.  And by the 1890’s, almost 130,000 miles of track crisscrossed the United States from coast to coast.  The railroads and their iron horses truly were king.   

The railroads made the fortunes of many men, including Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould.  They also provided employment for hundreds of thousands of people, both on and off the tracks.  After the Civil War, the railroads were the second largest employer in the United States, behind agriculture.  Railroad workers included conductors, conductors’ assistants, engineers, firemen, dining car stewards, ticket collectors, train baggagemen, brakemen, train flagmen, yardmasters, yard conductors, switchtenders, foremen, yard flagmen, yard brakemen, switchmen, car tenders, operators, hump riders and car operators, to name a few.  Plus, workers were needed to manufacture and lay the rail, and manufacture the locomotives and cars.  The entire operation was massive and affected and benefited much of the country.  

And yet, even with the benefits, there were many in the industry exploited by a few.  Vanderbilt and Gould and their ilk were not called “the robber barons” for nothing.  The mid-19th century was a time that didn’t know a standard 8-hour work day, or worker’s compensation in case of injury or death on the job.  By the 1890’s, railroad work was considered the deadliest in the United States, even more dangerous than anthracite mining.  Railroad workers began to organize in the 1860’s, at first to create benevolent funds to aid members and their families in times of sickness, injury and death.  But as the United States’ economy took a nosedive in the 1870’s, railroad workers showed their discontent with the rough working conditions and reduced wages by striking, which led to violence and bloodshed.

First, let me introduce you to some of the fraternal-organizations-turned-unions that were founded in the mid-19th century.  The first came to be in 1863 in Marshall, Michigan, when railroad engineers organized the Brotherhood of the Footboard.  The following year, the name was changed to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (B of LE).  They were the first of the “Big Four” fraternal organizations/unions that “promoted and protected the rights, interests and safety of their members through solidarity, aggressive representation and education.”  The B of LE was the senior national labor union in the United States when, in 2004, it merged with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to form the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Division of the Rail Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.  Their headquarters are in Cleveland, OH, and according to their website, they have 59,000 members today.  

The second of the “Big Four” was the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen (ORC&B), founded in Amboy, IL, in 1868.  It endured a few name changes and acquisitions of smaller unions until it merged in 1969 with the other two organizations below (and the Switchmens’ Union) to form the United Transportation Union (UTU).  

The third of the “Big Four” was called the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, organized in 1873 in Port Jervis, NY, as a benefits society for firemen that worked on steam locomotives.  The name was changed in 1906 as an acknowledgement that many of its members had been promoted to engineers, and so, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers (B of LF&E) was born.  A fireman’s job on a steam locomotive was to continuously and carefully shovel coal into the boilers to produce steam.  The work was physically demanding, dirty and dangerous, as the platform was always swaying, and boilers frequently exploded.  A fireman was an engineer’s assistant, and many times the job was viewed as “engineer training.” In 1969, the B of LF&E merged with other unions to form the UTU.

The fourth of the “Big Four” was the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, founded in 1883 in Oneonta, NY.  The name was later changed to the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (BRT), and it continued until 1969, when it merged with other unions to form the UTU.  The UTU is headquartered in Cleveland, OH, and boasts 125,000 active and retired workers from the railroad, bus, mass transit and airline industries.

These modern unions have their roots in reactions to the economic depression that plagued first Europe and then the United States in the 1870’s.  The Panic of 1873 shook the nation when the Philadelphia banking firm, Jay Cooke and Company went bankrupt.  Cooke’s firm was the main financier of the federal government and its national loan during the Civil War, plus the bank was a major investor in many railroads.  When Cooke’s firm failed, the US economy collapsed.  The New York Stock Exchange actually closed for ten days.  Almost 90 railroads across the country went bankrupt, and more than 15,000 businesses failed also.   By 1876, the unemployment rate was 14% (about 3 million people).

This was caused also in part by a massive overbuilding of the railroad system and an overinvestment in it by banks using the funds of their depositors.  And in the wake of the Panic of 1873, the discontent that had been brewing between railroad workers and owners over poor working conditions exploded when the owners cut wages.  The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, also known as the “Great Upheaval,” began in Martinsburg, WV, when B&O workers struck in response to the second wage cut that year.  The state militia was called in, and then federal troops were needed to break the strike.  The strike spread to Cumberland, MD, where striking workers stopped freight and passenger trains.  The National Guard was sent in, violence erupted, and citizens were killed.  The strikers turned into an angry retaliatory mob, more killings ensued, and federal troops were needed to end the violence.  

The Great Upheaval also spread to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Reading, PA, Shamokin, PA, Chicago, Louisville, KY, and St. Louis.  In each of these situations, strikers were killed by local and state militia, and other strikers retaliated by destroying railroad property.  The violence ended only when the President Hayes sent in federal troops, although the federal troops did their share of killing.    As one worker put it, "We were shot back to work."  The strike lasted about 45 days, affected the entire nation, caused the death of about 100 people, and destroyed millions of dollars worth of railroad property.  It was the first national strike, and while unions lost this battle, they became better organized for the future ones, and the public had heard their grievances, even if the owners continued to ignore them, for a while anyway.

Growing up in anthracite coal country, I know about the strikes of coal miners in the late 19th century and the early 20th century.  I know about the Molly Maguires (who, by the way, were tried and hung in 1877.  It was a bloody year).  I know about John Mitchell and the United Mine Workers.  But I didn’t know about the Great Strike.  And I’d like to thank the men who worked on the railroad and whose Brotherhoods made sure they had a metal marker or carved emblem on their grave to denote their affiliations.  You’ll see them below, and it was great fun finding out about them.

B of LE on right (He was also in the Odd Fellows and the Order of United American Mechanics), Evergreen Cemetery, Jim Thorpe, PA

B of LF&E, Reeders Methodist Cemetery, Reeders, PA

This is a tough one.  Is it B of LE, or B of LF before they changed to B of LF&E???  Gnaden Huetten Cemetery, Lehighton, PA

The B is broken, B of LF&E, Gnaden Huetten Cemetery, Lehighton, PA

B of LE, Willow View Cemetery, Clifford, PA

BRT, Evergreen Cemetery, Jim Thorpe, PA

BRT, Gnaden Huetten Cemetery, Lehighton, PA

BRT, Brookdale Cemetery, Carbondale, PA

BRT, Carney Cemetery, Factoryville, PA

B of LF&E, St. Paul's UCC Cemetery, Swiftwater, PA

BRT, Indian Orchard Cemetery, Indian Orchard, PA

B of LF&E, this is on the grave of one of my cousins, Russell Possinger.  He died in 1923, age 23.  I don't know if it was a RR-related accident.  St. Mark's Lutheran Cemetery, Appenzell, PA
My guess is B of LE but again, could be a weird F, Hays Cemetery, Easton, PA

BR(RailRoad)T, Thompson Cemetery, Thompson, PA

BRT, Thompson Cemetery, Thompson, PA

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