INDUSTRIALIZATION, SOCIAL CHANGE AND CONFLICT
The expansion and prosperity enjoyed in the period following the Civil War was followed by the economic collapse of the Panic of 1873, brought on by rapid industrial expansion and inflated credit. The enormous railroad expansion after the war, as well as other manufacturing growth and land speculation, was part of a great tide of business investment and uncontrolled optimism. Though profits were large, prices were inflated. The United States sold bonds and other securities abroad to fund this expansion while increasing imports beyond the balance of exports, necessitating the loss of specie abroad to pay the foreign debt and trade deficit (Bogart and Thompson 1922:274-287). The suspension of investment firms and bankruptcies began in the east. Between 1873 and 1877, commerce fell off and unemployment rose (Burbank 1966:5).
The transportation system was hit hard. By 1877 only one in fifteen railroad lines tributary to St. Louis was paying dividends. The railroads passed their losses down to the employees by cutting wages, forcing them to perform unpaid labor, eliminating jobs, and cutting back on hours. When employees fell so far into debt that their wages were garnished, they were discharged. Although this treatment precipitated a number of isolated strikes in the 1870s, the employers made use of the Pinkerton and other detective agencies to infiltrate and crush the strike. However, the discontent of the railroad employees was fed by the attitudes of wealthy railroad capitalists who were bluntly unsympathetic to the complaints, and reacted to the strikes by imploring for armed military protection of railroad property by the federal government (Burbank 1966:5-10).
The great strike that paralyzed much of the nation began in the east at Martinsburg, West Virginia; Baltimore; and Pittsburgh. Before long, it had spread to Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. While the strikes in the east were accompanied by violence and destruction, the St. Louis strike startled many by the quickness and efficiency of its non-violent takeover, and the general ease with which the strike spread and clamped down with a blockade on transportation and commerce.
On Sunday, July 22, 1877, workingman representatives of virtually all the railroad lines met in East St. Louis, elected an executive committee to direct the strike, and issued General Order No. 1, which stopped all railroad traffic except passenger and mail trains. The strikers made the relay depot the base of operations. The strikers also controlled the bridge approaches and telegraph lines, and soon made the Union Depot in St. Louis the center of the Missouri railroad strike. The mayor of East St. Louis, John Bowman, was appointed arbitrator for the executive committee. Bowman also helped the committee select a special police to guard the railroad property against damage. Although the strikes in East-St. Louis were offered encouragement by the German-American Workingman's Party and the secret Order of the Knights of Labor, who were very instrumental in the
organization of the Missouri general strike, the East St. Louis strike was not run by any organized labor group (Burbank 1966: 16-33). This was perhaps the most ominous sign of all since a grassroots movement for redress of grievances threatened the very core of the capitalist-labor relations, which up till then had been threatened only by a few socialist organizations and unions of skilled labor.
The railroad strike soon spread to other business sectors. In East St. Louis, the packing houses around the National Stockyards were closed without difficulty. At one plant, 125 head of cattle were allowed to be processed under the condition that the company donate 500 cans of beef to the strikers, to which the packing plant was quick to agree. At the bluff coal mines near Belleville, factions of coal miners began organizing with intentions of joining the general strike. In St. Louis, representatives of different shops and plants began to appear at the Workingman's Party headquarters with requests to join the other strikers; and Carondelet with its heavy industries also soon joined the strike (Burbank 1966:21, 33-43).
The discipline and non-violence of the East St. Louis strike was in contrast to the nominal control prevailing on the other side of the river. Though the strikers in St. Louis did not resort to the kind of destruction that occurred in the eastern United States, isolated incidences of lootings, fights, and destruction, as well as the addition of blacks to the striking force, provided ammunition for the pro-railroad St. Louis newspapers. The St. Louis Republican remarked that the procession of strikers "in not exactly what it did, but in what it barely refrained from doing, was an event simply terrifying in the eyes of all who behold ... that vast, impetuous and perspiring mass of men ... if a provocation of the most trivial character were offered" (Burbank 1966:74, 75). Harry Eastman, representing the East St. Louis workers, addressed the St. Louis strikers and urged the men not to interfere in East St. Louis: "Go home to your different wards and organize your different unions, but don't keep coming up here in great bodies and stirring up excitement. Ask the Mayor, as we did, to close up all the saloons... keep sober and orderly, and when you are organized, apply to the United Workingmen for orders. Don't plunder ... don't interfere with the railroads here ... let us attend to that" (Burbank 1966:74).
Finally, on July 27, the St. Louis strike was put down by a contingent of police with Missouri militia in reserve and no resistance from the strikers. The next day United States troops advanced on East St. Louis and took over the relay depot without incident. The intervention by federal troops, rather than police or state militia, was an acknowledgement of the ineffectiveness of the militia in such a widespread strike, as well as a commitment by the government to protect railroad property a great deal of which was in federal receivership. Though no effort was made by the strikers to recapture the relay depot, they openly defied Governor Cullom of Illinois when he ordered the resumption of business and gave orders for a train to move. The strikers "sitting about on the curbs, looking entirely harmless... to a number of five or six hundred, gently closed in upon the train, and put out the fire in the engine." Governor Cullom then made a forceful speech to the effect that it and all trains would go out "if there was enough power in the State of Illinois to send them." However, the engineer refused to take the train out unless the governor occupied the cab with him, an invitation that was declined, and so the blockade continued into the next day (Burbank 1966:157, 158).
That evening, General Pope informed President Hayes that the train blockade continued and would require more force than Governor Cullom had anticipated. The next day arrests were made by the United States marshal. The strike-sympathetic East St. Louis Gazette in an editorial placed the blame of the strike on railroad bond holders and directors "who cut freight and passenger rates and then reduced wages in order that dividends might be maintained ... laborers might voice their objections singly, and merely get fired; but when three or more voice their objections, they are called a mob, and the strong arm of the law is invoked" (Burbank 1966: 158-159).
So untenable was the control of East St. Louis that General Bates, commander of the Illinois militia, maintained a headquarters in a Pullman car in the East St. Louis railyards. A hardliners, General Bates expressed the opinion that "a strong standing army, with the quartering of several regiments in the principal cities was now a necessity." The president of the St. Louis Merchants Exchange said that "a standing army would give employment to and keep out of mischief a dangerous portion of the community, a class which was growing larger, and would always be a weight on the community (Burbank 1966:187, 179).
A few days later a letter that was published in a St. Louis newspaper and signed by 27 prominent citizens expressed a different attitude. The letter stated that, based on the results of an investigation, the strikers had genuine grievances in that the railroads had failed to pay regularly and promptly their employees. The letter stated: "We are informed, that in some instances this class of employees, to whom cash payment is a necessity, have not been paid in full for months; that in one instance the pay for several months is entirely in arrears, and that a portion of what is due in money has been paid in certificates on which they suffer a ruinous discount." The railroads remained silent on the charges and there was no improvement in the condition of the railroad workers, (Burbank 1966:179).
The East St. Louis strikers were dealt with leniently compared to the St. Louis strike leaders. Burbank notes that "in spite of their anger, the railroad officials, or most of them, must have realized that East St. Louis would remain in the hands of the railroad workers. Mayor Bowman demonstrated his loyalty by defending the East St. Louis strikers on trial in Springfield and two months later was on hand to deliver a speech to the Workingman's Union of East St. Louis" (Burbank 1966:177).
The full impact of the 1877 strikes on a national as well as a local economic and social level have not been fully explored and have been largely ignored by past and present historians of the St. Louis-East St. Louis area. The overall reaction in the 1870s was one of "horror and indignation" and, with few exceptions, the business leaders, most particularly the railroad industry, did little to examine the causes of the strike or examine the grievances submitted by the executive committees. The press more and more advised working people to accept the low station in life that had been given to them. The Reverend Henry Beecher, before a wealthy Brooklyn, New York, congregation, asked: "Is the working class oppressed? Yes, undoubtedly it is. Nevertheless, God had intended the great to be great and the little to be little" (Burbank 1966:11, 187).
Although the Great Strike of 1877 failed, the strike had far-reaching consequences for the labor movement. Out of the strikes of 1877, the Workingman's Party and the Order of the Knights of Labor gained a large membership and a new labor organization was born in 1881, the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was generally apolitical, being mainly concerned with achieving economic equity. It was the Greenback Labor Party, "with a program of currency reform and moderate demands on labor," that became the chief political mouthpiece for the labor class. The socialist movement as a whole went through some changes and divisions, with the hard-core, political faction splitting off and leaving a moderate, apolitical, civil rights- and union-oriented labor organization, the Socialist Labor Party, to carry the torch for the working class. The complaints of the working people were economic, not ideological, and so action-oriented labor organizations, only moderately socialist, were able to garnish the most support. The moderate socialist movement remained active in St. Louis, placing members on the school board, the municipal House of Delegates, in the State Commissioner's seat, and in 1911, 1913, and 1917, a socialist mayor was elected in Granite City, Illinois, an industrial community north of East St. Louis.
Some very revolutionary reforms came out of the socialist movement in the St. Louis area. The school board pushed for a kindergarten system and foreign language instruction in schools. A publication in 1878 called Tour of St. Louis made known the appalling details of slum life in the city. In 1879 the State Bureau of Labor Statistics was set up in Missouri to monitor the labor situation, and in 1884 the Federal Bureau of Labor, forerunner to the United States Department of Labor, was established to assure just treatment of the working class (Burbank 1966:190-193).
However, the reforms taking place slowly throughout St. Louis and the country were apparently not enough to stem the growing dissatisfaction of the East St. Louis workers. In April of 1886 East St. Louis was again torn by a series of riots aimed at the railroads. On Friday, April 9, a crowd of strike sympathizers congregated on a bridge over Cahokia Creek and began jeering at a force of special deputies brought in to protect nonstrikers who had continued to work. The demonstration turned into a riot and the deputies, stationed on the Louisville and Nashville trestle over the old river channel, fired on the crowd, killing seven people.
The rioters burned the lumber shed, oil rooms, and scales of the Cairo Shortline, and tried to set fire to the roundhouse. Railroad cars were torched, a trestle was burned, and the Louisville and Nashville freighthouse was destroyed. Five hundred state militia were ordered into town and the railroad lines fortified their buildings. The militia remained encamped between the Ohio and Mississippi and Vandalia Railroads until the trouble was over (Harpers Weekly 1886:248-51; St. Louis Post Dispatch 1886:4, cited in Smith and Lange 1980:50).
The problems with the railroad/employee relations would continue in East St. Louis. However, it would take on less importance in the overall social and economic sphere of the town in the last decade of the 19th century when East St. Louis went through its second industrial expansion.