by Sean Lundergan, Fr. Boyle Fellow
This week in 1874, workers at the Susquehanna Depot in Pennsylvania seized their employer’s equipment and facilities when their wages weren’t paid. The incident was a part of the escalation in labor disputes along America’s railroads that culminated in the 1877 Great Railroad Strike.
As railways rapidly expanded across the United States in the second half of the 19th century, the workers who built, maintained and operated the railways saw unreliable pay and frequent injuries, with no worker’s compensation. Many even had to pay a fine to their employer if they missed work due to injury or illness. While railroad construction and traffic boomed across the country, the United States economy went into a deep recession in 1873, the result of one of the most catastrophic worldwide financial collapses in history. As the previously wealthy companies whose workers had toiled in squalid conditions began to suffer under the recession, they struggled to pay their workers what they were owed—so those workers had to demand it.
On March 15, 1874, the Erie Railway announced that it would not be able to pay its workers at Susquehanna Depot, near Scranton, Pennsylvania, the wages it owed them. The company asked for a ten-day grace period in which to throw the money together, but after waiting patiently for a week and a half, the Susquehanna workers were told they still would not be receiving their paychecks.
So the workers decided to take matters into their own hands: on March 25, they seized control of their depot, and with it, the cars on their portion of the railway.
When the railroad fired the strike leaders, workers responded by derailing cars and dismantling equipment and spreading the pieces around town, which caused delays for miles down the railway. The local sheriff supported the strikers and was content to allow them to continue, but eventually the governor of Pennsylvania called in National Guard troops to quell the strike. Facing thousands of troops with thirty pieces of artillery, the strikers left the tracks, but they refused to agree to return to work when the company offered to reinstate all workers except for the strike leaders.
At this, the company threatened to shut down the Susquehanna Depot and move all its jobs to Elmira New York, which spooked the community out of its support for the workers and ended the strike within hours.
The Susquehanna strike and others like it were a precursor to the Martinsburg, West Virginia strike, the onset of the Great Upheaval three years later. The geographic advantage that railroads provided for companies’ wealth creation—the capability of rapid commerce over long distances—also gave workers an advantage, creating far more leverage for strikers in one location to make demands from national corporations. The lesson of the Susquehanna strike, and others like it, was that one small labor action could prove a major threat to a massive, multimillion-dollar company.