(I am interested in how the local and national political context affected Chicago’s architecture as well as its urban development. As I began to research this, it became quite clear that one must have a basic understanding of the political/economic context to appreciate how Chicago was so impacted. Without this knowledge, one is dumbfounded to understand, for instance, why there were no significant buildings erected in Chicago from mid-1886 to early 1889, with the exception of the Auditorium, that was an attempt to inspire confidence for private capital to return, after the Haymarket Square bombing and resulting trials had stopped all investment in downtown in its tracks. This event was the culmination of the unsuccessful first political battle for the eight-hour work day, which I had introduced in Volume One, and now pick-up from where we left off.) Thomas’ concert series started on Monday, June 18, 1877, and had gone smoothly for the first four weeks of its six weeks run. But on Monday, July 16, a local railroad strike against the Baltimore & Ohio in Martinsburg, W.V., began that quickly snowballed into the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The U.S. economy had been in a depression (referred to as the Great Depression until the 1930s) for almost four years, following the 1873 panic brought on by Jay Cooke’s bankruptcy. Many railroads had been forced to declare bankruptcy, and in order to raise what little money that could be had, their court-appointed receivers had lowered freight rates to gain a competitive edge that had only further reduced their profits. The severe winter of 1876-77 had only acerbated the economic plight of the railroads, and they saw no alternative but to reduce the wages of their workers by 10% that had been enacted on July 1 (this had come on top of a 20% reduction imposed only the year before).
These were the conditions among the country’s urban working class as the spark of the July 16 strike in West Virginia set off a two-week nationwide rampage that pitted labor unions and the working poor against the capitalist owners of American business. By the end of the week, Federal troops had been called into Baltimore, where on Friday, July 20, they killed twelve people in their campaign to restore quiet.
But it was in Pittsburgh, the western terminus of the Pennsylvania Railroad, where the scenes from the Paris Commune of only six years earlier were replayed, to the utter horror of Chicago’s elite. Protests in that city against the railroad began on Thursday, July 19, and continued unabated into Friday, as the city’s local militia refused to confront their own neighbors and families. The railroad’s management’s only recourse was to press the governor to send in the militia from Philadelphia who had no such inhibitions (for which the company provided special cars), which was the move that pushed what had up to this point been peaceable protests, into a full-fledged insurrection.
The news of the Philadelphian troops arrival late on Saturday afternoon, July 21, only served to further incense the growing crowd of protestors gathered near the company’s Union Depot and yard at 28th Street. Over 600 troops had arrived with the order to clear the tracks so the company’s freight trains (the strike was only against freight trains, a conscious strategy so as to not antagonize the general public) could start moving again. With bayonets fixed, the troops charged the crowd blocking the tracks, but there were too many people to be intimated by such a move. The protestors reacted with a hail of rocks and bricks, which brought the inevitable order to open fire. Twenty people were killed and almost thirty wounded. As word of the massacre spread throughout the city, people from all over converged on the Pennsylvania’s railroad yard to avenge the troops’ brutality. Completely outnumbered, the troops had no alternative but to hole up in a nearby roundhouse, leaving the mob to its own devices.
That evening, July 21, anything connected with the Pennsylvania Railroad, locomotives, freight cars, and buildings was set ablaze by the protestors. By sunrise on Sunday, July 22, a three-mile long strip of railroad property, including the railroad’s elegant $4 million Union Depot, was ablaze.
Images of the riot’s aftermath seen in Chicago evoked memories not only of the great fire of 1871, but also, more menacingly the burning of Paris by the Communards during their last days in power in Paris.
1.5. WORKINGMEN’S PARTY OF THE UNITED STATES: ALBERT PARSONS
Speaking of Chicago, up to then, the city had enjoyed an uneasy quiet with a relative sense of foreboding, waiting to see how the city’s unions would react to the week’s events. Since the initial confrontation between the city’s advocates of the working class and the Relief and Aid Society during the holiday season of 1873/4, the climate of the city’s labor movement had taken a definite turn to European Socialist doctrine with the arrival of two young men who were destined to lead the attempt to impose Marxist theories on the American economy. Both Philip Van Patten, a young architectural draftsman from the East, and Albert R. Parsons, an itinerant newspaper reporter from Texas, had moved to Chicago during the latter half of 1873. Following the conflicts with the Relief and Aid Society, both had gravitated to Chicago’s socialist organization, the Social Democratic party, where they became comrade-in-arms. Both were representatives of Chicago’s movement at the Unity Congress of Socialists, held in Philadelphia during the Fair, on July 15-19, 1876, as an organizational meeting following the breakup of the National Labor Union some three months earlier in Pittsburgh. The various Socialist organizations throughout the U. S. that attended had first formally voted to disband the old communist IWA, and then had formed a new party, the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (WPUS). Chicago was named the headquarters of the party, with Van Patten being named its “Corresponding Secretary.”
On Friday, July 20, 1877, the WPUS had encouraged Chicago’s railroad workers to join the strike, seeing it as an opportunity to champion its cause of the eight-hour workday. The following day, Saturday, the WPUS held two mass meetings to support the strike, where the WPUS’s national executive committee led by Van Patten, had asked its members to “render all possible moral and substantial assistance to our brethren” then on strike, calling for the nationalization of all railroads and the adoption of the eight-hour work day. Albert Parsons, then a writer for the Chicago Times, who recently had made a name for himself with his public speaking abilities, had been asked to address the second of the two meetings that evening at Sacks Hall, in support of the unions, that coincided with the start of the fires in Pittsburgh.
The following Sunday morning saw all involved parties hanging around the city’s newspapers as reports of the night’s events in Pittsburgh clogged the telegraph wires. The Tribune reported these harrowing events with its first extra edition since the Civil War had ended, some twelve years ago, calling the mob’s actions a “Civil War.” Parsons gave another speech that evening in Sacks Hall before leading a huge torchlight march, reported to have included 15,000 supporters, and then met with a group of railroad switchmen, encouraging them to “strike while the anvil is hot,” promising the WPUS would support their action in every possible way. Monday, July 23, saw both sides making appropriate contingency plans. Mayor Monroe Heath secretly called the city police and the state’s militia into readiness, while small groups of railroad workers discussed among themselves what steps to take next. The WPUS flooded the city with leaflets advertising an evening mass meeting at the intersection of Madison and Market (Wacker) with Parsons listed as the headline speaker, who did not disappoint his over 30,000 followers:
“Fellow workers (he alluded to Civil War veterans by referring to those in attendance as the “Grand Army of Starvation”) let us recollect that this Great Republic that has been handed down to us by our forefathers from 1776, that while we have the Republic, we still have hope… We have come together this evening, if it is possible, to find the means by which the great gloom that now hangs over our Republic can be lifted and once more the rays of happiness can be shed on the face of this broad land.”
On Tuesday, July 24, the spark that set off a rolling strike throughout Chicago was struck by a group of Michigan Central switchmen, that quickly accumulated compatriots (unionized and unemployed hangers-on as well) as they went from site to site and business to business to shut down operations throughout the city, with the occasional “Vive la Liberté” and a few bars of “The Marseillaise.” Meanwhile, while the mayor was calling for citizen patrols and issued a proclamation that closed all of the saloons, the city’s business leaders, with the ready assistance of the police chief, once again took matters into their own hands. The publisher of the Chicago Times called Parsons into his office, fired him on the spot, and handed him over to a group of detectives who led him to city hall, where he was “joined” by WPUS president Van Patten, and over thirty aldermen and business owners. The two socialist leaders were threatened with hanging and forced to promise to avoid all political activity in the local strike for the next twenty-four hours: “Parsons, your life is in danger,” warned police chief Michael Hickey.
On Wednesday, July 25, Mayor Heath called for a force of 5,000 armed men, preferably, Civil War veterans, to assist the police in subduing the violence. Federal Appeals Judge Thomas Drummond swiftly ruled the railroad union’s actions in Chicago to be illegal and demanded that not only Federal Marshalls protect railroad property, but also requested that Federal troops once again be brought into Chicago to quell the unrest. It just happened that a U.S. Army unit was returning from seeing action in the Dakotas (George Custer’s last stand at the Little Big Horn had occurred only twelve months earlier) and was thus diverted to the Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building to be quartered there for an indefinite period, protecting it and its Bierhalle from any Socialist violence, but the damage to the Festival had already been done. The planned six-week festival was cancelled in its fourth week. During the next two days, the strike was brutally squashed by local police, militia and the army, but not before the workers had one last, great stand, “The Battle of Halsted Street.”
On Thursday, July 26, a crowd that varied between 3,000 and 10,000, depending upon the time of day, held police at bay during a battle that lasted the entire day along the four block-long section of South Halsted Street, that stretched from 12thSt. to the 16th St. viaduct. At the time, this part of Halsted was narrow and lined with two- and three-story houses, ideal for barricading not unlike the medieval streets of Paris. The neighborhood Bohemian socialists took full advantage of their natural defensive advantage during the urban struggle and had succeeded in fighting the police to a draw.
All told, Chicago’s casualties during the week of rioting, which surpassed those of any other American city during the two-week Great Railroad Strike of 1877, amounted to nearly thirty killed, approximately 200 wounded, and another 200 arrested, while the police suffered eighteen wounded officers.[i] One casualty that is seldom mentioned in conjunction the Railroad Strike of 1877 was Theodore Thomas’ personal purse. His contract required his players to be paid, whether they played or not. Carpenter and Fairbank attempted to make amends to Thomas for the interruption by having him perform a benefit concert on August 1, the proceeds of which would be given to Thomas, but the damage had been done to Chicago’s campaign to entice him to move to the city. Thomas would take up residence in Cincinnati in the brand new Music Hall the following year.
1.6. THE 1878 LOCAL ELECTIONS
Meanwhile, the Socialists’ cause had been so strengthened by the government’s violent repression that Socialist candidates made big gains in the November elections of 1878. In Illinois alone, they elected a State Senator, three State Representatives, and four Chicago Aldermen. Encouraged by their electoral success, the new aldermen asked a seemingly innocent question: “Who owned the Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building?” Of course, its corporation did, but the city still seemed to own the land upon which it had been built. The legal subtleties of ownership were sufficiently under-defined to allow these aldermen to demand that the Exposition corporation pay the city an appropriate annual rent for the land. While the corporation continuously refused to do so, until 1885, its sole control of the building had been compromised to the point where it was forced to allow outside groups to use it for their own purposes. One such group that immediate rose to the occasion was the city’s Socialists, who staged their first, in a series of, massive protest rallies, symbolically in the same Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building that Thomas had played in only twenty months earlier, on March 22, 1879, to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the Paris Commune. The estimates of the size of the crowd in the building varied between 25,000 and 40,000 Communists and their supporters. While this action allowed Chicago to best the attendance of Cincinnati’s Third May Festival held in its new Music Hall, the Chicago folks who had crammed into the Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building that day had little interest in Italian Opera or German symphonies. Chicago’s elites responded to this threat as best they could the following year by erecting immediately to the north of the Exposition Building at the foot of Monroe Street an armory for the First Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, that was typically referred as Battery D.
Cremin, Dennis H. Grant Park, The Evolution of Chicago’s Front Yard. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2013.
Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Stowell, David O., (ed.). The Great Strikes of 1877, Urbana: University of Illinois, 2008.
(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org)