Monday, January 23, 2017

The B & O 'riots' of 1829 - the first railroad strike

In August 1829 workers building one section of the new railroad line (the most difficult), wouldn't work then "severely wounded" Thomas Ellicott the 'contractor' of that section and broke up his home.  The site where the fighting began was dubbed "Vinegar Hill" after a battle during the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

Riots on Friday and Sunday
"Riots. It is with extreme regret we notice the occurrence of several dangerous and disgraceful riots among the laborers employed on that section of the Baltimore and Ohio rail road adjoining the city. One man was killed and several wounded in a broil which occurred on Friday, last week; and on Sunday the dwelling of Thomas Elliott, one of the contractors, was broken up by a body of men, and Mr E. severely wounded. We know not the origin of these violent outrages, but let it be what it may, they must tend to aggravate the public, which is disposed to regard all persons engaged in this great work with friendly feeling, each being essential to that harmonious action which makes effort available; Rude and discordant materials should be rejected, and if the company have not the means to correct abuses, whether originating with laborers or contractors, the strong arm of the law should be extended, and the offenders taught that might is not right; and that a moral community regards decency and order as paramount considerations.
Since the above was in type, we learn that several of the ring-leaders have been arrested and committed to prison.
Niles' Weekly Register.   Aug 22, 1829

Riots. The accounts which have appeared relative to the late riots on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, appear to have been much exaggerated—A man was not killed as stated in our last sheet; we made the assertion on the authority of a morning print, by which it was promptly contradicted when known to be untrue. The late disturbances have been quelled, and the work is progressing harmoniously."
Niles' Weekly Register.  Aug 30, 1829

Vinegar Hill
At this time almost all rough labor was done by Irishmen, of whom there were a great many in Baltimore.... About seven miles from Baltimore the line of the railroad first strikes the Elk ridge and a deep cut and high fill is made there. Quite a large camp of laborers were gathered at this point and some trouble started with the contractor. This led to a strike being inaugurated, which in turn resulted in more or less rioting, and the militia of Baltimore was called out to quell the disturbance. 

Some wag promptly christened the place where the arrests were made “Vinegar Hill,” after the famous place of that name in Ireland, a name which it bears to this day, and a street song was
in everyone's mouth with a chorus which rain something like this:
      “I’m all the way from Vinegar Hill, 
       I never worked and I never will.”

This, I believe, was the first railroad strike in America.
“Reminiscences of Early Days in American engineering: Recollections of the late Randolph Brandt Latimer.”  Engineering News.  July 23, 1908

Sections to be built
On the 7th day of July, three days after laying the “first stone,” the definitive location of the road was commenced by Lieutenants Cook, Hazzard and Dillahunty, under the immediate direction of Captain McNeill, to whom the performance of this ‘duty had been entrusted, and on the 14th day of July, notice was publicly given that from the 1st to the 11th day of August, proposals would be received for the grading and masonry on a distance not exceeding twelve miles. The location having been effected, and unanimously approved by the Board of Engineers, contracts were, as early as possible, entered into for grading and masonry on the twenty-six sections, into which the Superintendent, had subdivided a distance of eleven and three-fourth miles, embracing that part of the road between the “first stone,” and Ellicotts’ Mills on the Patapsco. These contracts, although thought to be very low, at the time, proved very profitable to the contractors, (except the unexpected difficulty at the high ridge, about four miles from the City,) who introduced temporary Railways for the removal of earth, thus causing a great reduction in the anticipated cost.
1828 B&O Annual report 

©2017 Patricia Bixler Reber
Forgotten history of Ellicott City & Howard County MD

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