Riot in 1877Return to Historical Articles
From the book titled "Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks Conty Pennsylvania," by Morton L. Montgomery. Published by J. H. Beers Co., Chicago, 1909.
The great riot in 1877 at Reading was an extraordinary event in the history of our community. On Saturday, July 21, 1877, great excitement prevailed in the city, owing to the general strike of railroad trainmen in the following States: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. The central point of excitement here was at Seventh and Penn streets, where many men gathered to discuss the situation. At that time the excitement at Pittsburg was intense, ending shortly thereafter in the great destruction of railroad property, which consisted of buildings, cars, etc., and in the loss of at least a score of lives.
On the next day, the situation was naturally worse owing to the news from Pittsburg, and more men crowded at the point named; but there was no disorderly demonstration of any kind during the day. By 10 o'clock in the evening, the crowd had moved to the passenger station, where the men greeted the last train from Philadelphia (10:30) with shouts and yells. Then the excitement became uncontrollable. The crowd moved westward on the Lebanon Valley railroad, and fire and destruction of property followed. Railroad tracks were torn up, and certain cabooses and freight cars were set on fire which resulted in a general alarm of fire, and the response of the fire department; and during the terrible excitement in and about the "cut," near Sixth street, whither all attention had been directed, the costly railroad bridge, which spanned the river within a mile to the west, was set on fire and entirely destroyed. The bright flames, which flashed high into the darkness of the night, attracted thousands of people to the place.
The news shocked the whole community. Crowds had gathered on Saturday, innocently, apparently, but unlawfully, without any earnest movement from the police to disperse them, and property had been destroyed on Sunday. On Monday, the newspapers were almost wholly, taken up with vivid descriptions of the excited condition of the community and of the destructive work of incendiaries. Throughout the day, great excitement prevailed, and as the night approached it grew greater. The four corners of Seventh and Penn streets were again crowded hour after hour, subject to a weak protest; but without any determined effort from municipal or county authorities to clear the highway. Trains were stopped, coal cars detached and many tons of coal dumped upon the track for several hundred feet.
With this state of affairs, the 6 o'clock passenger train approached the city around the bend of "Neversink," and the shrill whistle of the engine never sounded in such a piercing manner. The engineer remained bravely at his post; the command was given to proceed forward at full speed, and forward indeed he directed his engine at the rate of forty-five miles an hour over the blockaded track. Fortunately the train passed through safely, but the people scattered for their lives, coals were thrown high into the air, and a dense cloud of black dust obscured everything round about for a time. At the passenger station, great excitement arose immediately after the arrival of this train. The next down train was stopped in the cut, and this daring proceeding drew the crowd from the depot and intensified the excitement at Seventh and Penn streets. And the people remained at that point, immovable. Proclamations by the sheriff and earnest appeals by the policemen did not make the slightest impression upon them. The vast multitudes were in sympathy with the riotous demonstrations. And so matters remained for nearly two hours, apparently growing worse as the darkness of night fell upon the community. Then, however, a sudden change arose. And what agent was this that could, as it were, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, separate a maddened, threatening crowd, when sober, sensible appeals to citizens who had theretofore been a law-abiding people, were wholly unavailing? It was the bullet. This acted upon them as effectually as the lightning upon restless, thickening clouds in a portentous sky.
About 8 o'clock, seven companies of the 4th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, numbering about two hundred men, under the command of Gen. Franklin Reeder, arrived at the railroad station in the city, viz.:
Company B, Allen Rifles, Allentown; Company D, Allen Continentals, Allentown; Company E, Blue Mountain Legion, Hamburg; Company F, Easton Grays, Easton; Company H, Slatington Rifles, Slatington ; Company I, Catasauqua; Company K, Portland, Northampton county.
After some consultation they were marched down the railroad and through the "cut" toward Penn street to liberate the train there. On the way, they were attacked by persons on the elevated pavements who threw stones and bricks upon them. They did not fire in self-defense, but moved on bravely. Nearing Penn street, the situation became so dangerous that some of the men, by some order or mistaken command, shot off their rifles. Bricks and stones were thrown with increased energy, and many shots followed. The crowd immediately scattered, and men were seen bearing away the wounded and killed. With the dispersing crowd, the soldiers also became disordered, and the companies disorganized. Their conduct was disgraceful, and the whole community, and especially the management of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Company, lost confidence in them as a means of restoring order or preserving peace. A battery of United States Regular Artillery, equipped as infantry, then came here shortly afterward, under the command of General Hamilton, and remained until peace, order and safety were assured. The fidelity of G. A. Nicolls and George Eltz as officials of the railroad at this point, in the perilous situation of affairs then existing, was highly commendable.
Photo of north entrance of the 7th Street Cut, a manmade ravine created for railroad tracks to run level, rather than climbing and descending a steep hill. The Cut was the scene of the Reading Railroad Massacre in 1877: Pennsylvania militia were marched into the north end of the Cut in order to free a train blocked by strikers; the ended up shooting into a crowd gathered at the south end of the cut, killing 10. This photo was shot in 1999. Though at that time only one set of tracks ran through the Cut, at the time of the Massacre two sets of tracks - one northbound, one southbound - were there.
This riot resulted in the killing of ten citizens (Milton Trace, James J. Fisher, Ludwig Hoffman, John H. Weaver, Lewis A. Eisenhower, John A. Cassidy, John A. Wunder, Daniel Nachtrieb, Elias Shafer and Howard Cramp) ; and the wounding of twenty-seven persons (including four policemen) and twelve soldiers.
Dr. George S. Goodhart, the coroner of the county, then held an inquest to inquire into the loss of life; and after hearing a number of witnesses reported on Aug. 7, 1877, that the death of the persons named was caused by the military who were here by direction of the State authorities firing upon the rioters, and the terrible tragedy was directly attributed to the lawless assembling of persons at Seventh and Penn streets.
Many men were arrested and indicted for alleged implication in this riot. Two of them pleaded guilty and were sentenced to imprisonment for five years. There was a hotly contested trial of another, from Oct. 2nd to the 6th, but he was acquitted. The following week, fourteen were tried and all were acquitted excepting one, who was convicted of inciting to riot; and the third week, forty were called for trial but the prosecution was abandoned. These trials caused great excitement. F. B. Gowen, the president of the P. & R. R. Co., conducted the prosecution of these cases in person.