Every July, We Should Celebrate the St Louis Commune

In July 1877, workers in St Louis waged a general strike that saw them briefly take the reins of power. Frightened elites compared it to the Paris Commune — and we should celebrate this extraordinary moment of radical democracy today.

Blockading of engines in West Viriginia during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, illustration by Fred B. Schell for Harper's Weekly. (Library of Congress)

Each July marks a little-known anniversary in US history, when St Louis, Missouri became the site of the first American soviet — for about one day. White and black workers united in a citywide general strike, culminating in a transfer of power that St Louis elites compared to the Paris Commune. The extraordinary event occurred amid a nationwide walkout that historians have given a thoroughly boring name: the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Unlike much of the South, St Louis — a border state — had dodged the annihilation that swept through the former Confederacy. The country rebuilt, expanded, contracted, and so did the Mississippi River–based foundries in East and West St Louis — smelting plants, refineries, massive cattle stock yards. Freed slaves took badly paid jobs loading and unloading steamships on the river wharf; white laborers took the better-paying jobs with the railroad — one rung up the transportation/technological ladder. With Minneapolis and Chicago up stream, and New Orleans downstream, the cross path of trains and barges became one of the central pressure points of a rail network choked with capital.

And in July 1877, a strike — the big one — forced a brief regime change. The reins of power slipped from the capitalist city fathers, into the hands of the workers.

“The First Uprising against the Oligarchy of Capital”

It started on a Monday, and by Wednesday St Louis’s politicians, and the wealthy families who financed them, were driven into a nightmare the contemporary establishment can only dream of. The blue bloods filled their bathtubs and sinks with water for fear that the workers would cut service to their mansion neighborhoods.

Organized in secret, the mayor’s “Committee of Public Safety” took over a large building called the Four Courts for its headquarters, where Missouri’s governor wired the US secretary of war asking for ten thousand stands of rifles, two thousand revolvers, a battery of artillery, and ammunition. “This request,” historian Philip Foner writes in The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, “was rejected when it was learned that there were simply not enough arms available in Washington to meet it.”

The Four Courts building in St Louis, 1907. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Missouri Republican called the workers “the bloody canaille” (translation: “an angry pack of dogs”). “It is wrong to call this a strike,” the paper reported, “it is a labor revolution.” Marx and Engels agreed, later writing that it was “the first uprising against the oligarchy of capital which had developed since the Civil War.”

The Reconstruction Era had officially ended in March 1877 with the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Federal troops stationed in the South since the Civil War were withdrawing, and St Louis was out on the westward fringes; a city in a rapidly changing nation where anything could happen. By Thursday, the “St Louis Soviet” came to power as the de facto administration. It governed for about twenty-four hours.

“Will You Stand With Us Regardless of Color?”

On Saturday, July 21, 1877, the Workingmen’s Party organized in an industrial section of St Louis where the Union’s ironclad steamships were fitted with their namesake paneling. On a flat carriage, an agitator named Peter Lofgreen mounted the stage to draft resolutions with an audience of five hundred. There was going to be another wage cut. Negotiations with the rail companies had failed. “The capitalists was trying to starve the workingmen,” Lofgreen said, “and was educating his children to look down on them, despise and grind them under foot at every chance.”

A vote carried that all workers go out on strike: engineers (the aristocrats of the profession), trackmen, platform men, brakemen, firemen (who stoked the fires of train engines), wipers, and everyone else employed by the railroads. Albert Currlin, a German immigrant and baker by trade, coaxed the crowd into marching order, and they took the ferry across the Mississippi singing “La Marseillaise.” On the other shore, a crowd of rail workers greeted them. They “mingled in the general throng,” Foner writes, and marched toward the Relay Depot.

Sunday, shortly before midnight, Engine 53 of the Indianapolis & St Louis railroad came into the yard to haul freight. Preceded by a drum and fife corps, the strike’s executive committee approached and requested that the crew leave. They did. The engineer took the train back to the roundhouse. A hundred workers “moved with an orderly and undemonstrative air, firm, determined that no trains should pass” and kept watch over the depot that night. The saloons within six blocks of the depot were closed.

Engraving from Harper’s Weekly shows the burning of Union Depot in Pittsburgh, PA during the great railroad strike of 1877. (Wikimedia Commons)

Up until this point, sabotage and dynamite had been the weapons of the great railroad strike. On July 19, Pittsburgh freights and rail yards had been set on fire. Thomas Alexander Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad — one of the first robber barons — said strikers should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” In Chicago, workers cut the trolley lines. Everywhere, police moved in with cubs swinging; the National Guard bayoneted workers.

But the St Louis Executive Committee made clear that something different was happening in their city; the rails were being turned over to the public, and the workers would not destroy their own property.

Still, the executive committee was worried about the threat of rioting. Homelessness was endemic, and masses of vagrants in every city took up the worker’s cause. Foner includes an excerpt by a socialist poet, Dr John McIntosh, in his account of the strike:

We canvassed the city through and through,

nothing to work at, nothing to do;

the wheels of the engines go no more,

bolted and barred is the old shop door;

grocers look blue over unpaid bills,

paupers increase and the poor house fills.

On Monday morning, the managers woke to find all the freights had been halted. Six companies of regulars departed Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for the river city to “protect public property” — a good sign that they were not there to shoot anyone (yet).

That night, a mass meeting gathered in the heart of St Louis’s working-class neighborhoods, Lucas Market, where a shoe worker’s organizer named Joseph N. Glenn spoke of borderless struggle: “Workingmen must either fight or die. The blood of the unfortunate miners of Pennsylvania, and of the workingmen of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, cries aloud for Industrial Liberty, and we must have it.”

Tuesday: Six companies of the Twenty-third Infantry arrived in St Louis with three hundred soldiers and two Gatling guns. The coopers struck mid-morning, marching from shop to shop with a fife and drum, shouting, “Come out, come out! No barrels less than nine cents!” Newsboys struck against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Modelers and engineers joined the walkouts among boatmen coming off the levee. A parade of workers formed four abreast, marching through the streets toward the meeting spot at Lucas Market where the speeches continued:

You are just as law-abiding as those who rob the public treasury. Just as decent as those lecherous bondholders who derive their revenue by cutting off coupons. Your wives are just as virtuous as the wives of the rich capitalists, who, decked in silks and satins, ride in their carriages and your children are just as pure and upright as the bastard offspring of those bastards themselves.

Near the conclusion, a black worker took the stage and asked the crowd of mostly German and Bohemian workers: “Will you stand with us regardless of color?”

“We will!” the crowd shouted back. A black steamboat man was called upon to speak about the measly twenty dollars a month they received in the summer, “and in the winter time can’t find the man we work for.” Again, at the end, the boat man asked if the workers would “stand with us regardless of color?”

“We will! We will! We will!” the crowd responded.

The Transfer of Power

The momentum continued. On Wednesday, the Missouri Republican reported that “mad strikers” boarded the Centennial — a fully loaded steamer ready to go to New Orleans. A few minutes before departure, several hundred — “the negroes predominating” — took over the decks and demanded a wage increase.

The captain gave in, and the strikers went from boat to boat, up and down the wharf, running the same play. Workers “of all colors” took a huge American flag as they headed triumphantly for Lucas Market again to join a “great procession, four abreast, stretching for four blocks. Six hundred factory workers marked up behind a brass band and carried a huge transparency: ‘NO MONOPOLY—WORKINGMEN’S RIGHTS.’” A company of railroad strikers came bearing coupling pins, brake rods, red signal flags, and other “irons and implements emblematic of their calling.”

Illustration from the St. Louis Republic newspaper depicting one of the marches during the general strike in St Louis, 1877. (Wikimedia Commons)

Workers from foundries, bagging companies, flour mills, bakeries, and chemical plants turned the railroad strike into a general action. “Great crowds of strikers and some 300 negro laborers on the levee visited a large number of manufacturing establishments in the southern part of the city, compelling all employees to stop work, putting out all fires in the engine rooms and closing the building.” Foner notes that there was a women’s parade in support of the strikers in east St Louis and unnamed women attended all the Lucas Market rallies. Each business was listed later in the Missouri Republican for public shaming.

The following day, the Belcher Sugar Refinery came hat-in-hand to the executive committee. The owner asked permission to operate the plant — otherwise, a large quantity of sugar would spoil. The St Louis Soviet persuaded the refinery workers to go back to work alongside a guard of two hundred men to protect the operation. This, after all, was the people’s sugar.

Historian David T. Burbank writes that the Belcher episode represented “the spectacle of the owner of one of the city’s largest industrial enterprises recognizing the de facto authority of the Executive Committee.”

The St Louis Commune was the de facto government.

The Collapse

The worst part of a strike is if it stops being a David-versus-Goliath story. “Having shattered the authority of the city and temporarily paralyzed the wealthy classes,” Foner writes, “the executive committee vacillated, hesitated, and fell back, unsure of what to do next. At the same time, it revealed that it feared the very mass movement it had helped to create.”

The executive committee issued a statement urging its twenty-two thousand workers to go home. No more parades, no more speeches. Those in the streets grew nervous and wanted arms to defend themselves against the militarized police, bent on breaking things up no matter what.

Why stop? Especially when parties in the street had radicalized the whole city? Racism was one reason. Before July, the Workingmen’s Party made zero effort to recruit black workers. Albert Currlin, from the “La Marseillaise” episode, also represented a racist faction of the workers; he alone turned away some five-hundred black workers who wanted to join mass meetings earlier in the week. “We replied we wanted nothing to do with them,” he later reported gleefully to the St. Louis Times.

The media drove the wedges in the coalition — the Missouri Republican was shocked that black workers weren’t “contented banjo-strummers” and wanted to assert their rights as if they were white. Black strikers were labeled “a dangerous-looking set of men” with “something blood-curdling in the manner in which they shouldered their clubs and started up the levee whooping.” The St. Louis Times alleged that the strike was weak because many white factories were “frightened at the scent and wild-eyed look of the black race.” The strike leaders made no effort to combat this dehumanization.

On Friday, July 27, it fell apart. Reconstruction was over, the Gilded Age was here. The executive committee issued a statement swearing they had no intention of arming workers and made no plans for a public gathering.

In the afternoon, city officials mustered their militia and marched on the strike headquarters near Lucas Market. Police on horseback charged through the crowds at Schuler’s Hall, swinging clubs at any skull within reach. Some were arrested, lined up, and marched to the Four Courts to be locked up in the basement, but the executive committee escaped. By Saturday, the Relay Depot was lost.

The First American Soviet

Today, St Louis is a blue dot surrounded by red Missouri. The industry in downtown St Louis is rust; the highway bridges that span the Mississippi pass by long-dead factories. Like its sisters Detroit, Youngstown, and Cleveland, there is a sense that somewhere in the urban past, something great happened.

In St Louis that’s usually said to be the World’s Fair, which marked the starting point of a century-long decline. But the Railroad Strike and the first American soviet could just as easily be that foundational event — an all-too-forgotten instance of radical democracy that we should celebrate each July.