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The Four Courts Building

The Four Courts Building, Tucker Boulevard and Clark Street, which Mayor Overstolz and a strike-breaking posse used as their headquarters, and which strikers surrounded during their parade through the city on July 25, 1877. Missouri History Museum photo

ST. LOUIS • The summer of 1877 simmered in the fourth year of a depression. When the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut pay another 10 percent, outraged depot workers in Martinsburg, W.Va., stopped the trains.

Their wildcat strike spread quickly along other railroads, turning violent in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It reached the bustling yards of East St. Louis on Sunday, July 22.

E.L. Jones, track superintendent on the Eads Bridge, told workers to man the switches. Strike leader Jack Benson stepped forward and said, "We allow no men to work for wages."

They stopped all freight, allowing only passenger and mail trains, which the railroads soon halted on their own. Strikers marched across the bridge to St. Louis in a prairie fire of resistance.

At the outdoor Lucas Market, at present-day Tucker Boulevard and Olive Street, the small socialist Workingmen's Party hustled together a rally Monday night. Thousands of sympathetic workers turned out for fiery speeches in English and German. That Wednesday, they marched through the city with a band that played the "Marseillaise," anthem of the French Revolution. They encircled the Four Courts Building, at Tucker and Clark Street, where nervous police manned cannon inside the gallows yard.

Marchers inspired spontaneous walkouts at foundries, stove works, canneries and barrel factories. Deckhands and roustabouts abandoned steamboats. Newsboys quit selling papers. Union Depot, the city's train station, "was like a banquet hall deserted," the Post-Dispatch noted. Or so it was until strikers from Harrison Wire Co. marched through with a banner, "No Monopoly!"

The protest blossomed into a general strike, paralyzing the city's industry and commerce. Some historians say it was the biggest of its sort ever in America.

Emboldened workers and terrified businessmen sent delegations to Mayor Henry Overstolz, who quickly sided with the established order. City leaders put together a posse, led by former Union and Confederate generals and armed with rifles from the state armory.

Strike headquarters moved to Schuler's Hall, near Broadway and Biddle streets, north of today's Edward Jones Dome. At 3 p.m. on Friday, July 27, Overstolz led 600 armed civilians to the hall. A vanguard of police rushed in, rounding up 75 strikers while others fled through windows. Not a shot was fired. Next morning, federal troops took over the East St. Louis yards.

Two weeks later, a judge released nine strike leaders because prosecutors couldn't produce witnesses. But the strikers had already drifted back to work.

Schuler's Hall was demolished in 1956 to make way for Interstate 70.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.