Cumberland Times-News

Columns

June 4, 2011

Nation’s 1922 railroad strike became matter of life and death

— It was an accident waiting to happen — one that some people may have been hoping would happen because it might get them a larger salary.

The country was entering the fifth month of a nationwide railroad strike in August 1922. The Railroad Labor Board had announced that it was cutting wages by 7 cents an hour, which led the shop workers to strike, though they were the only railroad work group that did so. Still, there were 400,000 shop workers on strike, including 1,400 who worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Western Maryland Railway in Cumberland.

It was the largest railroad work stoppage since 1894 and it became bitter. According to archival material, the railroad companies brought in 300,000 strikebreakers to fill the vacant positions. Violence began escalating so that by the end of July, the National Guard was on duty in seven states and 2,200 deputy U.S. marshals were carefully watching meetings and picket lines.

When a proposed settlement by President Warren G. Harding failed, people began to realize that the strike might last for some time.

During the strike, Western Maryland Railway trains began experiencing problems. Air hoses were cut, switches misapplied and car journals (part of the axle assembly) were sanded. Railroad officials reported that there had been hundreds of these incidents in the two months of the strike.

The cut air hoses presented a dangerous problem. The hoses weren’t cut all the way through, so that they burst when the trains tried to brake. Usually this meant the car had to be removed from the train and taken onto a sideline where it could be repaired.

“It is possible that a serious derailment might have occurred from these sources, causing loss of life of passengers and crew,” reported the Cumberland Evening Times.

In one instance, the Al G. Barnes circus train had its journals sanded and hoses cut, but the sabotage was discovered before the train left Cumberland. Even so, the train was unable to leave the city before the repairs could be made, putting the circus well behind in its touring schedule that season.

The Western Maryland Railway hired the Burns Detective Agency to find out what was going on. The detectives began investigating and managed to take photographs of employees sabotaging the trains without them knowing it. Railroad officials identified the employees. Some were striking shop men, but others were from other departments and had been with the WMR for years.

The men were shown the pictures during their disciplinary hearings right before they were fired.

Despite the convictions, the Western Maryland Railway was still on the alert for sabotage. “Every freight and passenger train is carefully guarded from such criminal acts as far as possible, it was stated, before they are dispatched from terminals now,” the newspaper reported.

The strike continued until September when an agreement was reached. At that time, strikebreakers began resigning their positions as the B&O Railroad hired back its shop men. In some instances in South Cumberland, strikebreakers “were stoned, and chased and struck with dinner-buckets and forced to run in various directions. Several resented this and free-for-all fights occurred, including a dog fight, in the street during the fracas. Several of them were badly bruised and beaten,” reported the Cumberland Evening Times on Sept. 19, 1922.

The Western Maryland Railway was more reticent, in part, perhaps from the amount of loss that the railway incurred because of the sabotage.

Contact James Rada at jimrada@yahoo.com or 410-698-3571.

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