Newspaper logo  
 
 
   Baltimore's Forgotten Insurrection at Camden Yards Shows How We Are Disconnected from Our History

COMMENTARY:

Baltimore's Forgotten Insurrection at Camden Yards Shows How We Are Disconnected from Our History

Today there are no hints of the 1877 rebellion. Nor are there any hints of the major events in the more recent past--such as the uprising of 1968 or the cataclysmic deindustrialization of the 1970s and early 1980s--that have shaped the Baltimore of today.

Rick Mercier
Thousands of Baltimoreans protested B&O wage cuts on July 20, 1877. Above, an old engraving shows militiamen (right) readying to quell demonstrators at Camden Yards. At the time, many local papers editorially sympathized with the strikers, but concluded the B&O’s first responsibility was to its stockholders, not its employees. Protests continued all along the railroad line for three more weeks. In the end, the B&O established a relief organization for its employees, and in 1884 instituted the nation’s first pension plan. As a result of the strike, the Workingmen’s party was formed; it garnered one-third of the popular vote in the Oct. 1877 mayoral election. Accused by opponents of being “communistic,” candidate Joseph Thompson, “Blacksmith of Old Town,” rejoined that he believed in respecting law and property, “even to the extent of punishing the Mortons and Gilmans of Society, where they defraud people of millions, as promptly and by the same mode as poor wretches who steal five dollars.” Source: Sylvia Gillett, “Camden Yards and the Strike of 1877,” in The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History (1991, Temple University Press), edited by Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes and Linda Zeidman. (P.S.: 1877 was the year Meadow Mill opened.)
It was just after 6:30 on the evening of Friday, July 20, 1877, when Baltimore's new riot alarm, "Big Sam," was sounded. National Guardsmen reported to the city's Fifth and Sixth Regiment armories and prepared to be sent to Cumberland, where striking B&O railroad workers and their sympathizers had caused a disturbance.

When the Guardsmen from the Sixth Regiment started their march to Camden Station, they were met with "a shower of stones" from a crowd that expressed a general "dissatisfaction with the use of the regiment in behalf of the railroad. There were cries and cheers for the strikers," The Baltimore Sun reported.

But things took a sudden turn for the worse. Panic-stricken soldiers began firing on the crowd. When the shooting stopped, 10 people lay dead; more than 20 others were wounded. Among the dead was 14-year-old William Haurand, a Sun newsboy working to support his mother and family. His "brains [were] blown out on the corner of Baltimore and Holliday streets," the Sun reported.

An enraged mob numbering about 15,000 converged on Camden Station and tore up track to prevent the soldiers from leaving the city. Part of the station's passenger platform was demolished, as were several engine cars. By 10 o'clock, the mob had started a fire that consumed the dispatcher's office, several sheds and a passenger car. Firefighters arriving on the scene were prevented from putting out the fire until soldiers and police dispersed the crowd with bullets.

Two days later, the Baltimore insurrection had been subdued with the help of federal troops dispatched by President Hayes. By then, however, other parts of the country were facing working-class revolts.

Signs of a Disconnect from History
People have hailed the historic quality of Oriole Park at Camden Yards ever since it opened in 1992. "The baseball park seems a throwback to a simpler time and place," a Los Angeles Times reporter rhapsodized when it was unveiled. The city's assistant planning director at the time told a national news magazine that the ballpark, with the B&O warehouse out in right field, offered "instant history, a linkage with Baltimore you can't escape."

But Oriole Park, as well as the Inner Harbor area in which it is ensconced, is notable for the way it is disconnected from the city's "mobtown," industrial past. There are no hints of the 1877 rebellion at Camden Yards. Nor are there any hints of the major events in the more recent past--such as the uprising of 1968 or the cataclysmic deindustrialization of the 1970s and early 1980s--that have shaped the Baltimore of today.

Set amid an agglomeration of corporate-owned hotels and chain stores, which in turn are surrounded by decaying neighborhoods whose residents face declining opportunities for good jobs, Oriole Park offers a decontextualized, aesthetic experience of the city's blue-collar past.

Why Baltimoreans Supported the 1877 Strike
It was no mystery why there was such strong support for the railroad strike, which started in Martinsville, W.Va., on July 16 after the B&O railroad company hiked stockholders' dividends by 10 percent while slashing wages by the same percentage. The country was in the throes of a depression following the stock market collapse of 1873 (partly the result of speculation in railroad stock). Industrial wages had plummeted by 25 percent and about 1 million people had been thrown out of work. Historian Howard Zinn recounts that in Baltimore--"where all liquid sewage ran through the streets"--139 babies died the first week of July 1877.

A leader of the Baltimore strikers summed up the popular mood for a reporter: "The working people everywhere are with us. They know what it is to bring up a family on ninety cents a day, to live on beans and corn meal week in and week out, to run a debt at the stores until you cannot get trusted any longer, to see the wife breaking down under privation and distress, and the children growing sharp and fierce like wolves day after day because they don't get enough to eat."

The railroad workers, strike and attendant unrest spread quickly from Baltimore to other large cities, including Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh. In St. Louis, working people ruled the city for three days before authorities regained power. A wave of reaction would follow the rebellions. The government built new National Guard Armories all over the nation so that troops could serve as strikebreakers and police the homeland during times of popular insurrection.

In Maryland, Gov. John Carroll taxed Baltimoreans to pay off the costs of deploying troops. He also offered a bit of advice to workers: "No political platforms can be of any use to the working man or furnish him with work. In a free country like ours, the relations of capital and labor must always adjust themselves, and are regulated by conditions which politicians cannot control."

The Myth of Market Forces Continues
Today politicians and pundits routinely repeat a version of the free-market theology articulated by Gov. Carroll: We are told that market forces are natural and immutable, that it is pointless to regulate or resist them.

But even as this brand of fundamentalism was regaining ascendancy in the 1980s, the federal, state, and city governments were intervening in Baltimore's economy to help along market forces for the benefit of powerful private interests. The result of more than $2 billion in public subsidies and tax breaks has been a "revitalized" downtown that stands as a monument to the appropriation of public funds for creation of private wealth.

And at the jewel of that renovated downtown, Camden Yards, crowds assemble to fulfill their roles as consumers and spectators, rather than as citizens and participants in history. These days the most notable labor-management conflict at the site of the 1877 working-class revolt involves employees who earn millions of dollars a year to hit, throw and chase a ball.

Such is the evolution of an all-American city.


Rick Mercier is a columnist for The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va. He was born and raised in Baltimore. He can be reached at rmercier@freelancestar.com.

"The following were invaluable sources of information on the revolt of 1877," says Mr. Mercier:

Robert Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence.

Sylvia Gillett, "Camden Yards and the Strike of 1877," in The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History.

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States.


Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on August 7, 2002.
  
SEPTEMBER 2002
LOCAL NEWS
·NEWS BRIEFS
·GENERAL CALENDAR
· Solemn 9-11 Events Planned
· [Held over] Forgotten Insurrection at Camden Yards Shows How We Are Disconnected from Our History
· Caring for Newly Planted Trees During Drought and Water Restrictions
· 09/06 Talk: ‘Smart Growth’— What’s In It For You?
· College Football Battles in Baltimore
ART & ENTERTAINMENT
·2 Biographies! The Price of Genius: Lord Buckley & Lester Young
·Bottom Floor Concert Series To Hold Benefit Concert
·Similes from High School Essays...
SPEAKING OUT
·EDITORIALS:
·LETTERS
·Antiwar Open Letter Urges Us To Consider Civil Disobedience
·Open Letter to America from a Canadian Gets 500 Replies
·Was George W. Bush "With" God "Or Against" Him on 9/11?
·Soapbox: Let Me Apprise You About...
·Homicide, The Real Story
·Bush Forestry Policies Encourage Wildfires
·Action for Nuclear Abolition Slated at Nevada Test Site
·Veterans Gather to try to Abolish War
·The 2002 Nuclear Free Future Awards
·28 More Years of the American Way of Life?
NEWS MEDIA CRITIQUE
·Will the Real George W. Bush Please Write In?
·Welcome to Hell
NATION & WORLD
· Government Funds 60% of U.S. Healthcare Costs
· US Support of Gen. Pervez Musharraf Supports Terrorists
· Cardin Assails Bush Admin. Effort to Curtail Vet Info
· How's Chávez Doing?
· Scott Ritter, former Marine and UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq, Makes Case Against War
· The Ten Habits of Highly Defective Corporations
· WAR, INC.
FROM OTHER SITES
· Websites We Like!
· Outstanding Analysis & Perspective

Public Service Ads: