23 July 1877 (Monday)
After the Civil War, Slatington had its own militia unit. On 17 July 1875, the "Slatington Rifles" petitioned and then entered the Pennsylvania national guard for a term of five years with approximately fifty men and three officers. The men officially became company H of the 4th regiment PA national guard.
In 1877, unrest, usually known as the Great Railroad Strike, broke out among railroad workers in the United States. Trouble began in began in Martinsburg, WV. The collapse of the economy and depression in the 1870s hit railroad workers hard. There were wage cuts, dismissal of workers and poor working conditions and that led workers to strike, protest and interfere with the movement of trains. Unrest spread from Martinsburg to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) in Baltimore, MD. Militia, and then federal troops, were sent in to end the rioting. On 21 July, militia bayoneted and fired on rock-throwing strikers in Pittsburgh, PA, killing twenty people and wounding about thirty more. Federal troops had to be summoned to restore order, but word of the events in Pittsburgh spread to Reading where crowds of protesters gathered.
On 21 July 1877 the Slatington Rifles received notice to be prepared to move, if necessary, to deal with railroad violence. On 22 July (Sunday), the unit was ordered to assemble at Allentown, and the next day, Monday the 23rd, the men (about forty), commanded by Captain D. G. Rhoads, proceeded to Reading as part of the 4th regiment. Reaching the outer railroad station at Reading about 7:30 pm, the militia was ordered to reopen the railroad line to the downtown area. There were rioters along the line, and a train had been disabled and stuck because of the rioters. The militia marched along the rail line and reached a deep cut near 7th St. As the militia marched into the cut, they were pelted with stones, chunks of coal, and debris from the rioters above them in the cut. According to Humphrey (below), "the rattled militia troop shot (against orders to the contrary) into a throng of citizens at the far end of the Cut, where one of downtown's main streets intersected the rail line. Their reckless gunfire killed 6 immediately and wounded dozens more, 4 of whom would succumb to their wounds to push the death count to 10. Pandemonium ensued"
The militia regiment continued its forward march to Penn Square in downtown Reading and then returned to guard the depot. On the morning of the 24th, the militia was ordered back out to guard track repair crews. Again, there were rioters and confusion, and there appeared to be a stand-off between the 4th and 16th regiments--the 16th expressing support for the strikers. The 4th regiment, including the Slatington rifles, was ordered back to Allentown. Interestingly, the men had to march to Allentown from Emmaus, as the railroad workers refused to transport them any further. The men stayed at Allentown until 31 July, and then proceeded to Harrisburg to guard the state arsenal. After leaving Harrisburg, they made it back to Slatington on 11 August
Humphrey (below) notes: (1) "the Pennsylvania Militia was called in not by local officials but by The Reading to protect its own property interests"; (2) "the Reading Militia was NOT on the scene. It had been called to serve on that day but its members refused to answer the call. It was then that the railroad executives appealed to Harrisburg for troops and seven companies of the Fourth Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers (today it would be known as the National Guard) came from Allentown, Hamburg, Easton, Slatington, Catasauqua and Northampton County."
- The Burning Of The Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge By The Rioters," Harper's Weekly, August 11, 1877
- The 7th Street Cut in Reading
The Slatington Rifles disbanded 1 July 1896 and thus did not participate in the Spanish-American War.
Some sources: William Leickel, Slatington, Walnutport and Washington Township: A Military History (1991); see also these websites:
- The Mob Fired on at Reading,"New York Tiimes, July 24, 1877.
- The Bloody 1877 Railroad Strike in Reading, Pa.," The Reading Times Dispatch, July 24, 1877.
- Riot in 1877
- The Times
- History of Berks County
- Clippings from the Reading Daily Eagle, Tuesday, July 24, 1877
- Reading railroad massacre (wiki)
- Reading Railroad Massacre Historical Marker
- Douglas L. Humphrey, Reading's Place in The Great Strike & After Ten Died in what today is remembered as a massacre; this new study places all in perspective (See also the longer version of this essay.)
- Joseph A. Dacus, Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States