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1877: The Grand Army of Starvation Script
(for chapters on "The Centennial Exposition" and "The Railroad")

This is a partial script, for chapters on "The Centennial Exposition" and "The Railroad" in the documentary 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation produced by the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. In bold are vocabulary words defined on a vocabulary sheet linked to this script.



Philadelphia. One hundred years after America declared its independence…its citizens flocked to the centennial exposition. Thousands gathered to mark the republic's resilience following a bitter civil war…

They came to admire the country's technological triumphs…and its territorial expansion.

At the center of this century of progress…the American railway system. The railroad had promised to unite the one divided nation…and benefit all citizens. Chinese and Irish immigrants as well as Civil War veterans were set to work as the country enthusiastically committed itself to railroad construction. 


When me and my mates get our sturdy sledge hammers going, we make a kinda grand anvil chorus 'cross the plains. Three strokes to a spike; ten spikes to a rail. Let's see…I've got it figured out…400 rails to a mile. 1800 miles to bloody San Francisco. That makes, by my reckonin', some 20 million or so times we'll swing these sledges before this great work of modern America is done.


In 1869 the Golden Spike was finally hammered into place. The transcontinental railroad system unified America. The poet Walt Whitman sang its praises:

Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel…
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent

The railroad connected farm lands…towns…cities. It moved goods, information, and people. In ten short years railroad mileage doubled. Federal and state governments sponsored railroad expansion, giving the railroads nearly 200 million acres of public land as well as millions of dollars in loans and tax breaks. Railroad owners, notably New York Central president Cornelius Vanderbilt, amassed staggering wealth. His son William inherited $100 million upon Vanderbilt's death in 1877.

In that year of economic depression, a decent day's wage was a dollar fifty. Railroad owners' wealth translated into unimagined power. Tom Scott ran the Pennsylvania Railroad, the nation's largest business enterprise. From his Philadelphia headquarters, Scott controlled the lives of workers and communities across the country. He manipulated state and federal legislatures and even presidential elections. Such domination led Charles Francis Adams, son and grandson of Presidents, to observe:


The system of corporate life is a new power for which our language contains no name; we have no word to express government by monied corporations. 


In June, Scott, Vanderbilt and other executives secretly met. They agreed to cut their employees' wages even as they announced substantial dividends for their stockholders. John Garrett, President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, explained:


The great principle upon which we joined to act was to earn more and spend less. 


On July 15th the B & O announced a 10% wage cut. Dick Zepp, a brakeman on the B & O lines, decides this action is too much to take.

On the hot, sultry afternoon of July 16th, Zepp steps down from his locomotive. He and his fellow workers stop trains in the Martinsburg, West Virginia rail yards.


We're all working men, ain't we?
No train's goinna move 'til we get a living wage!
We're on strike!
We might as well starve without work as with it!
Here comes the damn militia! You wouldn't fire on your brother?
Stop that blackleg!
Don't let him throw the switch!


This is the spark that ignites the Great Uprising.

Source | American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning, 1986.
Creator | American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning
Rights | American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | TV/Film
Cite This document | American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning, “1877: The Grand Army of Starvation Script
(for chapters on "The Centennial Exposition" and "The Railroad"),” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 22, 2024,

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