'Union Station Riot' depicts dark side of railroad strike

Dec. 18—A painting at The Westmoreland

Museum of American Art shows the dark side of a railroad strike in 1877.

The oil painting, titled "Union Station Riot," depicts the station in Pittsburgh's Strip District on fire during the Great Railroad Strike. Its artist, Martin B. Leisser, was there reporting for Harper's Weekly and documented dozens of people in the street and several fires after workers seized control of the rail yard.

Amanda Denham, the museum's education programs manager, said the work was among her first favorites when she started working at the Greensburg museum. She appreciates that it documents a violent time in history amid a strong labor movement in Pittsburgh.

"This moment was huge," she said. "This wasn't some quiet strike that not anyone heard about."

The painting shows fire glowing in the sky, lighting up buildings across the street.

"(Leisser) was there," Denham said.

A historic marker now stands off Liberty Avenue where the strike took place. The marker states that workers were protesting job and pay cuts. Dozens were killed or wounded by a militia. Numerous buildings, including Union Station, trains and passenger and freight cars were destroyed or damaged in the ensuing fires.

The strike and riot eventually were stopped by U.S. troops, according to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

Denham believes the artwork is a good reminder of the country's past, given strikes in the news recently. Thousands of University of California academic workers went on strike in mid-November in hopes of getting better pay, more benefits and job security. Earlier this month, a potential freight rail strike was averted by President Joe Biden and Congress.

Lawmakers passed a bill binding rail companies and workers to a proposed contract that both sides reached in September.

Some of the union workers had rejected the settlement because they said it didn't have enough paid sick time.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta by email at rsignorini@triblive.com or via Twitter .