Terence Powderly, son of Irish immigrants, was born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania. He began working for the railroad at age 13 and was later apprenticed in a machine shop. In 1871, Powderly joined the Machinists’ and Blacksmiths’ National Union and rapidly rose through positions of leadership in the organization.
In 1874, Powderly joined the Knights of Labor and by 1879 had succeeded Uriah Stephens as its leader. During the next dozen years, the Knights achieved their greatest influence and numerical strength. Powderly was personally opposed to the use of work stoppages, but strikes brought them increased power. The high-water mark was undoubtedly the taming of Jay Gould and his Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1885.
Powderly also tried to broaden the KOL's appeal by diminishing the roles of secrecy and ritual. He worked with the noted American bishop, James Gibbons, to persuade the pope to remove sanctions against Roman Catholics who joined unions.
In the end, the Knights’ very success was their undoing. The rapidly expanding membership rolls — at one time as high as 700,000—fractured the leadership and many of the local leaders pursued their own radical courses. In 1893, Powderly resigned from the union because of protracted internal quarreling.
Powderly enjoyed a distinguished career outside of his KOL leadership. He served three times as mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1894, he was admitted to the bar and established a successful law practice. From 1897 to 1902, Powderly served as U.S. commissioner general of immigration and from 1907 to 1921 as the chief information officer for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.