Abstract: Hear That (Police) Whistle Blow: New Railroad Crime and Violence, Corporate Responses, and the Southern Pacific Company, 1860s-1900s

Richard Orsi


As railroads, especially in the American West, built and expanded exponentially in service volume and valuation, the companies faced outbreaks of internal crime. Employees sabotaged or stole passengers' baggage, shippers' cargo, and company property, sometimes working with outside individuals or crime rings. Outsiders bribed lower-level administrators, shipping agents, land agents, and surveyors for illicit favorable treatment. Meanwhile, from the start, railroad people, equipment, and property were invaded by veritable hordes of outside criminals. Pick-pockets, robbers, extortionists, swindlers, and crooked gamblers, sometimes operating in gangs whose organized deviltry reached out along hundreds of miles of tracks, took to the trains and haunted the depots and surrounding neighborhoods, all preying on the property and relatively well-to-do persons that railroads concentrated. Sometimes passengers were murdered. Hoboes by the tens of thousands, again often living and moving in packs, broke into trains to seek free passage and stole, damaged, and set fire to cargo and company property, frequently attacking and occasionally murdering railroad employees. Other criminals broke into railroad buildings and cars and stole cargo from yards, again occasionally assaulting or killing employees. Notorious, but few, were incidents of labor sabotage and violence directed at the companies, especially during the great Pullman Strike of 1894. Along with the above examples of chronic crime, there were, of course, the sensationalized "train robberies," dramatic episodes often touched off when perpetrators derailed and/or blew up trains. Commonly seen as quaint "frontier" aberrations, train robberies actually persisted, and may have increased, in the first several decades of the twentieth century. Initially, railroads responded haltingly and haphazardly to the new, apparently intractable, crime and violence. Frontier public law enforcement agencies were typically non-existent or loosely organized, often ineffective, and local in jurisdiction, while railroads by definition transcended localities. Gradually, as crime spread, the railroads began to establish cooperative arrangements with existing official law enforcement agencies and to contract with private detective firms. Because so much of the problem was internal to the railroad, its people and property, enforcement by outside agencies or contractors proved tardy, inconsistent, and costly. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the railroads developed internal, specialized, and institutionalized police and detective forces, constantly improved by modernizing crime-fighting and communications technologies, as well as more involved, ongoing relations with public agencies (including cross-deputization). The Southern Pacific Company, the first large, and by the early 1900s the largest, western railroad, is the focus.