Dispatching train robbers and freeloading hobos with equal brutality, railroad "bulls" didn't take any.


It’s 1869 in the Wild West, and the era of the outlaw has begun.

The Civil War is over, but its substantial shadow still looms across the country. Sure, an all-new Industrial Revolution booms on in the North, but the South sits in shambles. Millions are unemployed, broke, and desperate.

Meanwhile, the wide-open plains of the American frontier are up for grabs. And profiteering, future-looking thieves of all ilks are beginning to take advantage. Bandits, cheats, desperados, hobos, ravagers, renegades — you name the hooligan, and the Wild West has it in spades.

There are plenty of opportunities for these ne’er-do-wells to pillage and plunder in the mostly uncharted western lands, but robbing trains has become the trendiest. Thanks to their ever-growing popularity, the nation’s newly interconnected railways are perfect for outlaw types to ply their devious craft on unsuspecting and unprepared passenger and freight trains. They’re easy targets.

Trains carry cash, and lots of it. Not just on passengers — burgeoning companies have begun transporting payroll and other valuables via railroad cars. Plus, the unsettled lands of the West provide plenty of isolated areas ideal for stopping trains and hiding out from the law.

But, as it turns out, railroads don’t like being stolen from. And they aren’t standing idly by waiting for yokel police to figure it all out.

Instead, they call Allan Pinkerton.

Best known as America’s first “private eye,” the roughneck Scotsman founds Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency in Chicago before becoming the 19th-century J. Edgar Hoover, serving as the head of the Union Intelligence Service, the precursor to the U.S. Secret Service. The Pinkerton agency’s motto? “We Never Sleep.”

In matters of railroad security, the agency’s detectives live up to their reputation as pugnacious overachievers. They are hired by various railroad companies across the country to track down suspects, solve train robberies, and devise ways to keep them from happening in the future. The quasi-private detectives dress in fancy suits and are empowered to enforce their own brand of vigilante justice to defend the railroad.

Their rules? Simple enough: no freeloaders. That means robbers, hobos, and anyone else reckless enough to take their chances unlawfully boarding a train.

As the years fly by and the railroads continue to expand, Pinkerton’s detectives are busy. They’re responsible for apprehending — or outright killing — hundreds of wannabe outlaws and members of notorious gangs. They use revolutionary investigative techniques and comprehensive undercover operations. Their ahead-of-its-time strat-egy launches a new era in private security.

But when Pinkerton dies in 1884, the railroads beef up their own fledgling police forces. Called “bulls,” these unofficially deputized men are hired by various railroad companies to protect trains from the shady characters of the farthest outreaches of the vast American West.

These are not law-abiding citizens. Nor are they well-trained, like the Pinkerton agents. These railroad police are hulking, aggressive types who can fight and shoot and are willing to lose their lives to protect railroad passengers and goods. It is a near-militarized ensemble of hardened Civil War veterans, meaty cowboy types, and whoever else wants to fire a gun and catch bad guys.

They are paid little and work under the most dangerous conditions possible. Even so, they get the job done. And while they start in a wholly unofficial governmental capacity, by the 1860s various states begin to grant the bulls official law enforcement powers.

As railroad mileage more than quadruples in the later years of the 19th century, the bulls’ workload increases to match. They patrol trains, expel trespassers, and investigate derailments, collisions, assaults, vandalism, ticket fraud, and robbery.

By the early 20th century, the era of the fantastical train robbery is all but over. But the railroad bulls’ job of cleaning up the railroads isn’t done. Not by a long shot.

With the onset of the Great Depression, more than 2 million men and women begin vagabonding their way across the country in search of work. These migrant workers, or hobos, find that the easiest way to get around is the same as it was half a century ago: hopping on freight trains, illegally.

But the hobo life is risky. In addition to being poor, sometimes diseased, and more often than not starving, hobos are public enemy No. 1 for railroad bulls.

For decades the bulls have been used to dealing with dangerous outlaws, fighting fire with fire. But with less crime to watch out for, the bulls become keen on teaching the virtually harmless hobos a lesson.

The bulls go from boxcar to boxcar, searching for freeloading train jumpers. When they find them? Savage beatings, or worse. The bulls murder thousands of hobos each year during the early 20th century.

By the 1940s, there are some 225,000 miles of track in the United States and Canada, and about 9,000 railroad bulls police them all. It is the golden era of the American railroad. But the faster freight trains are harder to hop, and the era of the hobo soon comes to an end.

The bulls are still around today, but their numbers are on the decline. There are about 1,200 railroad bulls in the United States. Mostly they look like private security guards — badges, uniforms, and standardized firearms have become the norm. Now their duties expand beyond the train, to the routine patrol of railroad terminals, rail yards, depots, junctions, and other railroad property, as well as to conducting complex investigations of various crimes.

Long gone are those notorious days of intrigue, vigilantism, and sheer brutality. The bulls may have ruled the rails for more than a century, but in a modern era of secure high-speed train travel, their legend has receded to the end of the line.


From the April 2015 issue.

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