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Police History: A tribute to the railroad police officer

Since 1849, there have been 149 railroad officers who have been killed in the line of duty and recognized on the wall, although a little more research can put the number as high as 201

Around 30 years ago, I and a friend had the reputation of being pretty effective harvesters of Northern Wisconsin’s rabbit population.

Good hunters know to hunt. We knew to hunt around the railroad tracks.

Growing up in a railroad community, the areas near the railroad tracks were always prime rabbit habitat. On top of that, for a couple kids without transportation, the easiest way from point A to point B was to start walking along tracks and wait for the train going our direction to come our way.

My “Huck Finn” Moments
I remember it, and I bet you can picture it: Two kids with loaded .22 rifles slung over our shoulders, wearing oversized military wool pants and winter boots, running full speed alongside a rolling freight train full of logs... grabbing the ladder and hitching a ride about three miles south to ‘rabbit paradise.’

That was something I’d done countless times in my youth — without incident — with various firearms and fishing rods on my person.

It seemed to be the perfect plan until one day we got greeted by a man in a grey jacket with patches on the shoulders and a badge on his chest. He was driving a red and white sedan with SOO LINE RAILROAD emblazoned on the door.

The contact went smooth. He told us the dangers of hanging around the trains. More to the point, he told us about the dangers of on and off moving trains.

He knew what we were up to, and told us: “Jumping on is the easy part isn’t it? But jumping off is what can get you killed.”

It’s true. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

We took our scolding and were released with the threat no kid wanted to hear in those days: “Hopefully I won’t have to chat with your parents about this.”

At the time I recall making the comment to my hunting buddy, “good thing it was only the railroad cops.”

It was one of those “Huck Finn” type moments.

A Storied History
Even growing up in a railroad community, had it not been for that contact I may have never known about the railroad police.

As it turns out, I’d been contacted by a railroad detective from a railroad that no longer even exists.

The railroad police are one of those ‘forgotten’ law enforcement jobs that has an extensive history. Railroad police also have duties that go well beyond scolding small-town, rabbit-hunting kids who thought it was perfectly okay to be ‘jumping trains.’

By most accounts, the position of railroad officer was created in 1849 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, for the purpose of protecting the property and people that used the railways. The protection of cargo and passengers was a difficult task in those days — lots of money, gold, and other valuables were routinely transported by rail in very remote areas.

As you can imagine it took a certain kind of person to take on these duties. There was lots of travel, of course, but also you’d be dealing with some pretty rough people all by yourself.

In fact, the railroad police have been dealing with some of the most notorious outlaws our country has ever seen. They’ve been on the front lines up against names like The Dalton Gang, James Gang, and the Wild Bunch (to name just a few). Catching these bandits took long hours, good skills, and a willingness to work without backup during some of the roughest times in history.

This railroad police work was also where the Pinkerton Detective Agency got its roots. Founded officially in 1850, the Pinkerton Detective Agency proved skillful at using investigative skill, tenacity, and guts to catch bad guys.

The Pinkerton Agency also pioneered the first criminal intelligence database — folders full of newspaper clippings and photos used to keep track of the outlaws. Without a doubt it was Allen Pinkerton’s railroad detectives that gave J Edgar Hoover — as well as other police agencies — not only the idea, but a proven model to create their own teams of investigators to combat crime

Experts in the Field
Since 1849, there have been 149 railroad officers who have been killed in the line of duty and recognized on the wall, although a little more research can put the number as high as 201. That is a staggering number for a career that many people don’t even know exists.

In the modern world, these officers still deal with millions of dollars in thefts and vandalism of property, as well as terrorist threats, miscellaneous gang crimes, and even narcotics issues and internal investigations.

This has made it necessary to provide the modern-day railroad officer with equipment and training that is equal to — or in most cases, exceeding that of — most municipal officers.

Amtrak for instance, has its own Patrol, K9 units and even a special operations unit tasked with anti-terrorism missions and providing response to those attacks. With most all railroad protection agencies you have anti-terrorism units, executive protection, hazardous materials specialists, undercover operatives etc.

If you see these units in action you realize quickly that these are not “wannabe” tactical teams. These are well polished, efficient operations.

If you’ve ever dealt with any type of incident involving a railroad, you no doubt have an appreciation for having someone in the command post that knows that industry and the unique issues surrounding it. The railroad police not only fill that void, but are tactical and investigative experts in the field.

When you work you own beat or are travelling around the country and you see that graffiti-covered rail car, or a couple unsavory characters walking the tracks, remember the history behind the railroad police.

Look back almost 180 years to a profession of specialized officers that utilized an extensive hiring process to recruit the best candidates — those who possessed sound ethics, investigative skill, tactical skill, and just plain old guts and tenacity to go after and arrest organized gangs of criminals.

We’ve all benefited — at some point — from these pioneers of the profession.

Patrick (Pat) Novesky has spent most of his life working in a rural environment not only in law enforcement, but also has been employed as a wildland firefighter working several states and as a guide for a hunting outfitter. Pat’s law enforcement background consists of a 20 year career ranging from positions as a sheriff’s deputy, ranger, and police officer holding assignments as intelligence officer and investigator. Pat has also been assigned to two narcotics task forces. Pat has served as a police firearms and Verbal Judo instructor and has been involved with various training for all types of law enforcement & other users of the outdoors and remote areas. The past several years of Pat’s career have been spent working as a conservation officer in Northern Wisconsin. Pat’s goal is to bring a common sense approach to issues that pertain to the rural law enforcement officer. Contact Patrick Novesky