Train robberies have been the stuff of American lore since the Wild West and the dawn of the railroad. It seemed that the image of menacing bandits galloping towards trains in search of easy loot had been consigned to Hollywood Westerns.
The first train heist in California appears to have occurred in 1881. A crew of train wreckers, reportedly led by a man who had failed miserably as a gold miner, opted to intercept other men’s gold at a less labor-intensive stage of the process.
Throughout the hectic years of the Old West, Union Pacific, founded in 1862, has witnessed its fair share of well-known heists. Butch Cassidy and his gang were immortalized on the silver screen for robbing the Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 in Wyoming in 1899.
The group brought the train to a halt and detonated a bomb in its safe. A posse was dispatched to track down the bandits. In the last decades of the 19th century, the Central Valley was hit by a rash of train robberies, according to the report.
These were major robberies, complete with gunfire, bullet-riddled bodies, and explosives to clear a path to the loot, which wasn’t always as plentiful as the robbers had anticipated.
By the early twentieth century, railway robbery in the Frontier states was well on its way to becoming a film genre. A 12-minute film dubbed “The Great Railway Robbery,” a precursor to all the other train robbery films, capitalized on the headlines.
It ended with the villain facing the camera and firing his gun at the audience. Interestingly, the legendary Dalton gang also operated in the state. One of their California train heists ended in their humiliation.
A trio of masked Daltons on horseback halted a Southern Pacific train in February 1891 at a settlement now known as Earlimart.
They shot the engineer, and one brother fired into the air to keep people at bay while the others tried to compel the cash car’s guard to unlock the door. Instead, the guard began shooting through a peephole until the Daltons gave up and rode away empty-handed.
Many of the train robbers mentioned in the report, based on the news stories of the era, had personal motives for raiding the trains of various railroad companies then operating in the state.
Both the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific had major influence on the politics and economy of the region during that time, and sometimes even allegedly took land from farmers by force for rail line construction.
The golden era of train robbery ended with the irresistible technological advances of the early 20th century, when companies stopped sending physical money overland and turned to banks.
The robbers quickly had to switch to raiding bank offices and looting rich railway passengers, instead of trying to steal or blow up safes.
The widespread use of well-armed federal marshals and private detectives, often from the infamous Pinkerton National Detective Agency, who collected bounties from the railroad companies for rooting out lawlessness, also helped to defeat this type of crime.
Recently, the problem that has been revived due to the development of trade and modern technology, which still relies heavily on railroads, and the politicization of lethal violence against non-violent criminals in the wake of the George Floyd killing has ushered in a new wave of theft and robbery, leading to what some are calling a major crisis.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has announced a $225 million grant over the next few years to combat retail and other theft, but overcoming this challenge will require a major effort.
Sputnik / ABC Flash Point News 2022.