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Rich History of Railroad Police

By Cary Arberg, January 1, 2012

Shortly after 12:00 a.m. on May 7, 2008, Special Agent Aaron G. Garcia of the Union Pacific Railroad Police Department was on duty patrolling Highway 111 in North Shore, California. For reasons unknown, Special Agent Garcia lost control of his vehicle, which reportedly rolled over and caught fire. A 14-year law enforcement veteran, the 39-year-old husband and father of four was pronounced dead at the scene. “It is a tragic event that we have to look at all aspects and deal with,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Joseph Zagorski, who was on the scene early that morning. Officer Zagorski went on to describe the profound loss he felt regarding Special Agent Garcia’s death. “This is a very difficult time; this is like losing a brother,” he said.

Special Agent Garcia’s death is the most recent railroad police officer fatality, and no less significant than the sacrifices of other railroad officers over the past century and a half.  In fact, there are 149 names of fallen railway officers inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Of these 149 officers, 113 of them were shot to death, 18 were struck and killed by trains; four were killed in automobile crashes; three were stabbed to death; three fell to their death; three were struck and killed by an automobile; three died of job-related illness; one was beaten to death; and one died in a bombing.

To understand the nature of their job, it is necessary to know the history of railroads in the United States.  The openings of the first railroads that included passenger trains—in Maryland and South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century—marked the real beginning of the railroad era in America.  By 1850, there were more than 9,000 miles of railroad east of the Mississippi River.  In 185l, the westward expansion of the railroad accelerated rapidly, changing the face of the American landscape.  By 1860, there were more than 30,000 miles of railroad in the country.

With the discovery of gold in California, people flocked to the west in huge numbers.  Boomtowns were formed along the railroads and a mining frontier was created.  At that time, law and order out west was scarce, beyond the U.S. Army, and the outbreak of the Civil War and Native American warfare stretched their resources.  Western towns organized vigilance committees in an attempt to enforce the law, but they proved insufficient.

Well-organized outlaw gangs took advantage of the situation and soon began preying on the railroads.  Among the more famous of these outlaws were the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” led by Robert Leroy Parker (a.k.a. Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longbaugh (a.k.a. The Sundance Kid), and the “James Gang,” led by the two infamous brothers, Jessie and Frank James.  Frank Dalton, a highly respected Deputy U.S. Marshal, was shot and killed while making an arrest in November 1887.  Ironically, four years later, his brothers formed the notorious Dalton Gang and made their mark robbing trains.  The railway passengers and freight became easy pickings for these outlaws. 

Matters only became worse after the Civil War when thousands of unemployed soldiers migrated to the rail yards and rail cars.  Commonly known as “hobos,” they sustained themselves by looting and robbing, and proved to be especially dangerous to police.  Roderick D. Gordon, a patrolman with the Western Pacific Railroad Police, was stabbed 29 times by a hobo he found sleeping on a railroad car on September 8, 1935.  At least 13 other officers were also killed by hobos.

Railroad companies were basically left to protect themselves and began hiring their own police officers.  In the east, the term, “detective,” was commonly used for these officers.  The western railroads, however, called their police officers “Special Agents” because their job was to protect the railroad agencies that developed along the rail lines, and the business agents who managed the offices.  According to Steve Hanes, former Director of the Norfolk Southern Railway Police, it was the railway police who coined the term “special agent,” and it has been adopted by most federal law enforcement agencies today.  Among the most famous of the early railroad special agents were Bat Masterson and Allen Pinkerton.

The number of railroad police officers peaked around World War II when there were approximately 9,000 serving in the U.S. and Canada.  Today, there are about 3,500 transit and railroad police currently serving in North America. 

The first two railroad police officers known to have died in the line of duty were Special Agents Henry Vincent and Robert Widdowfield of the Union Pacific Railroad Police Department.  On August 19, 1878, these two officers were both shot and killed while attempting to arrest a band of train robbers known as the “Big Nose” George Parrott gang.

In the early part of the 20th century, railroad labor unrest was also a deadly threat to police.  One grim example occurred on December 11, 1912, when some 200 striking coal handlers rioted in Shadyside, New Jersey.  As a group of Erie Railroad Police Officers attempted to protect company property, gunfire erupted and the rioters charged the police.  During the melee Erie Railroad Police Captain Andrew J. Craw was shot repeatedly in the head with a revolver.  Police Officer Thomas Mallory was shot through his neck and hands by a load of buckshot.  Both died a short while later and nine other officers were injured.

Unfortunately, violent attacks on railroad officers would continue. On December 28, 1972, Detective Duane D. Winkelman of the Illinois Central Railroad Police Department and a co-worker, Special Agent William Hemmer, were conducting a routine check of the rail yards in East St. Louis, Illinois, when they spotted a group of men who appeared to be robbing a boxcar.  As they approached the men, Detective Winkelman, 26, was shot in the chest. Special Agent Hemmer was unharmed, and continued to trail the fleeing suspects. Detective Winkelman was taken to a hospital where he succumbed to his fatal injuries.

A Vietnam veteran, Detective Winkelman had previously worked for the Rock Island Railroad in Chicago and St. Louis, and had worked for the Illinois Central Railroad Police Department for only a month when he was killed doing the job he loved. “I really do like the police work,” Detective Winkelman said in a 1969 Kansas City Times article about his first police report as a rookie patrolman. “It’s interesting, the wide variety of duties,” he said, “And anything can happen.”

Detective Winkelman left behind a wife and three young children. One of his sons proudly pursued a career in law enforcement in his honor. “I now walk in his footsteps and have taken up his noble cause to make the world a little better,” Deputy Thad D. Winkelman of the Shawnee County (KS) Sheriff’s Office wrote in a letter to the Memorial Fund 10 years ago. “As a Deputy Sheriff, I realize the danger and sacrifice he [Detective Duane D. Winkelman] made to somehow make whatever part of this world he could a better place for all of us,” Deputy Thad Winkelman said of his father.

Detective Winkelman is one of 21 railroad police officers who were killed in the line of duty after World War II, from a range of departments across the country. Their names are inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, where their service and sacrifice are forever honored.



Cary Arberg is a communications staff member at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.  Visit www.LawMemorial.org for more information about law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.