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Len Harris: Sierra Railroad Detective

Courtesy photoThe Central Pacific Railroad was a disappointment to the average citizen due to high passenger and freight fees.
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The Central Pacific Railroad, once construction was complete and the trains running, found itself with a unexpected crime problem. It took a special breed of lawman to patrol a hundred-miles-long beat.

The transcontinental railroad was a great disappointment to the average person in the West, because of the high rates charged for passenger and freight service. The Central Pacific found itself attacked from all sides, it seemed, as the country’s mobile work force used and abused the rail system to travel for free around the West. These men perpetrated a huge volume of crime against rail crews, including car robberies, arson, vandalism, assault and battery.

They caused several major derailments in the Sierra and burned major bridges and snow sheds. The wrath of thousands of unemployed and displaced men in the post-Civil War and post-railroad completion period seemed to be focused on the Central Pacific.



Some of this anti-railroad attitude was caused by the railroad’s hiring thousands of Chinese laborers for the railroad construction. Once the rails were finished, the Chinese remained in the United States, competing with American citizens for the same jobs, and many blamed the railroad for it. In some arson cases, the arsonist and co-conspirators were hired to rebuild the burned structures.

To combat this flow of vagrants, hobos and tramps, as they were often called, the Central Pacific hired its own detectives to combat the criminals at their own level. These detectives quickly proved their worth, when in 1869, a gang of unhappy former railroad employees burned more than 8,000 feet of wooden snow sheds between Tunnels 4 and 5, overlooking Donner Lake; set the Cisco bridge on fire, and burned the Truckee roundhouse down. It took a couple of months, but the pioneer detectives solved the cases, and sent the gang to prison.



By 1876, the detective corps had learned how to deal with the rolling crime wave. They always had a few men following under cover, town to town, behind the Central Pacific Pay Car. Much of the drinking and crime occurred in those few days after payday, and criminals followed the pay car, preying on the railroad workers. It took a special breed of veteran detective to deal with excesses of the Donner Grade.

Veteran railroad detective Len Harris was assigned to the Sierra beat around 1875. Since Harris and his fellow officers often were brought on to investigate crimes as much as a week after they had occurred, suspects were often hard to find. It required a lot of interviews and legwork to find the perpetrators, but usually the crime was solved.

Not only was Harris a Central Pacific detective, but to add to his authority, he was also a sworn Deputy Sheriff of Sacramento County. Though his primary chore was to protect railroad property, he also became very involved in other Truckee crimes. It was Len Harris, assisted by Detective Deal, who investigated and made three arrests ” Truckee men ” in the Trout Creek murder case in June of 1876.

One Chinese woodcutter, Ah Ling, was shot and killed and others shot at and burned out of their cabin on Trout Creek. Since the suspects were closely tied to Truckee’s law enforcement, it was decided by the Nevada County Sheriff to have Harris make the arrests. Two of the arrests went smoothly in Truckee, but one suspect fled town and had to be tracked down for several days in the canyons south of Dutch Flat. Harris later testified briefly at the trial in Nevada City the following September.

In 1878 four vagrants were kicked off of a passenger train at Tunnel 13 on Schallenberger Ridge, and retaliated by breaking up the telegraph station, setting fire to a barn, and causing general mayhem upon the place. Harris methodically solved the case by tracking down and arresting the four guilty parties, guaranteeing a long sentence for the tramps.

Later that year, the locomotive on Passenger Train #2 running east of Truckee hit a row of rocks placed on the rails. The locomotive jumped the rails, landing on its wheels, but leaving the coaches on the rails. Len Harris, assisted by Detective Burke, first arrested a passing tramp, but soon after releasing him, arrested three Washoe men, who after a bout with a whiskey bottle, placed large boulders on the tracks. Indian Tom was sentenced to 18 months at San Quentin based on Harris’s investigative work.

The “Big Four” ” Stanford, Crocker, Hopkins, and Huntington ” and the Central Pacific brass, inspected the railroad and the facilities on a regular basis, usually on their palatial private train. It was the detectives who cleared out the tramps and drifters before the inspection tour, and kept security on a tight rein until the train had passed. The railroad, referred to as “The Octopus” because it had tentacles everywhere in the West, had a lot of enemies.

Another adventure occurred in March of 1880 when the annual spring migration of vagrants rampaged all along the line. Merchandise, tools, and supplies of all kinds mysteriously disappeared without a trace. Harris, along with Truckee Constable James Reed, zeroed in on an old abandoned house east of Truckee. They had received a tip that they might find a stash of stolen goods in the house.

The house was silent as a graveyard, but they crept in through a hole in the wall, guns on the draw. They were totally shocked to find 12 men laying around the room, with piles of stolen railroad firewood surrounding them. The men were marched off to Judge Keiser’s court, where the charges of vagrancy netted them 30 days of free room and board in the Nevada County jail.

In 1881 Harris was instrumental in capturing two criminals who had been arrested in Truckee for burglarizing railcars, and then escaped near Blue Canyon. Truckee Constable James Reed fell asleep while guarding them on the train trip to the Nevada City jail, and they fled into the wilds of the Sierra. Harris and company tracked them down successfully, as usual.

Harris was widely known as a clever and brave lawman. One of his best pieces of work happened while he was stationed on the Southern Pacific in Arizona. The express train was held up, and the treasure box and mail bags were stolen. Harris and a band of Indian trackers followed the robbers into the mountains where the trail was lost. He backtracked and found the robbers’ most recent campfire. He found pieces of a charred Oregon newspaper. With this thin lead he discovered that two nearby men were subscribers to the paper. The case was easily solved after that, and a tough named Gambler Bob and his gang got long terms in the Arizona prison.

In 1888 Harris pursued a gang that had committed a robbery on the Sonora Road in Arizona. Harris lead a posse into the Sierra Madre Mountains in the middle of a furious snow storm. Despite the threat of Apache Indian attack they pursued the desperados and killed four of the highwaymen.

On a train in the San Joaquin Valley, on September 4, 1891, Harris was on a train that was held up by a violent train robbery gang. Harris shot it out with the robbers when he was wounded in the neck, but still managed to help scare them off. He never fully recovered because the doctors were unable to locate the bullet. As a result, Harris’s right arm was to remain partially paralyzed, but he returned to detective work.

May 15, 1894 was the end of the line for Len Harris. He was shot and killed in the line of duty at Boulder Creek above Santa Cruz, by a desperate robber named Anthony Azoff. See Mark McLaughlin’s account of Harris’s death in his Western Train Adventures book.

By 1896 the detectives had worked themselves out of a job. The Central Pacific dismissed all of its pioneer detectives, and turned over the law enforcement to the local authorities, ending an era.


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