Night photo of the front of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum
Photo courtesy of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum

Train robberies are a staple of the history of the American West, and the robbers, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, are still talked about today.

On Tuesday, Oct. 6, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, hosted “Law and Order on the Railroad.” The virtual presentation featured the history of both sides of the railroad in the Wild West — the outlaws who carried out the crimes, and the lawmen who protected the railroad and its assets. 

The presentation is one of the online events the museum has hosted while being closed during the pandemic. Lindsey Marolt, education coordinator for the museum, said she has received positive feedback from those in attendance.

“Our attendance is pretty decent,” Marolt said. “This was one of our more heavily attended ones.”

Marolt said she tries to structure the presentations around the interests of the different people involved.

“I try to appeal to what our audience is interested in as well as try to present some topics that I think people wouldn’t know to be interested in,” Marolt said.

The program covered the introduction of the Pinkerton agency, which provided theft protection for Eastern railroad companies in 1855. Special agents were used for employee surveillance to discourage theft of railroad property. As time went on and westward expansion continued, Pinkerton special agents were tasked with fighting off would-be robbers and outlaws.

The agents were also employed for other reasons, including sabotaging the organization of unions and rallies for better pay and safer working conditions. Union Pacific organized its own department for special agents in the late 1880s, although it continued employing Pinkerton agents until the turn of the century.

Marolt said some audience members are railfans but not all.

“That’s who our Facebook audience is,” Marolt said. “People who follow us tend to follow us because they’re big railfans. And that’s the main place where our events are promoted, but I do think that there’s also a fair amount of people who are just interested in learning new things.”

By hosting the event online, the presentation allowed for participation by people from around the world.

Mike Bell, a historian from Birmingham, England, was a participant in Tuesday’s lecture. Bell, who specializes in American Wild West history, said the ability to tune into the presentation virtually was beneficial. 

“For me, it’s the future,” Bell said. “When I started this when I was in my early 20s, there was nothing online. So, the only way you could find material was to travel to the United States and physically go through the material.” 

Bell said his job as a historian is easier with the ability to directly communicate and engage with different museums or historical centers online.

“It enables me to do the degree of research that I wanted to do as a professional historian, which just would not be possible before the technology existed,” he said.

Over the year, Bell has authored books about different historical figures in the American west, including “Incidents on Owl Creek” about Butch Cassidy and “Who are those guys?” about Union Pacific’s outlaw fighting special agents.

The presentation included truths and falsehoods surrounding the history of law and order on the rails. 

“I think it’s important for any nation to understand the reality of its history,” Bell said, “rather than the myth of the history.”