Neighbors Making History: Frank Pooler, "The Railroad Dick"

Posted by Scott on October 13, 2022

(written by Jeff Rand, retired Adult Services librarian)

“Bulls.” “Dicks.” “Shacks.”

These were all slang terms for the men employed by railroads as their own private police force.

In the smorgasbord of law enforcement agencies, railroad police are not one that usually ever comes to mind. Railroad police, however, can investigate and arrest people just like any other law enforcement agency, and their powers extend across state lines.

An Onalaska man, Frank E. Pooler, was a “railroad bull” or “railroad dick,” in La Crosse for 31 years. He also served in local government and helped create some of the recreational amenities that we still enjoy today in La Crosse County.

Railroad police had their origin in 1849 when Benjamin Latrobe of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad hired 12 men to protect workers from attacks by strikers during a labor dispute. Legendary lawmen Allen Pinkerton, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson all served time as railroad policemen. Private police forces for railroads became more prevalent in the four decades after the Civil War when trains were lucrative targets for robbers and various thugs. The first train robbery may have been in May 1865 when a train headed for St. Louis was waylaid and pillaged near Cincinnati. After the end of the Civil War, gangs of former Confederate and Union soldiers held up passenger trains for recreation and lucre.  Some of the most infamous outlaws in American history---the Reno gang, the James-Younger gang, the Dalton gang, the Burrow gang, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid---made trains one of their prime targets, especially the baggage, express, and mail cars that transported payrolls, gold and silver from the western mines, and other valuables.

As steel cars replaced wooden cars and armed guards were added, trains became a less enticing target. Even though train robberies declined and virtually ended soon after end of the 19th Century, thieves still raided stationary trains and freight warehouses. Railroads employed watchmen, who were hired without background checks or training, to supplement their railroad detectives and police. One researcher described the railroad police like this: “In the early days of their existence . . . were to be found a number of thugs, criminals, and other undesirable characters.  . . . Their duties appear to have been largely to spy upon their fellow workers, chase hobos, and prevent thefts from coal cars.” Railroad executives, perhaps counterintuitively because of the need, did not have a high regard for their private police officers, so the wages were low. There were no standards, and some of those employed by the railroads followed suit.

There would be gradual improvement in the profession over time, and Frank E. Pooler played a small part in the rehabilitation of the image of the railroad policeman. Pooler, who would eventually become the chief of the Milwaukee Road police in La Crosse, was born in Onalaska on June 15, 1877. His parents were George Pooler, Jr., who was born in Maine in 1853, and Josephine Pooler, who was born in Norway in 1855. George had come to Onalaska when he was 20 years old and worked for several lumber companies, including 22 years as a foreman for the C. H. Nichols lumber company. He married Josephine Greene in 1873, and they had three daughters in addition to their son, Frank.

Pooler’s education ended after three years of high school. He became a day laborer and lived in Onalaska with his mother and two younger sisters.  Following the death of his father in early 1903, Pooler went to Fairbanks, Alaska, from 1904-1908 to join the Alaskan Gold Rush.  We do not know if Pooler went there in search of gold, to make money supplying miners with equipment and goods, or just for adventure. His next move was to the west coast of the United States where he operated motion picture theaters. In 1914, after returning to Onalaska, the now 37-year-old Pooler switched his career path to law enforcement. He made an unsuccessful run for La Crosse County Sheriff in the fall election. Although he was not elected sheriff, Pooler was hired as a Milwaukee railroad policeman that same year. The railroad police here mostly dealt with trespassers, thefts, and general security.


Campaign advertisement - La Crosse Tribune 29 August 1914, p6

Hitching rides on trains was common for transients in the decades between the Civil War and World War II. Hoboes wandered the country looking for temporary work, and the most efficient way to travel the country was by train. Better yet, it was free. That is, if they could stay out of sight of the train crew and railroad police. Railroad police patrolled the railyards and searched trains in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with sometimes fatal consequences, either by accident or action. Occasionally the police would accept a bribe to look the other way, but a few took pleasure from beating up and even killing hoboes.

Trespassing could also have serious accidental outcomes, and not just for hobos and tramps. Juveniles fooling around in forbidden areas and people using railroad property as shortcuts sometimes met calamity. In 1923, for example, 2,779 people were killed and 3,047 more were injured while trespassing on railroad property in the United States.


Milwaukee Road employees, 1923


The standing order of the Milwaukee Road was to arrest all trespassers. For example, from March to May 1918, 25 men (“for the most part tramps”) were arrested and arraigned in La Crosse County court for trespassing on railroad property.

Aggressive enforcement of the trespassing law may have played a role the following year when a Milwaukee Road policeman in La Crosse, Lewis Ruehl, shot and killed two men who were walking on the tracks. One of them turned out be a Milwaukee Road employee. There was much controversy about who was to blame for this tragedy, which was dramatized by the La Crosse Public Library Archives staff in their Dark La Crosse Stories episode “Death on the Tracks.”

Lawrence Benson was the head of the Milwaukee Road police in La Crosse during this time. He later worked in Seattle, Washington. In January 1923, Benson was appointed the chief of the 5,000-man Milwaukee Road police force. 

Coincidentally, on May 1, 1923, Frank Pooler became district special agent for the Milwaukee Road, and in 1925 he was named inspector of the entire Milwaukee railroad police force.


Grand Crossing in La Crosse, ca. 1910


Theft was a continual problem for the railroads. In 1921, $10,386,000 worth of dry goods, tobacco, boots and shoes, and automobile parts were stolen from railroad freight cars. By 1930, that total had decreased to $1,080,000. Better police personnel were cited as the main reason for the decline in thefts.

It was in 1923 that Pooler was involved in a well-publicized case of theft from trains that the local newspaper called “almost unparalleled in the history of the upper Mississippi Valley.” After a six-month investigation in cooperation with the Burlington railroad, four men were arrested for stealing caps, shoes, shirts, and sheep-lined coats from Milwaukee and Burlington railroad cars on sidings in several states, including the Milwaukee Road railyard in La Crosse. The thieves sold the apparel at bargain prices, claiming it came from government surplus sales in Chicago and bankrupt store stock. Alexander Pendak of La Crosse pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in Waupun State Prison. Mike Ryan of Garvia (sic), Iowa, and Henry Clay and John Jones, both of McGregor, Iowa, were handed six-month prison sentences after pleading guilty. Most of the goods were not recovered. The total value of stolen merchandise was $75,000.

Railroad police in La Crosse solved another notorious case of box car thefts, that occurred over a three- or four-year period, when they arrested Scott Enos, 23, and Edward Lachman, both of La Crosse, on the night of June 11, 1924. Three Milwaukee Road policemen were staked out in the Milwaukee Road railyard at the foot of Vine Street when they caught Enos and Lachman loading a rented car with 12 sacks of sugar taken from a freight car. Authorities believed the sugar was destined for use in the manufacture of moonshine liquor. Enos and Lachman, who had both already served prison time for robbery, were also implicated in the mugging a couple days earlier of Theodore Evenson, who lived in a house boat at the end of Cameron Avenue. Evenson was slugged and relieved of $26 and a gold watch.

Not all thefts from the railroad were so spectacular. In the “cracker caper of 1935,” thieves broke into a box car on a Milwaukee Road siding in La Crosse and made off with a six-pound box of soda crackers and an eight-pound box of firecrackers.

Frank Pooler was a bachelor much of his adult life. In 1920, he and his mother were living at 315 North 2nd Street in Onalaska with his niece, Margaret (Krueger) Ahlstrom and her husband, Roy Ahlstrom. Margaret was the daughter of his sister, Harriet (Pooler) Krueger. Bachelorhood finally ended for Frank Pooler when he was 48 years old. On July 29, 1925, he married Florence Carolyn Mairich, 28 years his junior, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George E. Mairich of 1121 West Avenue South in La Crosse. The newlyweds made their home at 316 North 2nd Street in Onalaska. Pooler became a father at the age of 51 when Florence gave birth to a son, Frank M. Pooler, on August 31, 1928, at St. Ann’s Hospital in La Crosse. The couple would have another son, Larry G. Pooler.

By 1929, there were more than 10,000 railroad police. As a comparison, there were just 339 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents that same year. Frank Pooler became the captain of the La Crosse office of the Milwaukee Road police in 1933. When Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie’s train stopped in La Crosse on October 19, 1940, he spoke to a crowd of 5,000 from the rear platform of the train (See related materials here - search "Willkie" on page). Before the train left for its next stop in St. Paul, 40 railroad policemen under the direction of Captain Pooler boarded the train to provide additional security.

World War II brought heightened security all over the country to thwart sabotage of vital facilities. On the evening of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Milwaukee railroad police started guarding the railroad tunnel in Tunnel City between Sparta and Tomah, and bridges over the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. The La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department and the Wisconsin State Guard contributed men to help guard Milwaukee Road bridges in the La Crosse area: the drawbridge over the Mississippi River main channel, and the bridges over the Black River, French Slough, and Mississippi River east channel.

The Milwaukee Road held a picnic for soldiers at Camp McCoy in Myrick Park on June 28, 1942. Entertainment included a 51-piece band from Milwaukee and barn dances in addition to food and refreshments and games for children and adults. Milwaukee Road police officers Frank Pooler, James Taylor, Charles Smith, James Haug, and Raymond Wilhelm patrolled the park during the event.

Frank Pooler also served the community in two stints on the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors, the first being 1932 to April 1938 and the second from 1940 until his death.  Pooler was active on the La Crosse County Park Commission. This group oversaw the development of county parks near the Oak Forest Sanitorium in Onalaska (six acres) and in the La Crosse River valley near West Salem. The Works Progress Administration built a large stone shelter in the Onalaska Park to go along with other park amenities.  The new Waterloo Park (later Veterans Memorial Park) consisted of 16 acres, and it also had a WPA-built stone shelter in addition to picnic tables, playground equipment, and a ballfield. In the summer of 1941, the committee approved construction of an artesian well near the entrance of Waterloo Park. Besides providing water for a decorative fountain, the well funneled 240,000 gallons of fresh water a day into the nearby slough that had been, up to that time, stagnant and smelly.

Frank Pooler died of a heart attack on October 31, 1945, at the age of 68. Six Milwaukee Road police officers were his pallbearers for the burial in Onalaska cemetery. Many officials of the Milwaukee Road also attended his funeral.

A resolution of the La Crosse County Board read, in part: “Frank E. Pooler was for many years a faithful and beloved member of the La Crosse county board of supervisors. He gave generously of his time, wisdom and energy to the workings of this organization. We, who labored with him, found him to be steadfast of purpose, honest in endeavor and generous in heart. He cared not for display or personal credit, but rather sought to promote the common good and advance the cause of his fellow man.”


Frank E. Pooler, La Crosse Tribune 8 November 1945, p1 


At the time of Frank Pooler’s death in 1945, there were about 9,000 railroad police officers in North America. Standards and training had improved since the early days of the hired guns employed to chase train robbers and combat strikers. As of May 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are only 460 railroad police officers in the United States.

The railroad police force has declined since the days of the wild west and the early 20th Century, but railroad thefts have not. According to a Los Angeles police captain, the Union Pacific railroad has just six railroad police covering all their property from Yuma, Arizona, to Los Angeles. Union Pacific officials say an average of 90 shipping containers are “compromised” every day. Even though the railroad police are unlikely to ever regain the numbers that they had during Frank Pooler’s time, there is still the need to protect the commerce of the country.



Check out Jeff's full article here