Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Threats of terrorism and challenges to security are nothing new for railroads; these phenomena have been around for nearly 200 years of railroading in the United States. Safety and security, therefore, have been of the utmost importance for railroad lines from the 19th century to the present, and railroad police have had authority equivalent to state police in many locations. Yet, the amount of railroad track that exists in the United States makes it impossible for all of it to be completely protected.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest railroad company in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, one of the most substantial businesses in the world at that time. Throughout the railroad’s years of operation, there were episodes of destruction and bloodshed, such as in Pittsburgh during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and there were also attempts of sabotage. One of the most famous was during World War II, when Nazi Germany dispatched saboteurs to blow up the railroad’s Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, Blair County, to slow the movement of military troops and weapons across the Appalachian Mountains to East Coast ports (see “WWII Target: Altoona”).

A half-century earlier in 1899, the same year that Alexander J. Cassatt became president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, he received a handwritten extortion letter from a person calling himself a member of the “Red Mail.” With an envelope postmarked July 5, 1899, from Greensburg, in Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County, the letter threatened Cassatt that the writer would cause numerous wrecks of Pennsylvania Railroad trains if Cassatt did not meet his demand for $50,000 in various denominations of gold coins and paper bills. He said he felt justified in getting even with the railroad because of its poor treatment of him over the years, particularly during the Pittsburgh railway riots and the Johnstown Flood. He warned that he was serious and that he should not be thought of as a crank or insane. He directed that the money should be made up in a white package and sent with the first fast line train east every night in July, August and September. It was supposed to be given to a normal flag man along the route from Pittsburgh to Altoona. It is unknown if the would-be extortionist ever attempted to cause any railway accidents as he had threatened, but it does not appear that the Pennsylvania Railroad ever paid any money to the Red Mail.

 

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The Red Mail letter, along with many other significant Pennsylvania Railroad documents, is held by the Pennsylvania State Archives in Manuscript Group 286.

 

Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.