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The Silk Train

by James H. Bruns

Volume 5, Issue 2
April–June 1996

An 1892 shortage of gold coinage in the United States sub-treasury in New York City, prompted by substantial international and domestic payments in 1892, prompted Secretary of the Treasury Charles Foster to order the transfer of $20 million in gold coins from San Francisco to New York City. The precautionary fiscal balancing act was expected to alleviate anxieties over the government's ability to meet the demand for gold coinage on the East Coast. 

In the East, the immediate financial climate was so bleak that one writer characterized it by observing that "the margin ran too close to panic conditions. Business was becoming more depressed daily, values were declining, and the financial outlook was overcast with clouds that portended misfortunes to many [financial] houses doing their utmost to stay the threatened catastrophe." 

Ample coinage was available out west. The Sub-Treasury at San Francisco held a surplus of $100 million, which was more than enough to cover the drain on the East Coast gold coin reserves. Gold coin reserves were down to a low of $43 million at the Treasury Department's New York facility. 

The issue was not when to move the coins; they had to be moved immediately, but, how to move the money. Typical shipments of between $50,000 and $200,000 were transported by registered mail in locked leather pouches, further secured in rawhide trunks. This method proved impractical given the vast amount of money that needed to be moved. Even if the shipments were increased to $1 million each, the entire process was calculated to take 20 days. This was far too long. 

As a result of a conference between Secretary Foster and Postmaster General John Wanamaker, an order was issued in July 1892 to assemble a special mail train to transport the gold directly from San Francisco to New York City. 

Details surrounding the operation were left to James E. White, the general superintendent of the Railway Mail Service. Each mail car was supervised by an assistant superintendent of the Railway Mail Service, who was helped by nine trusted clerks. These crews were "to continue in absolute charge until the arrival of the car they accompany at [the] destination." 

Five assistant superintendents of the Railway Mail Service and forty-five clerks were required. For this assignment, railway mail clerks with military service during the Civil War were preferred. The clerks and their supervisors were instructed to gather at Omaha on July 29 for a briefing, from there they traveled by train to San Francisco. 

Also marshaled at Omaha, the eastern cars for this special train came from different lines. The Central and Hudson River was responsible for the Train from Buffalo to New York City. The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway provided a car to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad delivered that car, along with one of its own, to the Union Pacific at Omaha. 

The Southern Pacific was also required to furnish four baggage or express cars for use from San Francisco, with the understanding that "such cars shall be used as may go through to New York without requiring the transfer of the specie en route." 

The code name "The Silk Train" was used for this special train to avoid arousing the interest of potential robbers, the thought being, no self-respecting American bandit would be interested in hijacking a train containing bolts of silk. 

If there was any trouble along the route, the mail clerks were ready. On August 4, each clerk was given a standard military-issue Springfield carbine, and a 45-caliber Cold revolver. In case there was a prolonged shoot-out, the clerks also received 2,000 carbine cartridges and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. 

Shortly before the run began, it was debated whether the gold coins should be shipped in marathon fashion involving five shipments of $4 million each or as one complete $20 million shipment. It was decided to send all of the coins together, with the resulting run taking four days. 

The secret shipment ultimately consisted of $5, $10 and $20 gold pieces, packed in sacks containing $5,000 each. The sacks were packed in wooden boxes, eight sacks to a box. In all, 500 boxes, weighing 160 pounds each, made up the shipment. Each box was sent as registered mail, with the tops of the boxes sealed with the Treasury Department seal set in red wax. The boxes were equally apportioned to the four different cars assigned to transport the gold, with a squad of nine guards allocated to each car. Mattresses were placed on top of the boxes so that the clerks could rotate sleeping. 

The train resembled a rolling war wagon. Armed clerks were posted at every possible opening. Once the doors of the car were bolted shut on August 4, no one was routinely allowed outside. Whenever the train approached a watering stop, the crews went on added alert. This gave the cars the appearance of a bristly caterpillar, with gun barrels protruding out of every possible opening. 

By the time the train reached Ogden, Utah, the secret was out. Much to the regret of the government, the local newspapers had been alerted to the train's arrival and were already broadcasting the news of the money train. But, with the exception of the bums that unsuccessfully tried to hitch a free ride whenever the train stopped for water, no one attempted to board the treasure train. 

"The Silk Train" successfully completed its mission on August 9, 1892, arriving at Grand Central Station in New York City at 10:46 a.m. Within an hour, the first batch of gold boxes was transferred to five wagons. At 12:40 p.m., the first wagonload of gold coins was safely housed in the Sub-Treasury building. Other shipments followed in quick succession until the entire shipment was safely housed in the building's vaults.