The Gold Train

08.04.2010
Blog

By Nancy Pope, Head Curator, History Department

What was a government to do when troubled economic times resulted in low gold reserves in the eastern treasury? In July 1892, only $43 million in gold reserves were left in New York City. Charles Foster, Secretary of the Treasury, feared a crisis if the reserves dipped much lower. Fortunately, the San Francisco sub-treasury had a surplus of $100 million in gold reserves. All he had to do was get that gold to New York City.

Foster turned to the U.S. Post Office Department’s Railway Mail Service for help. Arrangements were made for a special train to carry the gold across the country. On August 4, 1892, the train, carrying $20 million in gold coins, set out for New York City. The coins were shipped in 500 boxes, with eight sacks filled with $5,000 in gold coins in each box.

Interior of a railway mail car
During the 1892 gold shipment trip, the floors of Railway Post Office train cars such as this one were lined  with rows of boxes carrying millions of dollars in gold coins.

The Benicia, CA arsenal provided extra arms and ammunition to postal service personnel (60 Springfield carbines and 51 Colt revolvers). The clerks picked to work the train were told that they were being rewarded for being good employees with a sight-seeing trip to San Francisco. It was not until they arrived in the city they learned the true nature of their “vacation.”

The gold boxes arrived at the train station in guarded wagons and were stowed safely aboard the trains in less than five hours. Quite a feat for boxes that weighed 160 pounds each! Each was registered and sealed in two spots with the official wax seal of Col. J.P. Jackson, assistant US Treasurer at San Francisco. During the trip off duty guards slept on mattresses placed on top of the boxes.

The Department used a series of codes to keep the Treasury Department informed during the journey. “Have engaged an old stage coach for the World’s Fair” meant that the train had left San Francisco as scheduled. “Strike on again at 2:05 a.m. in Idaho” meant that the train had been robbed.

The gold arrived safe and sound in New York City on the morning of August 9, just before 11am. The route had taken the train from San Francisco to Ogden, UT, over the Southern Pacific; from Ogden to Council Bluffs, IA, over the Union Pacific; from Council Bluffs to Chicago over the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy; from Chicago to Buffalo over the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern; from Buffalo to New-York over the New-York Central. The trip had been made in four days, 13 hours and 16 minutes. At its fastest, the train had traveled at about fifty miles an hour. Once at Grand Central Station, the gold was unloaded onto well guarded city mail wagons and taken to the New York City sub-treasury.

 

Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.