Day D

“We had tried policemen on bicycles, motorcycles and even automobiles to run down plunderers, but had poor results until we got the dogs.”—Long Island Rail Road Police Superintendent Robert E. Kirkham

America’s Safe-Blowing Belt

The dog detectives of the LIRR police force

The dog detectives of the LIRR police force pose for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in July 1911.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, the wide open territory along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad was like something out of the Wild West. Train station and post office burglaries were a fairly common occurrence, as were gun fights and murders. Bandits would also try to rob people on the trains by laying rail ties or boulders across the tracks in hopes of causing a train wreck.

In their efforts to capture these “yeggmen,” several railroad patrolmen were killed and others were severely injured.

Sheba's Bob LIRR Dog

Sheba’s Bob was a large bloodhound with heavy ears that nearly reached the ground and a nose that always worked overtime. When standing on his hind legs, he was as tall as the average man. He and the other dog detectives were handled by Lieutenant Ferdinand Miller of the LIRR police force.

For 200 years after the arrival of the Dutch settlers in Manhattan, most of Long Island remained unchartered woodlands, although large farms did begin springing up in the 18th and 19th centuries. It wasn’t until the railroad started laying tracks in the late 1830s that small villages like Hicksville, Farmingdale, and Deer Park began to form (the names of these villages say it all). A typical village in those days consisted of a train station, post office, general store, a few dozen residences, and perhaps a hotel.

In 1908, a record number of post office burglaries were reported in villages along the tracks from Queens to Nassau County. For some reason, the Mineola post office was a favorite, and it became known as “America’s safe-blowing belt.” Numerous private residences were also burglarized during this time.

At each midnight break-in, the modus operandi was to blow the safes open using nitro-glycerin. The yeggmen would then escape by automobiles or teams of fast horses.

Although the burglars often used bags of chicken feed to muffle the sounds, the noise they created was still quite loud. However, villagers became so accustomed to the explosions that they’d simply ignore it and say, “It’s only the post office being blown up again.”

LIRR Police Force

The LIRR had its own police department as far back as 1868. When Robert E. Kirkham, chief clerk in the office the president of Long Island City, was appointed to Superintendent in 1905, the plan was to create a force of 200 men to patrol the terminal stations and freight yards, and to give special attention to those stations that operated by electricity. The special force merged with the Metro-North Railroad Police to form the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police (MTA Police) in 1998.

In addition to Secret Service agents attached to the U.S. Post Office Department, the men of the Long Island Railroad police force would often assist the local authorities in trying to apprehend the thieves. The LIRR equipped its police force with motorcycles and employed several expert bicyclists to help run the bandits down, but the crimes continued. It was time to call in the dogs.

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Recalling the good results that German, French, and Belgian municipalities had with highly trained police dogs — and maybe he had even heard about the hero police dogs in Parkville, Brooklyn — Superintendent Robert E. Kirkham of the LIRR police force purchased two English bloodhounds from Vermont named Bob and Nellie. Nellie soon had six pups (one died), and the whole pack was trained for service.

Within just a few years, the dog detectives trailed and brought to justice more than 100 criminals.

Valley Stream freight house

The Valley Stream freight house (top left) as it appeared in 1932.

On November 30, 1910, several grocery items and other goods were stolen from the LIRR freight house at Valley Stream. Robert Smith, the station attendant, discovered the break-in at 7:30 a.m. and notified gateman Robert Earle. The two men called for assistance from Sheba’s Bob, the ace dog detective of the LIRR detective bureau.

When Sheba’s Bob and his brother Jim arrived on the scene, Lt. Miller led them to the freight house, which had been pried open with a crowbar. The dogs picked up the burglar’s scent and tore off in a flash. Bob made for the underbrush at the rear of the station and started circling a pile of sand. Scattered about the spot were one or two parcels that apparently had been of no value to the thief.

Bob and Jim LIRR dog detectives

The old blacksmith shop where Bob and Jim tracked down the burglar. The illustration shows how Bob ran from the shed and up the stairs on the side of the building.

The dogs then moved back to the tracks and started to run with their noses to the ground. They dragged Lieutenant Miller down the tracks, jumped over a barbed wire fence, and ran up an embankment toward the pumping station at Watt’s Pond. The dogs then headed into the woods, dragging their handler along.

An hour after taking to the trail, the dogs exited the woods near Merrick Road. About 100 yards away was Joseph Berkley’s barn, which contained a blacksmith shop and living quarters that he rented. There was a tool shed in back, where a man was skinning a muskrat. Bob was the first to jump on the man, Frederick Reising.

Gristmill at Watt's Pond

The bloodhounds’ noses led them to the Clear Stream Pumping Station at Watt’s Pond, which was erected in 1881 on land previously occupied by the Wright family grist mill (shown here). Today this land is the Edward W. Cahill Memorial Park (formerly Mill Pond Park). Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection

“Take him away!” the man yelled. Lt. Miller called his dogs back and shackled the thief. Next, Bob darted for the barn and ran up the stairs on the side of the building. He ran through the kitchen and down the hall, and started to howl at a trunk in the bedroom.

Inside the trunk was everything that had been stolen from the freight house. With some help from Bob, Lt. Miller also found a crowbar hidden behind some boxes.

Following the arrest of Frederick Reising, police found other items in the barn where he was hiding, including about 40 bicycles (one of them rigged as a getaway bike), silver, and glassware. In a private residence nearby, detectives also found several gold and silver watches, other articles of jewelry, and dynamite.

LIRR Central Avenue

In 1911, when Bob and Jim were hot on the trail of the freight house burglar, most of the land between Watts Pond and Merrick Road was woodlands and farms. The area was still fairly rustic in 1922, when this photo from the railroad tracks looking west down Central Avenue in Valley Stream was taken.

It was believed that Reising was involved in a gang of burglars that had been operating along the South Side rail tracks, stealing from freight houses and stores.

The Good Deeds of the Dog Detectives

In February 1911, several attempts were made to wreck the Wading River express train, also known as the “Gaynor Special.” New York’s “Tammany Hall” Mayor William Jay Gaynor – the only mayor to be hit by a bullet during an assassination attempt — always used this train to travel to his country home in St. James on Saturdays.

Wading River Station LIRR

The 1895 Wading River station was demolished in 1938. The Wading River extension was abandoned March 20, 1939.

The bloodhounds were brought in to track the criminal’s trail, which led to the arrest of a man in Long Island City.

Another celebrated case occurred in August 1911, when the three-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fritz Webber of Northport went missing. The Webbers had left the girl unattended at Fort Salonga Beach for a half hour as they took a walk in the sand. When they got back, she was gone (big surprise).

Neighbors formed a search party, but after 27 hours the LIRR police were finally asked to bring their bloodhounds to the beach. The dogs sniffed her shoes and stockings, and four hours later they tracked the child to a spot five miles away. The little girl was fast asleep on the grass, only four feet from the edge of a deep creek.

As for the man who dared try to steal from the railroad, one month after his arrest, Frederick Reising was convicted of burglary and sentenced to prison. It took the jury only five minutes to find him guilty. It was his word against Bob’s word, and Reising had no chance against the ace dog detective of the Long Island Railroad.

Sheba's Bob and Jim, the ace dog detectives of the LIRR.

Sheba’s Bob and Jim, the ace dog detectives of the LIRR.

  1. Incredible tracking skills! And interesting story. Thanks 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed reading your story – great photos and lots of research, for sure. I will be back! I found you by Blogging A to Z. Keep up the good work on the challenge! I’m near 1,850 on the list 😉

  3. pempispalace says:

    Wow – what an incredible post! I’ll be following from now on (found your blog via the A to Z Challenge) Special Teaching at Pempi’s Palace