When Timothy Keliher passed away in Chicago on February 15, 1954, the national media took note — paying an unusual amount of attention for an elderly former railroad executive. But he wasn’t your average retiree. Keliher had been Chief Special Agent of the Union Pacific and Illinois-Central railroads — meaning, effectively, that this was one of the men who tamed the West. Newspapers from coast to coast printed stories on the life of the man known as “the nemesis of train robbers.” Arguably, a huge reason for all of this attention was for what Keliher represented: the relatively simple, bygone era of outlaws and the hardened lawmen who brought them to justice. Keliher’s time coincided with a transition in American life — between the wide-open spaces and lawless outposts of the 19th century and the lawful, regulated, modern society of the 20th century. As a result, Keliher is still known as the man who cleaned up the last of the “Old West” train robbers. By 1954, Keliher had been largely forgotten in popular culture. But at the turn of the century, Timothy Keliher was well known across the country. The subject of countless newspaper articles, he had the reputation of a man not to be messed with. A man that Nebraska rustlers and train robbers feared as they escaped across the Great Plains. A fear that was fully justified, because Keliher always got his man. Born in 1867 in Pennsylvania, Keliher was raised in North Platte, Nebraska. Elected Sheriff in 1899, he quickly gained a reputation as a relentless lawman — often pursuing criminals long after they thought they had successfully made their escape. On one such occasion, Keliher pursued a cattle rustler all the way across three states, to Chicago, where he located the dumbfounded thief working in a meatpacking plant (most likely processing his spoils). Keliher’s reputation soon brought the Union Pacific Railroad calling, and in 1902, he was hired as a “special agent” tasked with clearing out the last of the robbers who were wreaking havoc on the U.P. rails. According to the North Platte Bulletin, “Keliher established his headquarters in Cheyenne and immediately went to work. He hired a group of 10 rangers. He enlisted the best trailers in the region, the surest shots with rifle or revolver, and equipped each man with a fast, tough horse. Then he went to work outfitting a rail car for their special use. The car had stalls on one end for the horses and bunks on the other end for the rangers, with a kitchen filling up the rest of the car.” Whenever a train robbery occurred, Keliher’s specially outfitted rail car would be sent on an express straight to the scene of the crime to handle the matter. Keliher and his mounted posse captured outlaw after outlaw, and even succeeded in bringing down possibly the most infamous group of train robbers of all time: the Butch Cassidy Gang. It’s a rich and fascinating legacy, but one that’s not widely known. To learn more about Special Agent Timothy Keliher, read this. (Image credit: Butch Cassidy as part of the Wild Bunch at Fort Worth, Texas / Public Domain)
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