Len Harris | Southern Pacific’s Heroic Detective

After a bold train robbery in 1870, when more than $41,000 was heisted from a Central Pacific express near Verdi, Nev., Central Pacific Railroad and the Southern Pacific hired and maintained crack law-enforcement teams to investigate all criminal acts against the railroad. Many brave and intelligent lawmen were employed by the railroad, but it was Leonard “Len” Harris who most exemplified duty with honor.

Born in upstate New York around 1827, Harris arrived in California during the Gold Rush to try his luck in the mining districts. He moved to Sacramento in the mid-1850s and was hired as a constable with the sheriff’s office. In 1860, Harris took the job of warden at the Sacramento County jail and during the following years he saw duty as a deputy sheriff and then an undersheriff. He regularly escorted convicted criminals to San Quentin Prison near San Francisco, but he didn’t like the mundane job. In the early 1870s, he returned to Sacramento to join the city police force and before long had found his true calling: detective work.

In the mountains, vagrant criminals were robbing trains, stealing supplies and burning bridges and snow sheds. Hoodlums were also assaulting and robbing railroad crews after payday.

In the mid-1870s, Harris was hired by Central Pacific Railroad and assigned to the Sierra Nevada section of the transcontinental railroad. In the mountains, vagrant criminals were robbing trains, stealing supplies and burning bridges and snow sheds. Hoodlums were also assaulting and robbing railroad crews after payday. Part of the violent campaign against Central Pacific was due to the railroad’s hiring of Chinese labor to construct the line. Many of the contracted Asian workers remained in the United States, competing with American citizens for employment. The railroads were also vilified because of their stranglehold on commercial shipping and exorbitant long-distance transportation pricing. Because Harris was a sworn deputy sheriff in addition to his position as a railroad detective, he made it his business to help enforce the law in mountain communities such as Truckee, as well.

In June 1876, a Chinese woodcutter was shot and killed while others were threatened and their homes burned by several Nevada County residents. Harris arrested two of the men without mishap in Truckee, but he had to track down the third suspect in the rugged west slope region south of Dutch Flat. Months later, Harris and his colleague Detective Burke investigated a suspicious derailment east of Truckee and arrested three Washoe County, Nev., men who had placed rocks on the rails in hopes of scoring a hit on the train’s moneybox. One of the culprits, Indian Tom, was sentenced to 18 months at San Quentin.

Two years later, four hoboes were kicked off a train at Tunnel 13 near Schallenberger Ridge south of Donner Lake. The furious foursome went ballistic, breaking up a telegraph station and setting fires. Harris took the case and within a week had resolutely tracked down the men for punishment and incarceration.

Harris frequently worked with Truckee Constable James Reed in solving local crimes. In the spring of 1880, unknown vagrants walking the tracks between Reno and Summit Station at Norden went on a rampage, stealing merchandise, tools and anything of value from the railroad. The loot somehow seemed to disappear without a trace. Finally, someone tipped off Harris and Reed that they might find a stash house east of Truckee. The two lawmen crawled through a hole in a wall to surprise a dozen men lazing about amidst a room full of stolen property, mostly railroad ties. The band of thieves was taken to the Nevada County jail to spend the next month in stir.

Over the years, Harris earned a stellar reputation as a smart but tough detective, willing to track down the most violent criminals. In September 1881, he single-handedly took on the notorious Sontag and Evans gang in Stanislaus County. Outgunned, Harris stood his ground until a shotgun blast by one of the bandits caught him in the neck. The detective dropped in his tracks, but his pluck spooked the gang and saved the day.

The throat wound was serious, however, and Harris lingered for many months between life and death. At the time, doctors thought that Harris would be permanently disabled but he fought his way back to health. Although his right arm remained partially paralyzed he eventually recovered enough mobility to return to his duties with the railroad.

Harris’ final act of bravery occurred on May 15, 1894, when he helped foil a plot to rob the Wells Fargo express office in Santa Cruz County. The railroad got a lead that Anthony Azoff, an unemployed sign painter, planned to hold up the Boulder Creek train depot by enlisting an old buddy, onetime Southern Pacific trainman George Sprague, who leaked the information. The railroad immediately dispatched their two best detectives, Harris and William Kelly, to the scene.

Thanks to Sprague, the lawmen had the element of surprise and advantage in firepower. Harris advanced to the outside door of the depot behind Azoff and ordered him to surrender. Azoff wheeled around and opened fire on the veteran detective. Two bullets struck Harris in the abdomen and he collapsed to the floor with a groan. The whole event took less than 10 seconds and Azoff escaped.

News of the shooting quickly reached Southern Pacific officials who immediately ordered a special train to rush the critically injured detective to a hospital in Oakland. Harris, however, insisted that they take him to his daughter’s house in Alameda where a team of doctors attempted to save his life. Family members and friends prayed for Harris, but he lapsed into a coma and died.

After an extensive manhunt, Azoff was captured and executed at San Quentin in June 1895. Among the spectators at his hanging was young Jack Harris, there to witness the death of his father’s murderer. Len Harris had served as a lawman for more than 40 years, a lifetime of unflinching bravery and dedication to duty.


Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.