Reminisce: ‘A tough hombre:’ A look back at railroad detective Ruel Steen

LIMA — Ruel W. Steen was out for a Sunday drive in late August 1939 when he noticed a man along the Pennsylvania Railroad near Elida whose actions he thought “were peculiar.”

Acting peculiarly on railroad property when Steen was around was not a good idea. He was a detective for the Chicago and Erie Railroad and was known as “Lima Slim” (“Slim” being hobo slang for a railroad detective) and “Hot Eye” because of his ability to spot criminals. He had built a fearsome reputation, which he actively cultivated, of being what The Lima News called a “tough hombre.”

“As Steen approached the man, he ran to the rail, picked up an object and tossed it in the weeds,” The Lima News reported Aug. 28, 1939. The object turned out to be a three-inch bolt that the man told Steen he had placed on the rail “to see what would happen when a train struck the bolt,” according to the newspaper. The man, who told police he had been placing stones and other small objects on the tracks since he was a boy, was arrested and held for officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

As for Steen, who had been threatened, shot at and once barely escaped death when a train derailed and leveled a crossing tower he had just left, the arrest proved to be the final, relatively quiet event in an eventful career as a railroad detective.

Steen was born in Tracy, Kentucky, “one of six strapping brothers.” He began working for the Erie in Chicago in 1923 and in the early 1930s was transferred to Lima, where his brother, Ralph, was employed as a patrolman by the Erie. Steen’s first job in Lima was as a railroad brakeman – and it didn’t go well.

“I didn’t know a thing about how to get on and off a train,” he told The Lima News. “When we stopped at the west Lima yard limit, I tried to get off backwards — and you should have seen me ‘roll.’ The other ‘boys’ gathered me up and picked cinders out of my legs all the way to Marion, then they took me to a doctor’s office. I never got off a train like that again.”

After a year as a brakeman and with the deepening Great Depression hurting railroad business, Steen was furloughed. But the hard times also saw a huge increase in the number of people riding the rails and preying upon railroad property. Steen took the dangerous job of railroad detective.

Steen “immediately became acquainted with his ‘territory,’ which covered the Erie trackage between the Ohio-Indiana line and the Marion city yards,” The Lima News wrote. “Most troublesome to the railroad at that time was the stretch of trackage between Alger and McGuffey in Hardin County. Steen, a native of Kentucky, had little trouble understanding the traits of the native Kentuckians who were employed in the marshland onion-producing area. He made many arrests on both minor and major charges in that area. Steen frequently referred to himself, with a note of humor, as the marshal of Alger and McGuffey.”

During the violent strike in the Scioto Marsh onion fields in 1934, The Lima News noted, “Steen probably was the most active man there.” When a suspicious fire destroyed an onion storage barn and melted a railroad telegraph cable, Steen became involved.

“He worked day and night for weeks and made many arrests before the strike was finally settled,” The Lima News wrote, adding that his “unofficial, but definitely realistic affiliation with activities at that time, placed his name in the news constantly.”

Steen developed a reputation for rough treatment of hoboes. One former hobo, who was interviewed by author Studs Terkel for an oral history of the Great Depression, said: “Lima Slim, he would kill you if he catch you on any train. Sheep train or any kind of merchandise train. He would shoot you off, he wouldn’t ask you to get off.”

Despite his “tough hombre” reputation, Steen had a softer side. In an interview for Lima’s Train Town project in the early 1990s, R.G. Miller remembered: “Steen was mean, and rough, but with all of that meanness, if you were really hard up, and you would talk to him, he would take you and buy you a meal. He’d even help you get coal off the cars to keep your family warm. But if you violated the law, he was going to enforce it.”

During the “exceedingly cold” winter of 1935, The Lima News recalled in Steen’s 1939 obituary, he “virtually kept many Lima residents in coal.” Steen passed the word around that if anybody was caught stealing coal they would soon be in jail, “but, if you come and see me, I’ll give you some.” In fact, The Lima News added, Steen at one time “had given away to poor families so much coal the Erie railroad found its Lima emergency supply for engines about exhausted.” After receiving a mild rebuke from railroad officials, Steen replied it was “better to give it away than let ’em steal us blind.”

Steen didn’t let anybody steal the Erie blind. “In 1936, Federal Bureau of Investigation records show, he made more arrests than any other officer in the nation, averaging three a day,” according to The Lima News.

In addition to his work for the Erie, Steen was sought out for help by other law enforcement officials.

“There was seldom that a month passed Stern did not apprehend some escaped penitentiary or reformatory fugitive,” The Lima News noted. “The practice was lucrative, too. One month he received in reward money more than $300 from several states.”

Danger on the Erie didn’t always come in the form of armed fugitives or desperate trespassers. On Dec. 21, 1932, soon after he began working for the railroad, Steen had just concluded a visit with the leverman working in the SJ Tower, which stood at the northwest angle of the crossing of the Erie and the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton railroads about a mile east of Lima, when the speeding, westbound Erie Flyer jumped the tracks and barreled into the tower.

“I rushed over to the coach where the passengers were screaming,” Steen told The Lima News. “I broke out a window so they could get out. As each one came from the window, I helped by taking an arm. There were about 35 men and women, but no children.” The Erie Flyer’s engineer and fireman as well as the tower man Steen had been visiting were killed.

Steen’s death came not quite seven years later, soon after he had thwarted the Elida man’s attempt to derail a passenger train.

“Death early Tuesday ended the colorful career of Lieut. Ruel W. Steen, 47, Erie railroad detective and one of the best-known law enforcement officers in the United States,” The Lima News wrote in a front-page story on Oct. 10, 1939. “The end came for Steen peacefully in bed and not violently at the hands of some criminal as he had always predicted.”

Although the death of the “rugged six-foot detective” was “attributed to overwork by persons who know him best,” the medical cause was “the dread streptococci germ which spread and became a general infection of the blood stream,” The Lima News wrote.

“Steen was the most fearless officer I ever knew,” Lima Police Chief Ward Taylor told The Lima News.


This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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