Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Railroad ciphers

From: "Katy Duffield"

I am writing a book for 8-14 years olds for Chicago Review Press about California history. In my research I discovered that Central Pacific officials often used cipher or code [encryption] in their correspondence to keep information from being intercepted by the Union Pacific.

Is there anyone there that would have more information on the cipher? I would like to include an activity in the book where readers could use the original cipher of the Central Pacific, or something similar. ...

Katy Duffield


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Collis Potter Huntington Papers,
An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University
writes: "Over the years, Huntington's correspondence indicates the use of several cipher systems. Although the cipher code books are not available in this microfilm edition, there are many letters with word keys to Substitution codes. Cipher telegrams are generally accompanied by a translation."

4/21/2010 9:09 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker"

California State Railroad Museum Library in Sacramento holds at least one or two original cipher books used by members of the CPRR's Big Four. However, these are on-site reference use only texts.

Too, cipher books were regularly changed for security reasons.

They're now quite rare in terms of assignment to specific historic individuals, but you may get lucky in this instance. ...

—Kevin Bunker, Portland OR

4/21/2010 11:51 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Don Snoddy"

I know that Union Pacific museum has numerous cipher books. These books are several hundred pages each and would be expensive to duplicate. I assume the California Railroad Museum has some as well. The books I know about date from about 1912, though I know they were used long after that. There were red books and blue books depending on your status within the company or the secrecy desired depended on which book you used. I'm certain all railroads had cipher books, and I would suppose most major corporations as well. It would be just too easy for someone to overhear. You might also check with the Newberry Library, or the St Louis Mercantile Library, Barriger collection.

4/21/2010 12:09 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


This is a great idea for kids. The books I've seen are pretty much the same – using cipher/code words for people, places, etc. to be used mostly in the sending of telegrams. My favorite code words are the ones used for railroad presidents. These changed, but one president (who will remain nameless) was known as "smirch." Probably because he smiled so much. ...


4/21/2010 12:11 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See Commercial Telegraphic Code Books.

4/21/2010 12:16 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See railroad telegraphic code books.

4/21/2010 12:17 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


The Library of Congress has a large collection of Telegraphic Code books.

Ciphers were used both for secrecy, and to reduce the cost of sending telegraphs, by using a word for a phrase. In some cases (for example lumber) industries would share a common code book.

—Randy Hees

4/21/2010 12:19 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Katy Duffield"

I'd like to thank everyone for their helpful responses. I've briefly visited some of the websites you've provided. I'm not sure there is any way for me to come up with exact cipher(s) used by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific. If I can come up with a general cipher that would be similar, that would probably work. I just need to find out if the most commonly used ciphers used letter-to-letter translations or number to letter translations. Does anyone have input on this?

Thanks again!


4/21/2010 7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post is quite old, but I recently acquired a 1913 Union Pacific codebook, issued to an attorney in St. Joseph, MO. It is a true code book (not a cipher), where 6-letter codewords stood for letters, numbers, phrases, names, places, companies, etc.

9/22/2017 6:44 PM  

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