Express clerk’s silence foiled train robbery
January 16, 2015
It was just after 2 a.m., in the wee small hours of the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 24, 1901, and the Oregon and California Fast Express had just left the train depot at Cottage Grove, headed for Portland. Up in the engine, engineer B.L. Lucas and fireman Robert Gittens were looking out ahead into an unusually dark night, illuminated by the carbide lamp on the front of the engine. They were passing through the wooded area north of Cottage Grove, approaching the hamlet of Saginaw.
Suddenly a man suddenly appeared behind them, at the door of the cab. He was dressed in a sort of white tradesman’s apron, with a long piece of black cloth hanging over his face, dropping well below his chin. There was a big black revolver in each hand, and a Winchester rifle slung across his back.
He didn’t have to explain why he was there.
The robber, with much profanity, ordered engineer Lucas to reduce the train’s speed until it was safe for fireman Gittens to jump off, and then, at gunpoint, Gittens did so, leaving Lucas alone in the cab with the robber. Then the robber had Lucas run up the speed, race on up the track past Walker a mile or so, and stop the bus. There, on a lonely stretch of track in the middle of nowhere, he’d get busy robbing the train.
The robber first handed Lucas a cigar, and told him to light it and keep puffing on it. He’d be needing it to light sticks of dynamite, and if the cherry on the end went out, there’d be trouble.
Lucas was a competent engineer, but by all accounts he was not a particularly brave one. He puffed furiously, as if his life depended on it.
Next, the stranger dropped his revolvers — they hung on cords around his neck — and used his Winchester to lay down a curtain of fire past the passenger cars on the train, to discourage anyone from coming forward to see what was afoot. That done, he “called loudly and with much profanity to the baggageman to open his car,” in the words of the Oregonian’s account of the robbery.
Lucas followed this performance, at the stranger’s command, by calling out to the baggage man that he was being used as a hostage, so if the baggage man had any ideas about resisting, Lucas would probably be shot. There was no such trouble, though. The baggage man promptly opened the car. Nothing of any particular value was in it, so the robber closed it up and moved on to the express car.
And it was here that things started to go sour for him. The express messenger on this run was a man named Charles F. Charles, a 17-year veteran of express-car service.
This was not Charles’s first rodeo. Nine years previously, he and another clerk had successfully fought off the notorious Evans-Sontag Gang in a Southern California train robbery, and he’d also done work as a shotgun messenger on stagecoaches in Arizona. Even before the train stopped, Charles knew what was happening, and what he needed to do.
The robber repeated the performance that had worked so well on the baggage car, complete with an Oscar-winning supporting performance from Lucas — who well knew that his life depended on convincing Charles not to use his shotgun too carelessly.
The response was absolute silence.
“The robber ripped out a string of oaths, roaring that he had been there before, and knew how to deal with blanket-blank messengers who would not respond to his demands,” the Oregonian reported. “He pulled a large bunch of dynamite sticks from a pouch carried at his side and compelled the engineer to place it upon the sill of the forward side door of the express car, on the right side of the car, and light the fuse with the cigar.”
He did. The resulting explosion rocked the car, blew out all the windows and ripped a hole in the door. The robber repeated his demands, adding extra curse words for emphasis. The same ominous silence was his only reply.
“I never opened my head while the robber was shouting for me to open the car and lighting up and the engineer was urging me not to shoot,” Charles explained later, speaking to reporters after the robbery. “I knew it might go hard with me if I revealed my exact position. I stood up in the car with my gun ready for action, waiting for an opening.”
The robber stood outside the car, wondering if Charles was silent because he’d been killed by the blast or if he was waiting. He ordered Lucas to light a stick of dynamite and throw it inside. He did. It exploded with terrific force. Still, all was silent except for the robber’s cursing.
Another charge was set against the other door, an even bigger one than before. It went off with a roar, knocking Lucas off his feet and stunning him. The robber, apparently panicked at the thought of being stuck here at the scene of the robbery with nobody able to drive the train, shouted curses at him to get back up. After a minute or two, he did.
At gunpoint, Lucas threw several more sticks into the unresponsive interior of the car. Two went off; one did not, because Charles, padding across the glass-strewn floor in his stocking feet, reached it and ripped the fuse out before it could go off. One of the blasts was close enough to its mark to knock Charles across the car, his legs bruised and his overalls shredded, but he never let go of the shotgun.
Finally, the robber, figuring the clerk had to be dead, ordered Lucas to crawl into the car through the hole in the door. Lucas, shouting ahead that he was coming, started into the car.
Charles saw his outline, and knew that the robber would be just behind him and probably would loom above him as he climbed over the threshold. But he wouldn’t be able to see him, because it was dark. So he drew a bead just over Lucas’s head and pulled the trigger. The flash lit up the car, the charge of buckshot plowed through what remained of the door, and the robber — who had been just about to put his head into the spot where the buckshot had flown past — ducked back down again with a string of curses.
By now the robber had spent about 40 minutes trying to get into the car, and he appeared to be out of dynamite. Also, it was getting uncomfortably close to the time when the morning freight train would be coming along, with a crew of seven men, all of whom had brought their shotguns with them in hopes of doing some pheasant hunting.
“Come out of there,” the robber shouted to Lucas, who was still huddling on the floor of the car. “I guess we’ll quit this car. But (expletive) that (expletive) expressman. I’d wreck this train if I thought I could kill him.”
The robber ordered Lucas to uncouple the engine, tender and mail car and steam north to near Goshen, leaving the express car and all the passengers behind. While en route, he continued “pronouncing the bitterest anathemas against the resolute express messenger.”
At Goshen, the robber went through the mail bags. “Pretty slim picking,” he remarked. “Probably $300.”
He then gobbled up most of the mail clerk’s lunch and ordered Lucas to bring him almost all the way to Eugene. There, half a mile outside the city, he stepped off the train and melted into the trees.
“Goodnight,” he called to Lucas. “You’re all right. When they catch me, be easy with me.”
But, so far as I’ve been able to learn, they never did.
The railroad never said what the express car was carrying that night. But whatever it was, it must have been big, because Charles was given an engraved medal and a $1,000 cash bonus for defending it.
(Sources: San Francisco Call, 10-24-1901; Portland Morning Oregonian, 10-24-1901; Bohemia Nugget, 12-6-1901)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
Image above: UO Libraries. A photograph of heroic express clerk Charles F. Charles, published in the Bohemia Nugget on Dec. 15, 1901.
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