How to rob railroad trains with dynamite
January 30, 2015
Tips from the pros
In a bit of a break with the usual format of Offbeat Oregon History, today I’m going to share with you the text of a promotional brochure mailed out shortly before the First World War by notorious criminal mastermind/motivational speaker Blackie DuQuesne*:
DYNAMITE-ENHANCED TRAIN ROBBING TECHNIQUES: LEARN THE SECRETS OF THE PROS!
Dear Aspiring Train Robbers:
Look, boys, I understand. Being an express robber isn’t the easy gig it used to be, back in the 1880s when the hills were full of stagecoaches with gold in the boots and “rob me” signs taped to the back windows. In fact, I expect some of you boys are in the same boat as poor old Bill Miner — reading this in prison, after trying to use your stage-robbing skills on one of the railroad trains that replaced them. I don’t guess I have to tell you so, but that just don’t work. Luckily, I’m here to tell you what does:
Yep, that’s right. There are dozens of ways you can build a satisfying and profitable train-robbing career with this modern wonder, and zero ways you can do so without it. Yes, add dynamite to your business today — and start enjoying the lifestyle of a successful train robber tomorrow.
But watch out. Dynamite is tricky. It can — heh heh — backfire on you if you don’t know what you’re doing. And that’s why you need me — and my special correspondence course on Dynamite-Enhanced Train Robbing Techniques. This course will teach you and your team of robbers how to stay safe AND effective in using this modern miracle product to grow your train-robbing business.
Here’s just a taste of what you’ll learn:
I’m going to give it to you straight: If you’re wanting to learn how to rob the passengers on a train, don’t buy this course, because you’re too dumb to teach. Seriously, bub, there are 40 citizens in the car, half of them with revolvers in their pockets, and you think you’re going to just waltz down the aisle robbing ‘em one after another? Good luck with that.
The smart operators never do this. That’s how poor old Charles Manning got it when the Meadors-Stoner Gang knocked over the Portland-Chicago train in Kamela back in July 1914 — remember that? A lawman at the back of the car had a six-gun and knew how to use it. It’s pretty hard to finish a train-robbing job once one of your team members has been picked off like that, and it’s hard to get away clean once things have gone that badly south. Protip: When you’re running for your life, you tend to leave clues behind.
Now, some of my competitors will tell you that if you’ve got dynamite, you actually can rob passengers. Maybe they’re right — but it’s still mighty risky. My old pals John Case and James Poole found that out when they pulled the Cow Creek Canyon job in July 1895. John and Jim lit off a stick every couple minutes or so, just to remind the passengers that if they tried anything funny, the whole works would go up in splinters. They got the loot and got away. But one of them passengers made ‘em, and they got picked up later. The best advice is, leave the passengers be.
The express car
As you boys all know, the express car is where the good stuff is. Oh, sure, you can find some good cash and securities and other valuables in the mail car, but the real money in a train robbery is in the express car … if you pick the right train.
And you’d better be absolutely sure you do pick the right train. You want to pick a train that’s carrying payroll cash, or maybe a big shipment of gold bullion. There’s nothing more disappointing than going to all the trouble of robbing a train and finding out it’s the wrong one.
Here’s another pro-tip, gents: If you stick up a train, and knock on the door of the express car, and the express clerk opens it, that means you got the wrong train. Shake his hand and walk away. There’s no loot in the car: guaranteed.
You see, the good things in life don’t come easy. The fact is, the more loot is in that express car, the harder the clerk will fight to keep you out. To get into the car, you’re going to have to use your dynamite like a can opener, and after that you’re probably going to have to use it to encourage the clerk to give up. And even then, it’s not a sure thing, as my good friend Mr. X did when he knocked over the Oregon & California Fast Express in October 1901, just north of Saginaw; remember that job? X picked a good one; there was a lot of loot on board, but he didn’t have enough dynamite with him. The clerk wouldn’t give up, and he didn’t have enough dynamite to change the fellow’s mind. Finally poor Mr. X had to slink off into the bushes south of Eugene with a couple hundred bucks filched from the mailbags, and half of the mail clerk’s boiled-egg dinner. How much gold was on that train? I don’t know, but they gave that clerk a $1,000 bonus for defending it, so you can bet your bottom dollar it would’ve been plenty. Moral of that story is, bring enough dynamite.
Have a yegg on your team
Another thing you’d better bring, if you’re gonna go after the big score, is a good box man — a yegg. That’s because getting into the express car is only the first step. There will be a world-class safe inside that car with the goods inside, and usually the express clerk won’t even know the combination to it. You’re gonna have to get into it, and do it fast before the bulls show up. You need a yegg on your team, a box man who knows where to drill the safe. And the smart yeggs who work train boxes use dynamite to get into ‘em.
Keep your dynamite warm
One more tip: Keep in mind that dynamite doesn’t work when it’s cold. Don’t make the same mistake my colleague Mr. Z made back in November 1906 — tying a few sticks of dynamite to the tracks on a lonely stretch near Hood River and lurking in the bushes to wait for the explosion to stop the train.
You probably never heard about this job, because it didn’t happen. The train just ran over the dynamite and kept on going, and some kid found the squashed-up sticks of blooey a few days later. Remember, dynamite freezes at 45 degrees. If you’re going to try something like this, wait for a warm summer night to do it.
If you’d like to learn more secrets of the professional train robbers, send your check or money order for $19.95 to “Course No. B-101: Dynamite-Enhanced Train Robbing Techniques,” c/o Prisoner No. 7215, Oregon State Penitentiary, Salem, Oregon.
Do it today, and start enjoying the exciting lifestyle of a successful train robber tomorrow!
April 1, 1916
(*All the train robberies mentioned in this column are real events from Oregon history, but Blackie DuQuesne is a fictional character from E.E. Smith’s classic pulp novel, “The Skylark of Space.” However, the “advice” he gives in this column would have stood an aspiring train robber in good stead back in the 1910s. Sources for info on the train robberies themselves came from back issues of the Portland Morning Oregonian, Oregon Journal and Bohemia Nugget, and from Oregon State Archives.)
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 at top: Railroad Stories. This illustration from the front cover of Railroad Stories Magazine (May 1932) shows the kind of thing that can happen when a job starts going bad.
Second image: Railroad Stories. Using a train to break out of prison? Well, there’s always a first time.
McKenzie River Reflections