Train robbers weren’t afraid to blow stuff up
February 21, 2015
Darkness had fallen in Cow Creek Canyon, in the remote fastness of south Douglas County, on July 1, 1895. It was just after 10 p.m., and the northbound California Express No. 15 was winding its way through the hairpin turns along the mountainside. Suddenly the black night was lit up with a brilliant flash as a big explosion thundered out from beneath the front wheels.
Engineer J.B. Waite instantly slammed on the brakes. But he was more concerned than fearful. A big explosion under the wheels of a locomotive was, at that time, not particularly unusual. It usually meant there was a disabled train on the tracks, somewhere in the blackness just ahead, and its crew had set a “torpedo” on the track to warn oncoming traffic, to prevent a deadly crash.
It did seem like rather a big torpedo, though. In fact, the explosion had been so big it had disabled the pony truck at the front of the engine. And even more strangely, as the train ground to a halt, two more big explosions rang out — one at the back of the train, and another at the front.
Answers weren’t long in presenting themselves — in the form of a trio of masked men with drawn revolvers. The train was being robbed.
One of the trio — a tall, cool fellow wearing a white hat with a buckskin band and a thin fabric mask over his face — stepped forward to explain the evening’s program to Waite and his fireman, Everett Gray. They’d start off by relieving the express car of all its valuables, of course, as per the usual routine. The lead robber would accompany Waite and Gray to the express car, where they would help encourage the clerk to open the door.
The express clerk, though, was no fool. All the explosions had told him clearly enough that something was wrong. So he’d hastily opened the lockbox, taken most of the valuables out, and hidden them in a dark corner of the car. And when the robbers demanded entrance, he let them come right in.
Dismayed by the lack of action in the lockbox, the robber demanded that the clerk open the big express safe. When told that the clerk didn’t have the combination, he pointed his revolver at the clerk’s head.
“I’ll give you just five minutes to open that safe,” he growled, in a distinctive musical baritone voice.
“Well, you are simply wasting time,” the clerk shot back, no doubt trying not to look at the yawning gun muzzle that was being presented for his inspection. “The combination is not given me, because of such occurrences as this. So if you are going to shoot if I don’t open it, you are wasting time to wait five minutes.”
“You’re hot stuff, ain’t you?” the outlaw grumbled. But he held his fire.
Next they moved on to the mail car, the clerk in which had to be threatened with dynamite before opening up. He, too, had figured out something was wrong, and had hidden the valuable registered mail in numerous caches all over the car. Only three remained, and these the robber promptly appropriated.
Then the robbers, with their hostages, moved through the cars robbing the occupants, each in turn.
“Remain perfectly quiet, gentlemen,” the baritone-voiced robber would boom out as they entered each car in turn. “If I am hurt, you’ll all go too. I have a dozen men outside loaded down with dynamite.”
Peering out the windows into the blackness, the occupants could see two of the “dozen” robbers outside, watching them and occasionally lighting off a stick of dynamite to demonstrate they meant business.
At the back of one car, they found Klamath County Sheriff A.A. Fitch, and robbed him of his Colt revolver. At the sleeper cars, the Baritone Bandit made his way down the aisle booming out, “Lady or gent?” and if a woman was inside, he left her alone.
“Got any money?” he asked one passenger.
“A little,” the man replied.
“Well, keep it,” the robber said. “You look like a hard working man and I guess you need it.”
Most of the passengers didn’t get off so easy, though.
After the passengers were all robbed, the bandits returned to the front of the engine. The engineer and fireman were ordered into the express car; the robbers shot out the train’s powerful carbide headlamp; and then they melted away into the night.
The next day, the railroad announced a reward of $2,000 for the arrest and conviction of each of the robbers. That was a lot of money in 1895, and it had its intended effect — several posses soon were in play, most of them heading out toward likely escape routes in hopes of catching the bad guys trying to leave.
But one posse in particular followed a more careful path. That was the group led by Douglas County Sheriff C.F. Cathcart and Constable George Quine of the nearby town of Riddle.
Quine, the small-town cop, was an amateur detective. Carefully looking through the evidence at the scene, he made some very important observations.
First, he found a campsite near the railroad tracks, the ashes of its campfire barely cooled. A close inspection turned up the robbers’ discarded masks, made from flour sacks. And around the campfire ashes, he found a set of boot tracks with a distinctive pattern of nails in the heel.
Quine also learned, probably from recovering a dud dynamite stick, that the dynamite used had been giant powder, a type used by hard-rock miners.
Some of the passengers had seen the lead robber’s face through the thin fabric of the flour-sack mask, and given a pretty good description. After hearing about it, a Riddle resident named Stilly Riddle reported there were three men who had been working at Nichols Station — one of whom matched the description — who had disappeared shortly after the robbery. One of them, a fellow named John Case, habitually wore a white hat with a buckskin band.
The cops knew both men. And, to a man, they immediately realized they had their perpetrator. The question was, could they prove it?
They could — sort of. But there would be another train robbery before Case could be stopped. We’ll talk about that next week.
(Sources: Wilson, R. Michael. More Frontier Justice in the Wild West. Helena, MT: Twodot, 2014; Portland Morning Oregonian, 7-02-1895 and 7-03-1895)
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.
Top image: Catskill Archive. An illustration from Leslie’s Monthly magazine in 1882, showing a railroad locomotive hitting a “torpedo” - a small charge of dynamite used as a warning signal.
Second image: A 1910s postcard image of a passenger steam locomotive coming up the line through Cow Creek Canyon.
McKenzie River Reflections