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First Train Robbery On The Pacific Coast

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By James H. Kinkead

Note about the author: An Under Sheriff of Washoe County, Nevada, Kinkead arrested two of the bank robbers. His narrative of the First Train Robbery On The Pacific Coast first appeared in the Third Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, 1913, Carson City, Nevada.


Train robberyThe officer who made the arrest of the robbers, and of whom C. C. Goodwin wrote: "He believed Nevada had everything that was needed for a man who had brains and physical strength and the pluck behind the two to carry through his plans."


On the morning of November 5, 1870, news was flashed around the civilized world that the Overland Express train which had left San Francisco the previous morning, carrying the gold to the miners at Virginia City, had been "held up" and robbed near Verdi, a station about ten miles west of Reno, and that over $40,000 had been taken from the Wells-Fargo strong box by masked men heavily armed. This being the first train robbery on the Pacific Coast, it almost took away the public breath, and for a while caused great excitement and much newspaper comment on two continents.


Every enemy of law and order was quick to voice praise of the boldness and nerve of the perpetrators of the robbery, and Nevada acquired the dubious credit of being one of the first States in the Union that could produce a set of outlaws daring enough to stop and rob an express train. Immediately, large rewards were offered by the authorities of Washoe County, by the State of Nevada, the Central Pacific Railroad, and by the Wells-Fargo Express Company, for the apprehension of the robbers, aggregating $30,000. It is needless to say that many men were working on the case in a few hours.


The hold-up occurred in this manner: Just as the train pulled out of the Verdi station it was boarded by five masked men. Two of them climbed into the cab of the engine and covered the engineer and the fireman with six-shooters. The engine was surrendered at once. Another boarded the front platform of the express car, while two others took possession of the rear platform. After the train had proceeded about half a mile east of Verdi, the men on the engine ordered the engineer to whistle "down brakes." This was before the days of air-brakes and one short blast of the whistle brought the brakemen to the platforms, where they began the work of setting the brakes. This was also a signal to the three men on the express car to cut the bell-rope and pull the coupling pin at the rear of the car. As soon as this was done the engineer was ordered to "give her steam," which he did at once, and when Conductor Marshall went forward to ascertain what had caused the stoppage of the train, he discovered he had lost his engine, mail car, and express car.


The robbers then sped down the grade with this part of the train, leaving the other cars at a standstill. The engineer, realizing what was being done, at first refused to pull out, but the muzzle of a pistol against his temple caused him to obey orders. The fireman was nearly frightened out of his senses and did not have to be told more than once to do anything.


At a point four or five miles west of Reno the engine came to a halt because of an obstruction on the track, placed there by a confederate of the robbers. They had figured that the engineer might run past the place designated for the hold-up or might play them some trick by opening the throttle and jumping from the engine.


After the engine was stopped there was a knock at the door of the express car, and Frank Minchell, the messenger, called out, "Who's there"? and the reply was, "Marshall." The messenger then opened the door and, instead of seeing Conductor Marshall as he expected, was confronted by the muzzle of a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun. He was taken completely by surprise and surrendered without any fight. After telling him to sit down in the corner of the car and keep quiet, the robbers threw the Wells-Fargo sacks of gold, containing $41,000, through the side door of the car into the brush, thanked the messenger for giving them so little trouble, adding that they were glad they did not have to kill him, shouldered their booty and disappeared into the darkness.


Meanwhile Conductor Marshall was allowing his headless passenger train to drop slowly down the grade, anticipating danger of an unknown character, but boldly facing it. When his train arrived at the scene of the robbery he found that the work of the robbers was finished and the engineer and fireman were busy removing the obstructions from the track. The train was then "made up" and continued on its way, reaching Reno thirty minutes after midnight, only thirty minutes late.




Washoe City, Nevada, 1866Washoe City was then the county-seat of Washoe County, and the first news of the robbery reached the Sheriff's office at 8 o'clock in the morning. The message came from C. C. Pendergast, Wells-Fargo agent at Virginia City, and read: "Train robbed between Truckee and Verdi; robbers gone south."


The Sheriff, Charley Pegg, and his under sheriff immediately saddled up and struck for the mountains by a short cut, assuming that the robbers would take the Truckee route between Truckee, Carson City, and Virginia City. Thus they expected to head off the robbers. After striking the trail the officers followed it northerly for a few miles and then returned to Washoe City, for they were convinced that no one had passed over the trail since a light fall of snow a week before.


The message from Pendergast proved to be misleading, since the robbery occurred below Verdi instead of above it, and the officers lost the first day. They were just in time, however, to catch Dwyer's stage to Reno at 9 o'clock that night.


The Deputy Sheriff took passage on this stage, and upon reaching Reno learned that the Wells-Fargo detectives and some of the railroad and Reno officials, together with a posse of citizens from Reno, had been out all day on a "sure clue" which afterwards proved to be a false one.


Early the next morning the Washoe County officer with a fresh horse went to the scene of the robbery, and after carefully examining the ground discovered one footprint which was easily distinguished from the others. It was made by a boot having a very small heel, such as the dudes and the gamblers wore in those days and our wives and daughters wear now. No laboring man or railroad employee ever wore that boot, and it was too soon after the robbery for the curious to have visited the ground, so the officer in charge of the party knew that if he could find that track and follow it after it left the scene of the robbery he would be sure to land at least one of the robbers.


After spending some time examining the ground up and down the track he finally reached a point about a mile west where the small heel print and two of the larger ones left the track and led off to the north. The robbers had evidently walked for quite a distance on the railroad ties to prevent being trailed. The officer followed these tracks up Dog Valley Creek and over Dog Valley Hill, where it was easy trailing in the snow, into Sardine Valley, California. At the Sardine Valley House he gained valuable information. Three strangers had lodged there the night before. Two had left early in the morning and the other one was still in his room when a party of hunters from Truckee, led by James Burke, arrived at the house. They were well supplied with shotguns, and the stranger in the house at once mistook them for officers. Running out of the back door he hid in the barn. In the meantime a man had arrived from Truckee and reported the train robbery. The lady of the house then related to the hunters the particulars of the coming to her house of the three men late the previous evening. She said that one of the men was still there and seemed to be nervous and worn out. James Burke, although not an officer, concluded to arrest the man, who proved to be Gilchrist, a miner from Virginia City, who, up to that time, had borne a good reputation.


This, no doubt was his first venture in the "hold-up" business. He was taken in Truckee by the hunters.


The landlady of the Sardine Valley House gave the Washoe County officer a very good description of the other two men. She described them accurately and went into details about their clothing. Among other things she said that one of them wore "gambler's boots; and from her description of the other man, the officer rightly guessed that he was John Squiers, an old stage robber whom the officers of Storey County had been trying to land for years.


He was heading for Sierra Valley where his brother Joe, an honest blacksmith, resided and where he thought he could rest in safety until the excitement caused by the robbery had subsided. After feeding and resting his horse, which had been on the go since daylight, the officer in about an hour took up the hunt for the other men.


It was now 10 o'clock at night and the snow was falling fast. The officer was out of his jurisdiction and unacquainted with that section of the country. He therefore found it necessary to procure a guide to put him on the right road to Sierra Valley; otherwise he might land at Webber Lake or Downieville many miles away. There were several men at the Sardine Valley House, but none of them had "lost any robbers," and they refused to act as guides. A boy, however, volunteered for ten dollars to go with the officer as far as Webber Lake Junction and put him on the right trail to Loyalton in Sierra Valley, but with the distinct understanding that, in case the robbers were encountered, the boy was to turn back and let the officer fight it out alone. Nothing of the kind occurred, however, and at about midnight they arrived at the little town of Loyalton in Sierra Valley, California.


Arousing the landlord of the only hotel in the village, the officer made himself known and asked if there were any strange guests in the house. The landlord replied that he had one, and described him, but the description did not fit either of the men sought. The officer, however, thought best to take a look at the man and asked the landlord to show him to the room.


Railroad through the Sierra-NevadaBy this time, either from the cold or from the thought of a desperado being in his house, the landlord's teeth were chattering, and he declined to go; but giving the officer a candle, told him the man was in room 14. The hotel had just been built, and had not been painted, and on account of the damp weather the doors were swollen and the door of room 14 could not be shut tight enough to lock. For this reason the occupant had placed a chair under the knob on the inside of the room and had gone to bed, probably feeling quite secure against intruders.


The officer after reaching the second story of the hotel readily found room 14, and noticing that the door stood partly open, he gently pushed it until the chair moved sufficiently to enable him to get his arm through the crack and remove the obstruction.


This he did without awakening the sleeper, and the first object that attracted his attention after entering the room was a boot, lying on the floor, with the little heel that had made the tracks he had followed for so many miles, and that afterward cut such an important figure in the trial of the robbers.


After entering the room the officer found his man sleeping like a log and first proceeded to remove a six-shooter from under his pillow without disturbing his slumbers, and also went through his clothes in search of further evidence to connect him with the robbery. Enough was found to assist in the later conviction of the men. When the officer finally aroused him to place him under arrest, he bounded from his bed and landed in the center of the room like a wild animal. Rushing back to the bed, he reached for his gun, but found it missing, while the officer, covering him with a Henry rifle, commanded him to get on his clothes, which he did without any further parley. He then was marched on ahead of the officer and down the street to a saloon where he was bound and placed under guard, while the officer went in search of the other man. The man arrested in the hotel proved to be Parsons, a gambler from Virginia City.



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