First Train Robbery On The Pacific Coast

Truckee California

Truckee California

On arriving at Truckee, the officer telegraphed to H. G. Blasdel, the Governor of Nevada, for a requisition on Governor Haight of California.

On the following day this arrived and the prisoners were taken across the line into Nevada over the same railroad whose train they had assisted in holding up. While awaiting the requisition Gilchrist had been kept separate from the other men and had been “sweated,” with the result that he made a complete statement before a Notary Public, in which he gave the names of all the parties connected with the robbery.

A telegram was immediately sent to Wells-Fargo in Virginia City, directing the arrest of“Jack” Davis, and another was sent to Reno calling for the arrest of John Chapman, Sol Jones, Chat Roberts and Cockerell. Davis was arrested in Virginia City by Chief of Police George Downey and Constable Ben Lackey; and Jones, Roberts and Cockerell were taken in Long Valley by a posse headed by Chief Burke of Sacramento and Louis Dean of Reno. Chapman, who was in San Francisco on the day of the robbery, came up to Reno on the following day, and, was arrested by Deputy Sheriff Edwards. This completed the arrests. The entire gang had been rounded up in less than four days after the robbery occurred and most of the money was recovered. Gilchrist showed the officers where the money was cached, saying that it was the intention to let it remain there until the excitement of the robbery had subsided, when it was to have been dug up and divided.

A grand jury was immediately called by Judge C. N. Harris of the District Court of Washoe County; indictments quickly followed; and the men were put on trial early in December. They were convicted and, with the exception of Gilchrist and Roberts, they were all landed in the Nevada State Prison on Christmas Day of the same year.

The trial was a memorable one in the criminal annals of Nevada. Judge C. N. Harris presided. W. M. Boardman was District Attorney and Thomas H. Williams appeared for Wells, Fargo & Co. Attorney General Robert M. Clarke, a brother-in-law of the Washoe County officer, and who later successfully prosecuted the United States mint thieves at Carson City, represented the State.

The celebrated criminal lawyer, “Jim” Croffroth of California, appeared for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. The prisoners were ably defended. Judge Thomas E. Haydon of Reno appeared as special counsel for Chapman, and the others retained William Webster of Washoe City, who was later the editor of the Reno Journal.

It was a great legal battle and the principal fight was over Chapman. He was in San Francisco on the day of the robbery, and his attorney claimed that the State of Nevada had no jurisdiction in his case. In order to bring him into the jurisdiction of this court it was necessary to prove a conspiracy and that the conspiracy was hatched in Nevada.

This was shown to be the case by the confessions of Gilchrist and Roberts, who were promised immunity if they would tell the whole story. Their evidence was also corroborated from other sources. Gilchrist and Roberts testified that the job was put up at Chat Roberts’ ranch in Nevada, Chapman being present. At the time it was arranged that Chapman was to go to San Francisco and watch the shipment from Wells, Fargo & Co’s office and to send a cipher message to Sol Jones at Reno who would then notify the other men who were to await the coming of the message in an old tunnel in the Peavine Mountains north of Reno.

Sol Jones also testified and explained the meaning of the cipher message, which read : “Send me sixty dollars tonight without fail,” and was signed “J. Enrique.” Jones testified that it meant: “Be on hand tonight without fail.” Jones had been promised the lowest sentence under the law to testify on behalf of the State. This he did and was later sentenced to five years in the State Prison.

Chapman denied the sending of the telegram. But the Western Union operator at San Francisco brought the original message into court and swore positively that Chapman was the man who delivered it to him early in the morning of November 4. His attorney, however, still maintained his contention of the lack of jurisdiction, and produced authorities to support his argument. Among others was one from California, where in a certain robbery case the defendants were tried in one county while the robbery was committed in another, and the Supreme Court of California granted a new trial on the ground of lack of jurisdiction.

But, General Clarke, in a remarkable argument, successfully combated the contention of Chapman’s attorney, and on appeal the Supreme Court also held that the conspiracy was concocted in Nevada, Chapman being present; that the sending of the telegram from San Francisco was a part of the same unlawful act which culminated in the train robbery in the State of Nevada, and that Chapman in law was as securely within the jurisdiction of the court as any other of the defendants, and that if he could not be tried in Nevada the law certainly could not reach him in California, since the sending of the message from California did not constitute a crime against that State.

The sentence of the convicted robbers ranged from five to twenty-three years, Jones getting the lightest sentence, and Chapman and Squiers the heaviest.

Nevada State Prison

The sending of these men to the penitentiary nearly wiped out the stage-robbing industry in Nevada, for it imprisoned the men who for years had been stopping the Wells-Fargo stages. The officers of Washoe and Storey Counties had long been convinced that “Jack” Davis and John Squiers had been in every hold-up, but their work had been so smooth that whenever they had been brought before a jury they had succeeded in establishing a “reasonable doubt.” Chapman was known to be a ringleader of the robber gang. A short time before Wells, Fargo & Co., in order to protect their stages, had put on an extra guard in addition to the regular messenger. Guards also traveled behind the coaches on horseback. The gang soon concluded that there was no more easy money to be had out of the stages, so they were forced to change their base of operations. Chapman and Squiers conceived the idea of holding up a railroad train. It was a remarkably well-concocted plan, and all the details were worked out to perfection, the only mistake being in the selection of the men. They did not need Gilchrist and Jones, who were novices in the business and gave up everything they knew under pressure of the sweat-box.

The convicted men all served their terms in the penitentiary except Davis. A few years after the incarceration there was a break at the Nevada State Prison, in which several guards were killed and Warden Denver tied up. The convicts had complete control of the place, but Davis refused to pass through the open gates, and in fact rendered some assistance to the officers. For this he was pardoned, having served five years. Within a year after his discharge he attempted to hold up a stage in White Pine County, but Eugene Blair, a shotgun messenger, got the drop on him and riddled his chest with buckshot, making a truly “good Indian” of him.

Of the others connected with the robbery nothing is known of their lives after their discharge, except Squiers, who next turned up in California where he was convicted of jury fixing and served five years in San Quentin. A few years ago he was a spectator at the Gans-Nelson fight in Goldfield. He is now a gray-haired, decrepit old man, who, if still living, is too old to do much damage in this world.

Of the officers who took a prominent part in the arrest and conviction of the train robbers, all are dead save the one who followed the small footprints through the mountains until they led him to the lair of the robbers. It was also he who collected most of the evidence used at the trial and for these services received most of the large reward.

James Kinkead, Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August, 2010.

About the Author:  Not a professional writer, James H. Kinkead; however, created this hand-written document that was found after his death. 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.

Note: The article as it appears here is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.

Also See:

Big Jack Davis – Nevada Outlaw

Stolen Loot at the Truckee River

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