A day in the life of a Truckee lawman
The Central Pacific Railroad brought many people to Truckee, but they were not always here to contribute to the well being of the mountain town.From 1868 through the 1950s, men who rode the rails were referred to as hobos, tramps, and vagrants. And while they were a source of cheap labor, they were also the cause of much of Truckees petty crime.These populations of floating men were the reason the town had organized and petitioned Nevada County to build a branch jail here in 1875. Despite the stone jail and two to three constables, crime was still a major concern in the 1880s. By 1883 Truckee was well-known throughout the West by this floating population, where they could support themselves for a few days on petty crime with only a slight chance of being caught, and then move down the tracks to the next town.
The Truckee Republican of Nov. 14, 1883 reported on a typical incident. A gang of 20 tramps took a break from riding the brake beam, as the railroad men called it, on their way west to the warm valleys of California.Most of the tramps quickly set to begging for money, food and drinks, while a couple looked for a quicker way to find a meal ticket. At dusk two of them, later identified as William Harris and James Grogan, cased Wyatt Durnos clothing store on Front Street. They waited until no one was watching and made off with 10 pairs of pants and six pairs over of overalls and ran away into the darkness.They were spotted by one observant waiter from the Sherritt House next door who reported the theft to Wyatt Durno. But by then they had disappeared with the stolen goods. A few minutes later Church Street resident Mr. Hubbard reported to Constable Jake Teeter that a man had come to his house and tried to sell him pants and overalls and was acting suspiciously.Constable Teeter at once went to search for the man Hubbard described. He spotted him near the railroad roundhouse and the chase was on. Teeter knew the rail yard better than the newcomer, so it only took him a few minutes of a cat and mouse chase for the constable to catch the stumbling thief.Teeter marched James Grogan off to Judge John Keisers courtroom, who looked over the five pairs of pants the tramp had with him and ordered him locked up in the jail on Jibboom Street and held for trial. The constable then went searching for his accomplice.The second thief wasnt all that hard to find, as Teeter knew that most of the thieving tramps, once unloading their stolen goods, headed for a saloon for a drink. Sure enough, William Harris was sitting in Lanahan & Dixons Saloon, warming himself by the wood stove nursing a drink.
Harris readily admitted his guilt upon his arrest and told Teeter that he had sold the stolen goods and a pistol in Chinatown across the Truckee River. He volunteered to take them to the Chinese store and identify the man he had sold them to. Teeter took him to the store run by China Jim, but the only reply they could get from Jim was a broken English, No sabe.The language barrier also made it difficult at first to verify the claim that Harris made about selling a pistol to China Jim. Harris kept insisting that the merchandise and pistol were indeed in the possession of the Chinese merchant. Teeter brought in Chinese community leader and merchant Fong Lee to interpret. China Jim eventually admitted to buying the gun, but not the stolen clothing.So at the end the evening, both Harris and Grogan were locked away in the stone jug, awaiting trial in Judge Keisers court the next day.
At 1 oclock in the morning, as night watchman Leach was making his rounds by the jail, he was astonished to find the jail doors open and the cell empty. Upon closer examination it was found that the two large padlocks had been smashed open with a sledgehammer. Leach ran as fast as he could to Teeters house, woke him up, and then woke up Deputy Constable H.N. Chapman.The officers quickly conferred and headed toward a freight train getting ready to head out from the railyard. A gang of a dozen tramps were seen waiting for the train to start moving before hopping on. As the lawmen approached the gang, the tramps tried to hide their wanted comrades, but Teeter spied the two wanted men among them. Two of the group ran away as a diversion tactic, but it didnt fool Teeter.Harris and Grogan were arrested at the point of a six-shooter without a fight. Another tramp who been seen hanging around the jail earlier, and was suspected of being the one who liberated the escapees, ran away to escape the clutches of the law.Teeter gave chase as the jail breaker fled towards River Street, calling for him to stop in the name of the law. The culprit didnt stop, so Teeter fired two shots over his head as a warning, but to no effect. Two shots were fired in Teeters direction by the gang of vagrants at the train, and that distracted Teeter from his chase.Fearing that Deputy Leach might be overwhelmed by the gang and the two prisoners might escape again, he sent Deputy Chapman to continue the search around the River Street residential area and started to return to the freight train.
As Teeter was walking around the corner of a building, he was struck with a rock filled sandbag and knocked down. It took a minute for Teeter to regain his breath and senses, but the lawman was undeterred in his mission. He followed the likely path of the unseen attacker for a few hundred feet.The constables attacker made his escape in the dark and Teeter gave up the chase, so he returned to assist night watchman Leach and settled for the recovery of the two escaped prisoners. As the freight train whistled and prepared to pull out, all of the gang of tramps were persuaded at the point of a gun to board the free ride out of town and never return. Deputy Chapman marched the prisoners back to the jail and stood guard all the rest of the night over Harris and Grogan.The next day Judge Keiser heard all of the evidence of the various crimes in this spree, but could only rule on the charges of petty larceny related to the theft of clothing. He sentenced Harris and Grogan to either a $35 fine or 35 days in the county jail. Since they had no funds, they were given a free 35 day vacation in the Nevada County Jail in Nevada City.Truckee lawmen continued their never-ending vigilance against the railroad riding vagrants and tramps for decades to come. There were other escapes from the jail as well, and Truckee continued its reputation as a wild western town.Gordon Richards is the president and research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 582-0893. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives.
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