Daring bank robbery attempt thwarted
Echoes From the Past
April of 1869 was a wild time in old Truckee. With the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad just a few weeks away, the town had become a wild, almost lawless railroad stop that attracted a host of unruly characters from around the West. There were a lot of jobs, and a lot of money was flowing freely, which tended to bring men with greedy plans.
Much of the money from the town businesses and saloons ended up in Fred Burckhalter’s Bank, located in his general store on the west end of Front Street (Commercial Row). On April 18, Burckhalter and his chief clerk, William Lowden, sent $10,000 to the Bank Of California, followed by another $11,000 over the next two days. Still there remained more than $18,000 in the safe by the end of business on Wednesday the 21st.
The security procedures for the counting of the money every night was well thought out. At times more than $50,000 might be in the safe. After the iron doors of the store were closed and barred, it became impossible for even the most experienced burglar to gain entrance without being detected.
In addition to scores of passers-by, the town night watchman, the strong bolts and bars, and first class safe, several men slept in the store, armed and well prepared for any emergency. Usually Fred Burckhalter himself was at the counting, but this week he was on business in Dutch Flat.
Gang leader Johnny Morton, Chris Blair, Billy Forrest, E.L. Lee and a railroad brakeman named Wood figured there must be a way to get their hands on the pile of loot. The plot to rob this large amount of money was well thought out. One reason was that the wooden building had been moved back from the street so that a new brick and stone building could be built, which decreased its visibility from the street.
For more than a week the conspirators met in the evenings in an old shed near the railroad tracks, talking over the bold scheme. Lee had deposited money with Burckhalter, and a few days before had withdrawn $125, and went to Sacramento to purchase six revolvers to be used in the robbery. Wood was quite a gunsmith, so he checked, repaired and test fired the weapons.
Forrest had attempted to break a $20 double eagle earlier in the evening, trying to case the bank, but was not let inside. He reported back that it was not a good situation for a heist. The gang knew that the perfect time for a bank robbery would be about 9 p.m., when few people were in the bank and store, and clerk Lowden would have the safe open to count the day’s cash. With all this in mind the gang moved in.
At 9 p.m., Lowden had about $4,000 in gold and silver coins spread out for counting when a masked man with a gun in his hand erupted into the office unannounced. Holding a flour sack, he pointed his pistol at Lowden.
Also in the front part of the store were errand boy Johnny McTarnahan, dry goods merchant Frank Pauson, and Mr. Ryan, another Truckee merchant. In the rear of the store, near the back door, were store salesman W.T.T. Nicholson and Henry K. Brown, a partner in the banking office.
Three men masked in blue denim entered the front of the store, pointing pistols at the startled occupants. Two more came in through the back, armed and masked in barley sacks. The robbers in the front told Lowden and Pauson to be silent, which they did. In a moment, the safe would be looted and poured into the flour sack.
In the back, the startled Brown remarked that someone could get hurt playing such a serious joke. One of the gang seized Brown’s arm and stuck his pistol in his face and said “By God, this means business,” to let him know it was no joke, then walked over to Nicholson. Brown jumped to his feet and seized the chair he was sitting in and dealt the villain a terrific blow over the head.
As the stunned robber reacted, he fired a shot at Brown, but the shot passed by harmlessly, lodging in a jar of jelly on the shelf. He cocked his pistol to fire again, and Brown knocked it upwards, the shot hitting the ceiling. A shattered lamp sprayed kerosene that drenched the two robbers, frightening them.
In the meantime, Nicholson jumped behind the stove, and as he did so the other robber fired at him. The ball narrowly missed him, hitting a set of cups on the shelf. Ducking to the floor, the succeeding shots also missed him.
Brown again swung his sturdy chair at the first robber, reeling him back against the wall. The robbers lost the will to be rich and headed for the door. As they opened it Brown brought the chair down one more time, breaking it into fragments over both of their heads at once. The frightened would be robbers made a quick escape down the dark alley.
Back up front, the three robbers were about to load all of the money in the safe, some $18,000, into the sack when the shots in back went off. Alarmed at the sound of their partners’ failure, the three not so brave men ran out the front door. Johnny Morton, who was guarding Lowden, became so excited that he shot himself in the foot while leaving.
Within two minutes, Burckhalter’s store was full of 100 excited men who had been attracted by the shooting, but it appeared the robbers had made a clean escape. In a few moments, Johnny Morton was found around the corner lying on the ground on Jibboom Street. He was arrested and carried to the doctor, despite his protest that he had nothing to do with the robbery.
The reaction of the law abiding townsfolk was to lock their doors, put their weapons close and ask for more law enforcement. Men looked carefully at each stranger wondering if he was a bank robber.
Henry Brown was immediately hailed as a real hero for saving the bank’s fortune. His coolness and courage was the talk of the town for months. He never considered himself a hero and continued to maintain his quiet, sober ways. As long as he was minding the bank, no criminal ever challenged him again.
By the next noon, the whole gang had been rounded up, and within a week they were in court facing charges. Johnny Morton was not so lucky. His foot was shattered and gangrene set in, and despite Dr. W.C. Jones’ best effort, the leg had to be amputated. Even though he was only a little older than 20 years old, Morton was in such bad health from drinking, that he couldn’t handle the surgery, and died a week later.
At a trial in Truckee Justice Court the next month, Forrest testified against Lee, and Lee was sent to San Quentin for 10 years. Forrest would not testify against Blair, so the two of them were discharged for lack of evidence. In less than three weeks Forrest and Blair were in Virginia City, where they robbed a jewelry store. They were caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.
A few years later they both escaped from the Carson City prison. Blair was later caught, but Forrest still remained at large eight years later. Wood was never caught.
Truckee would remain a magnet for the criminal sprits that roamed the West for another decade, but no one ever robbed Burckhalter’ store and bank again.
Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. 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.
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