California’s first train heist – almost! |

California’s first train heist – almost!

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Courtesy Author's CollectionA locomotive rounds the treacherous Sierra Nevada foothill Cape Horn railway section above the American River.

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. – Around midnight Sept. 1, 1881, five armed bandits tried to rob a Central Pacific Railroad passenger train near Cape Horn about three miles east of Colfax, Calif. They managed to derail the lead locomotives, but stiff resistance by the crew and a Wells Fargo Express agent foiled their plot and they fled into the forest empty-handed.

The following morning, top law enforcement officers arrived by train. Among them were legendary Wells Fargo detective James Hume; Placer County Sheriff John C. Boggs, a noted 25-year veteran and Fredrick T. Burke, the railroad’s chief detective. Detective Hume called the caper “one of the most bungled crimes performed we had ever had the duty of tracing.”

On Sept. 9, Boggs and Hume found local miners Ed Steinegal and John Mason at a nearby cabin. A search of the house revealed pieces of cut fabric that matched masks found at the train heist. Boggs also discovered shovels and picks lying in the river nearby. When Sheriff Boggs interrogated them, Steinegal stonewalled the veteran officer, but Mason cracked and promised to implicate the gang to avoid prosecution. Besides Steinegal, he named George Shinn, Reuben Rogers and Henry Frazier as the perpetrators. Within hours officers apprehended Frazier at his house while Reuben Rogers was picked up at the Union Hotel in Nevada City. The fifth suspect, gambler George Shinn, had fled Placer County for Lake Tahoe, but was later arrested Sept. 26 in a Virginia City saloon.

The trials of the Cape Horn train wreckers were among the most controversial in Placer County’s history. A total of five trials were held to prove the case against the inept train robbers, starting with Ed Steinegal in November 1881. At Steinegal’s trial, 100 witnesses were called before the bench, 52 for the prosecution and 48 for the defense. Immune from prosecution, John Mason testified against Steinegal, but the trial ended with a hung jury. Steinegal was retried in February 1882, convicted of attempted robbery and sentenced to 13 years in San Quentin. George Shinn was convicted and also sentenced to nearly 13 years. Rogers and Frazier were later tried together.

Steinegal later escaped police custody, but despite a $300 reward issued by the governor of California he was never caught again. During the trial of Rogers and Frazier, public sentiment shifted against the railroad. Citizens were outraged when it was reported the lengthy trials being vigorously prosecuted by Central Pacific and Wells Fargo had cost county taxpayers more than $30,000, but the railroad company had not paid a penny in local taxes for three years. Despite the fact Steinegal and Shinn were convicted on exactly the same evidence, Rogers and Frazier were both acquitted Dec. 23, 1882.

Of the five men arrested for the attempted train robbery at Cape Horn, only George Shinn remained behind bars after Steinegal’s daring escape. For five years, Shinn was a model prisoner at San Quentin, earning the status of an outside trusty and able to leave the prison unsupervised. Despite his relative freedom, Shinn was depressed at the thought of six more years at San Quentin, and in December 1887 he surprised prison officials by escaping with another prisoner. The two men remained at large until July 1890, when Wells Fargo detective James Hume arrested them in Chicago.

The penalty of death or life in prison for derailing a train in order to rob it is still on the law books today, a direct result of the 1881 Cape Horn Caper.

– Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stories or at You can reach him at

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