Weather Window: California’s first train heist – almost!
Special to the Sun
COLFAX, Calif. – The highly publicized 1870 train heist near Verdi, Nev., is considered the West’s first railroad robbery. California’s earliest experience with this relatively new crime occurred in 1881 when five bandits bungled a daring robbery, an event newspapers dubbed the Cape Horn Caper.
This misdeed occurred Sept., 1, 1881, at Cape Horn Mills in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a remote wooded region about three miles east of Colfax, Calif. The tracks of the transcontinental railroad snake through rugged terrain here, 1,322 feet above the American River. It requires tight organization and bold execution to successfully hijack and plunder a moving train. Scrappy Ed Steinegal, a down-and-out miner from Gold Run, and George H. Shinn, a handsome, 32-year-old professional gambler and noted ladies man, led the Cape Horn gang. In early August 1881, Steinegal convinced John Mason, Reuben Rogers and Henry Frazier to join in the scheme. Unlike Steinegal and Shinn, both of whom had previous run-ins with the law, the others were new to the crime business.
Reuben Rogers owned a small cabin at Pickering Bar on the North Fork of the American River near a trail that ran up to the Central Pacific Railroad tracks. The men stashed provisions, tools and explosives at the cabin. Their strategy was to derail the train and then use black powder to blast open the Wells Fargo Express safe. The bandits had the necessary equipment, now all they had to do pick a train and execute their plan.
On Aug. 31, the men rendezvoused at a designated spring near the railroad right-of-way. To calm their nerves, a whiskey bottle was passed around. Once they reached the tracks, they worked loose one of the rails, put on their masks and loaded their guns. After several more slugs of whiskey, they settled down to wait for the train.
The inebriated desperadoes didn’t have long to wait. Just before midnight, eastbound Central Pacific Train No. 1 came huffing and puffing up the heavy grade. At the last minute, the engineer noticed a section of rail ahead was missing. He hit the air brakes, but the lead locomotive skidded off the track, buried its wheels and tipped over into a ditch. The second engine also derailed, as did a fruit car, the Wells Fargo Express car, and a baggage coach. The whole train shuddered to an ominous halt.
The train lurched to a stop and the engineer jumped from his listing locomotive. Immediately, a gunman confronted him and ordered him to freeze. The train’s fireman, Fred Boyd, leaped from the second engine and ran directly into the muzzle of a double-barrel shotgun. The man wielding the weapon growled, “Stand there, or I’ll blow the top of your head off!” Instead of obeying the bandit’s order, Boyd ran back toward the passenger cars. Wells Fargo agent, N.M. Chadwick, leaned out of the express car just in time to see several armed men rushing toward him. One bandit pointed his rifle at Chadwick and told him to get away from the company treasure chests. But, sticking to the Wells Fargo code, Chadwick later told journalists, “I immediately closed the door, blew out my light, and made preparations to defend my charge.” Reluctant to take on the determined Wells Fargo messenger, the robbers turned their attention to the mail car. U.S. mail agent Louis Tripp was standing outside the postal car when the bandits, armed with rifles and revolvers, confronted him and ordered, “Throw up your hands!” Tripp, however, stood his ground and refused to cooperate.
Frustrated by the stiff resistance shown by the train’s crew and alarmed by the appearance of nearly 100 passengers, the inexperienced crooks panicked. Fear seized the gang and they quickly fled into the forest empty handed.
Stay tuned for part two.
– Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at email@example.com
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