Train robbery

The Central Pacific wood burning steam engine No.1, named the Governor Stanford, has been restored and can be seen at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

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One of the first jobs I had after I left the ranch was as an engineering aide for the Nevada State Highway Department (Now NDOT) in 1962. I was assigned to a survey crew on the first Interstate 80 freeway project heading east from the California state line near Verdi. While working there, I learned that this area was the scene of the first train robbery in Nevada.

On the evening of November 4-5, 1870, the Central Pacific Overland Express passenger train Engine No. 1 from San Francisco arrived at this small station 11 miles west of Reno. Just as the train was leaving the station, three masked men boarded the express car behind the engine and disconnected the engine and express car from the rest of the train. Five more robbers from other cars on the train soon joined them and took control of the engine and express car. With pistols and brute force, the gang commanded the engineer to resume the trip toward Reno. The two brakemen, fireman and express workers were locked up at gunpoint in the mail room.

Meanwhile, about five miles west of Reno, near a place called Hunter’s Station, other members of the robbery gang had built an obstruction on the track with rocks and timbers in order to stop the train. The engine and express car stopped at the obstruction on the tracks. With the aid of a double barrel shotgun, the robbers removed from the express car several Wells Fargo sacks filled with twenty dollar gold pieces from the San Francisco Mint. The value of the gold coins was $41,600. There was an additional $8,800 in silver bars, but these were too heavy for the robbers to carry away with them. All the telegraph lines were cut west of Reno.

The gold coins on this shipment were being shipped to Virginia City and to make payroll for Gold Hill’s richest property, the Yellow Jacket Mine. The silver bars were to be distributed to banks on the Comstock. The leader of the band of robbers who held up the train was a Sunday school superintendent named John Chapman. Investigators determined the robbers placed the gold in old boots in order to carry that many of the heavy gold coins.

The Conductor, named Frank Marshall, was able to let the rear half of the train, minus the engine, coast downhill to the place where the robbery had occurred. When this half of the train arrived at the scene of the robbery, the robbers had already finished their work and made their get-away. The engineer and fireman were busy removing the obstructions from the track. The two halves of the train were once again connected together and the complete train, minus the stolen loot, made its way to Reno. The train arrived in Reno at thirty minutes after midnight, only thirty minutes late.

Immediately, law enforcement officers went into action to apprehend the train robbers. A gambler from Virginia City named Gilchrist, two stage robbers from Storey County named John Squires and Jack Davis, a gambler from Virginia City named Parsons, Sol Jones, J.C. Roberts, John Chapman and Tilton Cockerill were all apprehended and sentenced by December of 1870. Most of the gold coins were recovered but about 10 percent of the treasure was never found. That means over 200 $20 gold pieces are still missing.

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In an amazing coincidence, the Central Pacific Railroad Overland Express passenger train Engine No. 1 was robbed again just 20 hours after the robbery between Verdi and Reno. This second heist occurred 380 miles east of Reno near Pequop Summit in Elko County. This was the same train, on the same run, on the same day as the story I have just told. Since most of the treasure had already been stolen, the robbers were only able to get a few silver bars and some cash. This robbery was completely unrelated to the first heist and none of the robbers even knew each other.

Several thousand dollars had been picked up in Elko but the Wells Fargo and Co. express messenger handed over only $3,100, which was a fraction of the amount he had in the safe. By January 17, 1871, three of the four robbers were convicted of the crime and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

And so, history records that the first and second train robberies in the state of Nevada happened 20 hours and 380 miles apart to the same train on the same day.

Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli can be contacted at cassinelli-books@charter.net or on his blog at denniscassinlli.com. All books sold through this publication will be at a 20 percent discount and the author will pay the postage.

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