Letter From Wild West – April 2008

1/29/2008 • Butch Cassidy, Dalton Gang, James Gang, Outlaws, Transcontinental Railroad, WW Issues

Railroads Were Transformers,
Even Changing Timekeeping

But they couldn’t change the James Gang or the Wild Bunch

Most of the railroad-related stories published in Wild West Magazine have been plenty wild. We’ve touched on the dramatic saga that was the building of the first transcontinental railroad across the untamed Great Plains and the treacherous Rockies. We’ve mentioned more than once those rollicking, often temporary end-of-line, “Hell on Wheels” towns that owed their very existence to the laying of track. We’ve frequently visited the Kansas cow towns that got the Texas Longhorns (and the raucous cowboys who went with them) only after they got the iron horse to transport the beasts to the East. And that’s just the start. The trains, with those express car safes just asking to be blown open, were tempting targets for daring outlaws, and naturally a magazine called Wild West could not turn its back cover on them.

We’ve given the trend-setting Reno Gang, often credited with the first peacetime train robbery in the United States (outside Seymour, Ind., on October 6, 1866), its due. We’ve reported with relish on the thrilling train robbers who followed in the footsteps of the Reno brothers—the James-Younger Gang in the Midwest; the Dalton Gang, mostly in what would become Oklahoma; the Wild Bunch (featuring Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), in Wyoming and Montana; and Evans (first name Chris) and Sontag (first name John, though his brother George Sontag also played a role), in California. We’ve reported on the first train robbed west of the Mississippi —Central Pacific’s Train No. 1, held up by a no-name gang near Verdi, Nev., on November 5, 1870. (The first train robbery attributed to the James Gang was the holdup of a Rock Island & Pacific Railroad passenger train on July 21, 1873, near Adair, Iowa.) And we’ve even ventured to the late date of October 11, 1923, to detail a failed but deadly Southern Pacific robbery in a tunnel near Siskiyou Station, Ore., by brothers Roy, Ray and Hugh DeAutremont.

Sorry if we gave some of you the wrong impression. Our bad. While there was indeed a rash of robberies after the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the trains were giving countless visitors and settlers the itch to venture west. The railroad companies were promoting the land west of the Mississippi, and it didn’t take a railroad engineer to figure out that it was a lot easier to reach the Pacific Coast by rail rather than by wagon—covered or otherwise—or by stagecoach. The lack of rail travel did not keep the mountain men, the missionaries, the Manifest Destiny soldiers, the madcap Forty-Niners or the magnanimous emigrants from crossing the Rockies. But the train-less Plains surely must have deterred the average Joes and Josephines from answering the call of “Go west, young person, go west.” The following words from a silly but catchy song sung by James Stewart in the 1957 Western Night Passage actually say a lot about the second half of the 19th century in North America: “I was farmin’ in Missouri, I was getting’ tired o’ that/So I got myself a satchel and a stovepipe hat/And I headed for the station, gonna travel all about/But there wasn’t any station and I soon found out/That you can’t get far without a railroad/You can’t get far without a railroad.”

In this issue of Wild West, we include a different kind of railroad story—“How Railroads Took the ‘Wild’ Out of the West,” by transportation history expert Carlos A. Schwantes. “Railroads of the West excelled at creating industrial order where no pattern of organization existed apart from nature,” he writes. “They were the agents of change that essentially tamed the frontier.” The trains not only brought more people West but also did so in a more timely fashion…literally. To make railroad timetables work (and avoid bloody head-on collisions), railroad managers resolved the confusion of local times by introducing four time zones at noon on November 18, 1883. Such was the power of the railroads that they created a new system of timekeeping (standard time) without turning to the federal government. Predictability, uniformity, safety and accessibility are words closely tied to the late 19 th-century railroads but generally not associated with the Wild West. It’s little wonder that the “civilizing” railroads were bound and determined to stop the likes of brothers James, brothers Dalton and even brothers DeAutremont. As for Wild West Magazine, we don’t intend to take the “Wild” out of it. We shall be “bad” again—it’s so much fun. We promise to bring the train robbers back in future issues.

Gregory Lalire