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The Wilcox Train Robbery

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Near dawn on June 2, 1899, an engineer from the westbound Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 fired off a telegram from Medicine Bow, Wyoming: 'First Section No. 1 held up a mile west of Wilcox. Express car blown open, mail car damaged. Safe blown open; contents gone….' Immediately following engineer W.R. Jones' report, a dispatch was sent from the Union Pacific Railroad offices in Omaha, Nebraska, offering a '$1,000 reward for each and every one of the train robbers…dead or alive.' Later, the Pacific Express Company, whose safe was robbed, made the same offer, as did the U.S. government. There were six robbers, so at $3,000 per head, the total reward was worth $18,000.

The Union Pacific Railroad quickly sent the No. 4 — a specially outfitted train kept ready in Laramie, Wyo., containing cars for horses, equipment, food and men — to the robbery site, near Wilcox Station (often called Wilcox). This posse train arrived at the site about 9 a.m., just seven hours after the holdup. Although the Union Pacific had its own detective force, it also brought the Burlington Railroad and the Pinkerton Detective Agency into the chase. These professionals joined with the local posses, one of which even employed bloodhounds. Wyoming's Governor DeForest Richards also dispatched Company C of the state militia. Within 24 hours, nearly 100 possemen were out chasing the train robbers.

The June 2, 1899, Wilcox holdup would become one of the West's most famous train robberies. The Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 had two sections, each pulled by its own locomotive. The first section was flagged down by two men with lanterns at milepost No. 609 at 2:18 that rainy Friday morning. Thinking that a small wooden bridge ahead might have washed out overnight, engineer Jones brought this first section to a screeching stop. The two men, wearing masks, boarded the locomotive and ordered Jones and the fireman, named Dietrick, to pull forward to the bridge and stop again. Dynamite, already tucked under the trestle, was ignited, and Jones was again ordered to pull ahead 'and be quick about it.' When he moved too slowly for the outlaws, one of them clubbed him with a gun butt.

The train had barely cleared the bridge when the explosion came. Although the bridge was not destroyed, the bandits had prevented the train's second section, whose headlight they had seen, from following. They then told engineer Jones to stop the first section so that the passenger cars could be uncoupled. The mail and express cars were what interested them. Following orders, Jones and Dietrick pulled ahead another two miles, where four more outlaws were waiting. Three of the robbers herded the trainmen over to the mail car and ordered clerks Robert Lawson and Burt Bruce to open up. When the clerks did not immediately comply, the door was blown with more dynamite.

Finding very little, the outlaws next ordered the express car messenger, Charles Woodcock, to open the door. He refused. Again the thieves put a match to a couple of sticks of dynamite and easily blew the express car open. Woodcock was badly dazed in the explosion and unable to supply the bandits with the combination to the Pacific Express Co. safe. Therefore, more dynamite was used to blow open the safe. This charge proved a bit heavy, and succeeded in not only opening the safe but also blowing out the sides and the roof of the car.

By 4:15 a.m., the six bandits had gathered unsigned bank notes, cash, 19 scarf pins, 29 gold-plated cuff button pairs and four Elgin watches. The initial estimate claimed a total of $30,000 was taken, but in 1904, then Union Pacific Superintendent W.L. Park wrote that the railroad had actually lost more than $50,000, some of it in gold. The outlaws escaped in a northerly direction, toward the Hole-in-the-Wall, a well-known outlaw enclave in the middle of Wyoming.

Once the bandits had left the scene, the trainmen limped their broken train about 12 miles into Medicine Bow, the next regular stop, where engineer Jones reported the holdup by telegram to Union Pacific officials in Omaha. Jones' telegram concluded: '….We were ordered to pull over bridge just west of Wilcox, and after we passed the bridge the explosion occurred. Can't tell how bad bridge was damaged. No one hurt except Jones; scalp wound, and cut on hand. Jones, Engineer.' A later telegram added that 'the bent of the bridge was shattered' but it was repaired enough for trains to pass.

A Rawlins, Wyo., newspaper immediately suggested the thieves were Tom O'Day, an occasional Wild Bunch rider, and local toughs Bob Taylor and Manuel Manetta. The paper later replaced O'Day's name with another area man named Cavanaugh. However, the professional detectives focused their full attention on members of the Wild Bunch, whose modus operandi matched that of the Wilcox outlaws.

The physical descriptions of the thieves, even though the men had been masked, further convinced the authorities that known outlaws were involved. 'One man about 31 or 32 years of age…5'9'…185… blue eyes…peculiar nose, flattened at bridge' was a definite match for 'Flatnose' George Currie. Born in Canada on March 20, 1871, Currie was a known rustler and thief who lived near the Hole-in-the-Wall.

'Two men looked like brothers…5'7' and 5'5'…about 28 and 30…very dark complexion…1/4 Cherokee…dark hair & eyes' could easily describe Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry, and his brother Lonnie. Harvey and Lonnie often rode with Flatnose; in fact, Harvey had taken his alias from Currie, who was his mentor. The other outlaws involved in the holdup were believed to be Harry A. Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid; Ben Kilpatrick, alias the Tall Texan; and Will Carver. This trio of outlaws often rode together with the Logans and Flatnose, and all were members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch.

While Butch Cassidy (real name Robert LeRoy Parker) has often been credited as the mastermind, he probably took no part in the actual robbery. On January 19, 1896, he had been granted a pardon by then Wyoming Governor William A. Richards and was released from the penitentiary at Laramie. The condition for Butch's early release was his promise to never again participate in any crimes within the borders of Wyoming.

Soon after the Wilcox robbery, Butch ran into William L. Simpson, his one-time neighbor and the lawyer who had orchestrated his pardon. Simpson accused Butch of going back on his word, but Butch assured him that he had 'nothing whatever to do with the Wilcox robbery.' Still, Butch did apparently receive a share of the loot, and the posses following the outlaws' trail noticed that an extra set of tracks had joined the escaping outlaws. It was believed they belonged to the gang's leader, Butch Cassidy.

In typical Wild Bunch fashion, the outlaws had set up horse relays along their escape route, in order to outrun the posse. After dividing the money near Lost Cabin, southwest of Hole-in-the-Wall, the gang split up, to better evade a posse. Flatnose, Harvey and possibly Sundance made a brief rest stop at Al Hudspeth's CY Ranch near Horse Ranch, Wyo., but Hudspeth quickly reported the strangers to the authorities in Casper.

By June 6, a posse led by Converse County Sheriff Josiah Hazen had tracked those three outlaws to Castle Creek, a deep ravine surrounded by rocks and crevices some 75 miles from the holdup site. (In later years, this area was renamed Teapot Dome and became infamous in a scandal involving its fraudulent leasing by Secretary of the Interior Albert S. Fall.) The outlaws were well hidden, and the posse unknowingly rode right in upon them. A fierce gunfight broke out, but it quickly ended when Hazen received a mortal wound from Harvey Logan.

The remaining posse members were so numb with fear that the outlaws managed to sneak away, leaving the posse hiding under cover. The thieves abandoned their horses and a portion of the loot in their escape on foot. Once it became apparent that the outlaws were gone, the posse quickly transported the dying Hazen to Douglas, Wyo. The posse claimed that the outlaws had managed to ambush them in part because of a relatively new invention, smokeless gunpowder.

In his book on Powder River history, local rancher J. Elmer Brock claimed that Flatnose, Harvey and Sundance got fresh horses at the Billy Hill ranch near Kaycee, Wyo., rode through the Brock family ranch near Buffalo, and headed toward EK Mountain. He further stated that well-known lawmen Joe LeFors soon after appeared with a posse and spent the night on his family's ranch. When the possemen left, they took nearly all the family's food and blankets. Brock's closing comment was, 'Isn't it strange that as many outlaws as had been in that place that the first people to commit petty larceny should be a bunch of United States Marshals?' Brock's account is of particular interest because it provides insight into the feelings of many local ranchers. Since the rustlers and the outlaws had sided with Wyoming homesteaders against the larger ranch outfits during the recent Johnson County War, the small ranchers occasionally overlooked the outlaws' questionable behavior.

There were numerous rumors of local help. Residents of the Little Snake River area were suspected of supplying the outlaws with horses, food and lodging. In fact, one posse member was quoted as saying that the bandits would never be caught because they 'were aided by powerful friends, there is no doubt.' A saloonkeeper from Baggs, Wyo., who had previously been a freight conductor on the Union Pacific, was suspected of supplying secret railroad information, such as when the larger gold shipments were usually carried. However, none of these people were ever officially accused or arrested.

On July 3, Dave Putty and Bud Nolan were captured in Dillon, Mont., and held as the suspected Wilcox outlaws identified as the Roberts brothers. Dietrick of the Union Pacific was immediately dispatched to Dillon, but he was unable to identify either of the two men. The problem was that the bandits had worn white masks during the holdup. Within three weeks of their capture, these two men were released.

One of the stolen items was a package described as 'incompleted currency, $3400.00 from U.S. Treasury Department…for First National Bank, Portland Oregon.' Although this package sustained damage in the explosion, the outlaws' decision to take it enabled detectives to later follow a paper trail. Both the Pacific Express Co. and the U.S. marshal's office in Cheyenne, Wyo., issued memos to agents, bankers, merchants and others, listing the denominations and bank numbers for the package of missing bills. The further description, 'lower right hand corners all torn diagonally,' obviously made the bills very identifiable.

The dynamite residue and other damage made the outlaws' haul too easy to trace, so the gang needed to launder the telltale proceeds. Years earlier, Butch Cassidy had made a solid friendship with Wyoming lawyer Douglas A. Preston, a future state attorney general. Preston was apparently approached to act as a go-between in arranging a trade for spendable cash. In fact, Butch had a 'good' use for the money.

A couple of months after the Wilcox robbery, Butch's friend Elzy Lay was captured in New Mexico Territory. Lay had taken part in a train robbery near Folsom, New Mexico Territory. A shootout between the outlaws and the pursuing posse had resulted in the death of Sheriff Ed Farr. Train robbery was a capital offense in New Mexico Territory in 1899, while being convicted of murder, depending on the degree, did not always mean a hanging. Lay was tried for the 'lesser' crime of murder — probably because of a payoff of some kind. If money was offered to the right people, it could pave the way for Lay's life to be spared — or he might even get off free. Lay's lawyers were Edwin Franks and A.A. Jones.

Two letters written by Preston to a C.E. Rowe were discovered more than a year later at the campsite of the Wild Bunch members who held up the First National Bank of Winnemucca, Nev., on September 19, 1900 (see story in June 1998 Wild West). Most researchers believe that 'Rowe' was Butch Cassidy (who also used the name 'Lowe') or at least one of Butch's gang. In one letter, Preston wrote, 'Several influential parties are becoming interested and the chances of a sale are getting favorable.' In the second letter, the lawyer wrote: 'Send me at once a map of the country and describe as near as you can the place where you found the black stuff so I can go to it. Tell me how you want it handled. You don't know its value. If I can get hold of it first, I can fix a good many things favorable. Say nothing to anyone about it.' Was Preston trying to launder the blackened gold and burnt currency in Wyoming? And was he also in contact with influential parties in New Mexico Territory who could secure Lay's release for a price?

United States Marshal Frank A. Hadsell of Wyoming was one of the posse leaders who tracked the Wilcox robbers. In his personal papers, on file with the Wyoming Archives, are informants' letters explaining that the outlaws 'were in [Rawlins] a few days ago with powder-burned currency' and that they also had 'a lot of gold coin that seemed to be blackened or burned considerably.' These informants further stated that the currency and gold were exchanged by local gamblers in Rawlins and by a rancher from Dixon, Wyo. Interestingly, Sundance had once worked for a number of ranchers in the Dixon area, and both he and Butch were well-known in the Rawlins area.

On October 10,1899, Elzy Lay was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing Sheriff Farr. And then in January 1906, Lay was unexpectedly pardoned and released from the New Mexico Penitentiary — and evidence suggests that he was actually released earlier, in December 1905. These developments suggest that Butch's share of the loot from the Wilcox robbery was put to good use — at least good for Lay.

Soon, stolen bank notes began to turn up throughout the West, again proving the gang's ability to disperse, in spite of the numerous posses and agencies chasing after them. Lonnie Logan tried to cash in Wilcox money through a deposit from his Curry Brothers Saloon in Harlem, Mont. Although the Pinkertons quickly tracked down the bills, Lonnie had sold his saloon and hit the road in a hurry. Torn bills also surfaced in the town of Alma, New Mexico Territory, where Butch was working at the WS Ranch. When Pinkerton agent Frank Murray arrived in town, a kind and likable bartender named Jim Lowe suggested that Murray leave Alma before he was recognized and gunplay resulted. Later, the Pinkertons discovered that Lowe was none other than Butch Cassidy himself.

In an oral history of New Mexico's Mogollon and Alma, Elton Cunningham related the same story of the Pinkerton agent who had met Jim Lowe. Cunningham also said that some of the Wild Bunch gang in the area had once cached stolen money from a train robbery. They later returned, he said, 'and got that money, but the corner of the bills was blowed off when they blasted the safe…they put those bills through with the corner blowed off…they took that money back there [New York] and got good money for it.' In another oral history, Montegue Stevens claimed that it was Cunningham who had in fact signed some of the unsigned Wilcox bank notes.

Unsigned bank notes also appeared in Monticello, Utah, and Durango, Mancos and Cortez, Colo., near where Sundance's cousin George Longabaugh homesteaded and near the La Sal Mountains hideout often used by Harvey Logan. However, by the time the money was traced, the Pinkertons were already at least three weeks and hundreds of miles behind the outlaws.

Finally, Wilcox bills began appearing in Cripple Creek, Colo., and in Dodson (later absorbed by Kansas City), Mo. When Lonnie Logan left Montana, he went home to his aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Hiram Lee in Dodson. There, Lonnie and his cousin Bob Lee visited and liberally spent Lonnie's Wilcox money. When Bob returned to his job in Cripple Creek, he had a pocket full of Wilcox bills, which ultimately led to his arrest early in 1900.

On February 28, 1900, the Pinkertons and local police surrounded the Lee farm, looking for Lonnie. Seeing the armed men gathering outside, Lonnie tried to escape out the rear door, only to be shot dead by the Pinkerton agents.

Flatnose George Currie was killed by Sheriff Jesse Tyler near Moab, Utah, in April 1900. Tyler, who was tracking cattle rustlers and happened upon Flatnose, was later murdered under suspicious circumstances. One commonly held belief is that Harvey Logan had avenged the death of his mentor, George Currie.

Will Carver was killed in Sonora, Texas, on April 2, 1901, while resisting arrest for the murder of a pig farmer. Harry A. Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid, headed for Argentina with Ethel (or Etta) Place and Robert LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy. In 1908, after robbing a silver mine payroll, Sundance and Butch died in a shootout in San Vicente, Bolivia.

Harvey Logan and Ben Kilpatrick were caught separately and jailed in the early 1900s for passing stolen bank notes from a 1901 Montana train robbery. Harvey escaped and was done in by a posse tracking Colorado train robbers in 1904. Kilpatrick was released from prison in 1911 and shortly thereafter attempted to hold up a train in Sanderson, Texas, but the express messenger killed both Kilpatrick and his partner. In less than a dozen years, every Wilcox outlaw had died with his boots on and his guns blazing.



This article was written by Donna B. Ernst and originally appeared in the June 1999 issue of Wild West.

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3 Responses to “The Wilcox Train Robbery”


  1. 1
    Lee Branch says:

    I read that Eugene Rhodes based one of his stories on the incident where Sheriff John Greer held up 'an El Paso and Northeastern passenger train between Tularosa and Alamagordo".

    I've looked for any mention of Greer's involvenent in this robbery, but nothing on Greer which appears on the 'net pertains to any crime committed by him~ Would you have any references to this incident of train robbery by a Sheriff?

  2. 2
    connie l fast horse says:

    My maiden is Connie Louise Wilcox
    1952 PO

    Previous married name Trask

    Very interesting story….

  3. 3
    Craig says:

    I'm a lil' familiar with the history of that area. Medicine Bow was not the next stop down the line, but the stop of Commo preceded that.



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