“I have no regret for killing or maiming a highwayman, but I should never forgive myself for firing on an innocent man”
The two masked men who hailed the Eureka-to-Pioche stagecoach near Ward, Nevada, on the evening of February 27, 1877, made two big mistakes: First, they chose a stage guarded by a shotgun messenger. Second, they chose a stage guarded by perhaps the most formidable expressman on Wells Fargo’s books—Eugene Blair.
Blair later testified that as the coach climbed a grade, “a masked man stepped out from behind a tree on the right side of the stage.” Blair thought the man cried, “Holdup!” but he wasn’t certain. “At the same time,” Blair continued, “a shotgun was fired. I immediately fired a shot at the man coming from behind the tree, jumped from the front seat of the stage and saw another man, who shot twice with a shotgun at me. I returned the fire and followed him about 50 or 75 yards, when I lost sight of him. Returning back to the stage, I heard a man calling out that he would give himself up and that he was in a dying condition.”
The would-be robber was seriously wounded; one charge had almost torn an arm off, and the second had hit him full in the torso. Loading him onto the stage, Blair proceeded to Ward to seek medical assistance. A doctor amputated the remains of the shattered arm, but the man’s wounds were clearly mortal. Identified as John Carlow, a 23-year-old native Ohioan, he died the following evening before Blair could obtain information on the other holdup man.
Still, Blair asked questions in town and came up with a suspect, Jim Crawford. A few days later, Blair tracked him down in the hills some 30 miles from Pioche and arrested him without difficulty. Ward was full of lynch talk, so Blair took Crawford to Pioche and then to Hamilton. Crawford made a full confession and pleaded guilty at his June trial in Hamilton. A judge sentenced him to seven years.
Although one acquaintance described Blair as “a hair-trigger sort of fellow,” newspapers of the time praised the messenger for his actions in defense of the Eureka–Pioche stage. The Placerville Mountain Democrat called him “a hero,” the Eureka Sentinel said he was “one of the bravest men in the country,” and The Salt Lake Tribune opined, “Eugene is a brick, as he has got several of these road agents on previous occasions.” In March a grateful Wells Fargo presented him with a very handsome Remington breechloading shotgun “in partial recognition of past services.”
A good shotgun messenger needed to stay alert, identify danger in an instant and act on it accordingly, and Blair did just that time and again. Firing his shotgun was sometimes part of the equation. “I have no regret for killing or maiming a highwayman,” he once said, “but I should never forgive myself for firing on an innocent man.” Thus Blair gained recognition as a formidable guard with few notches on his shotgun. When asked later in life how many men he had killed, he replied, “Two.” One of them was Carlow, in the line of duty. The other, he said, had no connection with his Wells Fargo work. He declined to elaborate.
Eugene Blair was 31 when he thwarted the holdup attempt by Carlow and Crawford. One contemporary described him as “very tall, long-limbed and muscular, quick of motion, ready and perfectly brave,” while another recalled him as “wiry and powerful.” Born on a farm near Augusta in Kennebec County, Maine, in 1845, Blair ventured at age 20 to Virginia City, Nev., where he tried his hand at mining before becoming a jailer. In the 1870 census, he is listed as a policeman. Soon afterward, he became a Lincoln County deputy sheriff in the rowdy town of Pioche. By November 1872, Blair was doubling as a Wells Fargo employee. While helping to break up a saloon fracas in 1873, he broke a bone above the ankle. “His injuries were not severe,” reported The Pioche Daily Record, “though he will have to lay up for repairs.”
In February 1874, Blair continued his work for Wells Fargo in Colfax, Calif., and then in July he moved to Corinne, Utah Territory, which lay on the Central Pacific and was the connection point for coaches to the Montana Territory cities of Virginia City, Helena and Fort Benton. Pioche became his base again in February 1875, and on occasion he drove the stages. During one incident in Utah, when outlaws ordered Blair to throw up his hands, the team spooked, carrying him and his passengers to safety. Most of the time, though, he rode shotgun, and that’s where he made his reputation.
Wells Fargo did not have enough express messengers for every stagecoach run, so the company put guards on routes deemed prime targets for highwaymen. According to Wells Fargo Special Officer James B. Hume, most guards were “men of thorough courage and prompt action…the kind of men you can depend on if you get in a fix, with the certainty that they will pull you through or stay by you to the last.” Blair, in particular, excelled at his job. When he or another messenger rode shotgun, it presented road agents with a dilemma: While the strongbox likely contained a considerable sum, the risks of trying to seize it greatly increased.
On occasion, Blair guarded a prisoner instead of a strongbox. In February 1876, he escorted desperado Richard “Idaho Bill” Sloan from Pioche to Salt Lake City. Bill and his gang had taken over the stage station at Desert Springs the month prior, causing all sorts of mayhem, and had eventually been arrested in Pioche, strutting around the streets like a walking arsenal. An acquaintance of Blair’s recalled the incident: “Bill was a desperado and a dangerous one…but at Pioche, Nev., he submitted to arrest as peacefully as a lamb when Eugene Blair came for him.…The prisoner was handcuffed, of course, and Blair sat beside him in the coach. It was generally thought that Bill’s friends would try to rescue him somewhere on the road, which led him [Blair] to say to him: ‘Bill, I’ve heard that your friends are going to get you away from me between here and Carson if they can. Likely enough they will, but it’s fair to tell you that it’ll never do you any good, for I shall shoot you dead at the first break they make. It’s as well to have the matter understood between us.’”
On the night of April 14, 1876, Blair was riding shotgun beside Pat Ryan on the Eureka-to-Pioche route when road agents stopped them three miles from Pioche. “Pat. Ryan, the driver, [was] ordered to throw down the box,” The Pioche Daily Record reported. “As the stage was stopped, Eugene Blair, messenger, dropped down in the front boot with his double-barreled shotgun. Pat. Ryan threw out an empty box to the road agent, who, as he grabbed it, called out, ‘Ryan, is that the right one?’ Ryan made some reply, which he does not recollect, as, just at that time, Blair fired at the robber, who, without doubt, received the shot in his side, as it turned him partly around. He returned the fire at once, just as Ryan commenced whipping up the horses. After they had gone a short distance, they were halted, and Blair, getting down, went back after the box, which he found; but the robber had managed to get away. There is no doubt, however, that he will be caught this time, as the gunshot wound will betray him. Blair says the Gentleman Jack of the road is an Irishman, as he recognized the brogue.” Later that night, parties from Pioche returned to the scene and followed the robber’s tracks for some distance before losing them in the sagebrush.
A month later, a lone highwayman again held up the Eureka-to-Pioche stage, this time some 80 miles from Pioche. Messenger Phil Barnhart chased off the outlaw, and Blair—who was not aboard—took up the case afterward, arresting one George Mayfield on suspicion. Mayfield never admitted to that holdup but was subsequently convicted of other stage robberies.
Blair took a break that winter and spent several weeks visiting family and friends in Maine. When he returned to Nevada in February 1877, Wells Fargo presented him with a gold watch “for faithful and resolute attention to the company’s interests.” Only a few weeks later, he shined again during Carlow and Crawford’s ill-fated attempt on the Eureka-to-Pioche stage. That August, Blair’s adversary was a driver named Condon, not a road agent. Sharing the driver’s seat for long hours at a time did not always engender congenial relations, and the two men came to blows at Shackles Station. “Condon got worsted,” according to one account.
In September 1877, “Big Jack” Davis, a veteran train and stage robber, planned to hit a stage guarded by Blair. Back in 1867, Davis had been prosecuted for holding up the Eureka stage but had gotten off, allegedly by buying off the jury. On November 4, 1870, he had participated in the first train robbery on the West Coast, taking $50,000 from the Overland Express at Verdi, Nev. Captured after that historic crime, Davis had served in prison until pardoned in 1875.
Now Big Jack was back in action, with help from three others—ex-convicts Thomas Lauria and Bob Hamilton, as well as Bob’s brother Bill. The plan called for Lauria to watch the stages leaving Eureka. If a messenger was aboard, suggesting a worthwhile prize, Lauria was to gallop to a nearby summit and light a signal fire. On seeing the smoke, the other gang members were to ride to Willows Station, 40 miles south of Eureka, capture the station handlers and await the stage.
On September 3, 1877, Lauria was surprised to see two messengers climb aboard a Tybo stage. He rushed off to alert his colleagues and, according to some accounts, built two signal fires—however, the fires were so close together, his cohorts mistook them for a single blaze. Davis and the others promptly descended on Willows Station, tying up the stockman and blacksmith and threatening instant death should they utter a sound. The outlaws then unharnessed the horses prepared for the incoming stage, barricaded a corner of a stable and readied an ax for use in opening the strongbox. They even had time to prepare and eat a meal.
Around 9 p.m. the stage pulled into Willows Station. Jack Perry was driving, Blair and Jimmie Brown were guarding the box, and two passengers sat inside the coach. As soon as the stage halted, a voice called from the darkness, “Eugene Blair, get off that stage and surrender.” Blair didn’t budge—he thought one of the station men had gotten drunk and was playing a prank. But when the command came again more forcefully, Blair started to climb down, shotgun in hand. As he did so, according to the September 5 issue of the Eureka Daily Republican, “he was greeted by a double discharge of shotguns, one from the rear of the stage and the other from the corner of the stable, both passing so near his head that the powder of one warmed his face.”
Blair, partially blinded by the gun smoke, shot wide. An instant later, he felt the cold muzzle of a gun against his chest. “Blair,” the newspaper reported, “caught and chucked it aside and turned the robber, who was pulling the wrong trigger, half round, when Brown, on the seat, watching his opportunity, raised his shotgun as quick as a flash and gave the road agent the full contents of one barrel square in the back, and he fell over mortally wounded, loaded with eight buckshot. Almost simultaneously with this deadly shot, Blair had placed his shotgun squarely against the fellow’s breast, and would have blown a hole threw [sic] him as big as the moon had not his brave companion performed the action. Brown, after firing the shot, jumped from the stage but had not hardly reached the ground when he was shot in the calf of his left leg, inflicting a painful but not serious wound. The other two robbers then fired four more shots, at the messenger at close range with shotgun and revolvers, none of which, however, done any harm, though they came uncomfortably close, and disappeared in the darkness.”
The stage crew untied the stockman and blacksmith, and everyone spent the night at Willows Station. Brown writhed in pain from his calf wound. The wounded robber was in even more agony and could not sleep. He said it was the second time he had exchanged lead with Blair, and that Blair and Brown had only escaped death because his partners-in-crime were so inexperienced. In the morning, the stage headed back to Eureka. On the outskirts of town, the wounded outlaw finally disclosed that his name was Jack Davis. Then he died.
The newspapers praised Blair and Brown. The two messengers “deserve the gratitude of the people of this State,” wrote the Eureka Daily Republican, “for their matchless heroism.” Wells Fargo awarded them $300 each “for gallantry in defense of Treasure,” and a year later the Nevada Legislature also rewarded them.
Blair and Wells Fargo detective John N. Thacker patiently rounded up the other members of the gang. In November a judge sentenced Lauria and Bob Hamilton to 14-year terms, but discharged Bill Hamilton for lack of evidence.
The week before Christmas, on December 19, 1877, the Winnemucca Silver State reported, “The road agent’s terror, Eugene Blair, passed west last evening on his way to California.”
Wells Fargo and Blair apparently had decided that his days riding shotgun should come to an end. He had been singled out by name and targeted at Willows Station, and sooner or later someone would kill him in revenge. Also, the many years of riding atop stages in bad weather had taken a toll, and the famed expressman was suffering from lung trouble. Wells Fargo reportedly awarded Blair a pension; although the company’s pension records are no longer extant, cashbooks show it tracked his whereabouts and paid him.
Blair moved to Bristol, Nev., where he worked first as superintendent of the Hillside Mine and then as a butcher (his listed profession on the 1880 census). On October 5, 1882, he married Nellie Leahigh, the 23-year-old daughter of a local mining family. A nasty wagon accident on February 3, 1883, left Blair near death, but contrary to expectations, he rallied and even managed to father a daughter (born January 16, 1884). But the aftereffects of the accident and worsening consumption took their toll. Blair sought the benign climate of San Diego in the winter of 1883–84, but was again reported near death in late May 1884. Nellie, with toddler Loretta in tow, rushed from Pioche to San Diego by buckboard to be with him. In June he was moved to Auburn in California’s Placer County, where he died on the 27th.
“Mr. Blair was for many years in the service of Wells, Fargo & Co. as ‘shotgun messenger’ on stage routes and was well known throughout Nevada, Utah and Montana,” the Daily Alta California reported. “He was held in the highest esteem by the officers of the express company for his fidelity and bravery, which were often put to severe tests.” The New York Sun observed, “He lived in an atmosphere of danger for years” and “that he was spared to die quietly in bed is the marvel of all who knew him.”
Wells Fargo paid for Blair’s funeral and had a tombstone erected on his grave in the Auburn Cemetery. The inscription read: Eugene Blair, native of Maine. Died June 27th 1884. Aged 37 years 8 mo. An employee of Wells, Fargo & Co. many years. Honest, faithful and brave.
Chris Penn wrote “Eugene Blair: A Terror to Road Agents,” published in the July–September 2006 Quarterly of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History. The only book he knows that devotes much space to Blair is the Encyclopedia of Stagecoach Robbery in Nevada (2007), by R. Michael Wilson.
Tags: Wild West