The train robbers
Butch and the boys hit their share of railroads
THE OUTLAW TRAIL — For stealing a $5 horse, Butch Cassidy spent two years in the Wyoming State Prison. He learned his lesson, though. He never got caught stealing horses again. Instead he turned to robbing trains. Butch figured they’d pay better. He was right.
A square-jawed, stocky, tow-headed cowboy with gray eyes and a winning smile, Butch had a way with women.When he had the money he spent lavishly and he was known in every whorehouse from Miles City, Montana to Fort Worth, Texas. Paperback dollars, bank certificates, and silver and gold coins slipped through his grasp, yet Butch and the Wild Bunch never robbed railroad passengers. He was quick with a gun, but he never killed anyone, at least not in the United States, and just as railroads began to reach their pinnacle of power across the American West in the 1890s and early 1900s, Butch developed a fondness for railway express cars. And he knew how to open safes. With dynamite.
As a Western historian I’ve spent years on the trail of Butch and the boys. I’ve tracked him down in Brown’s Park, Colorado, followed him to Hole in the Wall in Wyoming, and I’m learning his haunts in the Robbers Roost area of Utah. I’ve been on the Outlaw Trail with Butch and he inspired many stories. Some of them are even true.
Yes, he raced horses in McElmo Canyon and yes, he robbed the bank in Telluride. Detective Charles Siringo rode through Durango in search of Butch, but the wily outlaw was already far to the south on the WS Ranch near Alma, N.M. There are many tales to tell of Butch, but let’s focus on one of his favorite topics—robbing trains.
Cassidy would become a wanted man in four states and his loose band of outlaws, nicknamed the Wild Bunch, terrified bank presidents and railroad executives. Pinkerton detectives trailed Butch and came close to catching him, but they were always a step too late at the livery stable, the scene of the crime, his campsite, or a bordello.
Butch knew how to dodge sheriffs and lose posses, but he never learned to save his ill-gotten gains. He either gambled it away, or shared it with friends, or spent it on lawyers, both for himself and his compadres. And when he was out of money, why Butch and the boys knew just what to do. They’d rob another train.
In between robberies Butch and the gang drifted across the West working at ranches. They never robbed from their employers and the big cattlemen were astonished that when Butch hired on as a ranch hand, all theft of cattle ceased. Consequently, he was often promoted to ranch manager.
He was cool and calculating with guns—he preferred a Colt .45 and a Winchester .44-40 Saddle Ring carbine rifle, but he rarely fired them during a heist. “They were all gentlemanly,” said trainmen after being robbed by the Wild Bunch. Railroad president E.H. Harriman was not amused. He invented a special horse or posse car complete with armed marshals, deputies, weapons, and fast horses.
Butch carefully planned each robbery. He would spend weeks getting to know the landscape, deciding where to leave extra horses, and deliberating on the best place to separate the railroad engine from the express car, which usually carried two safes. The Wild Bunch preferred to rob trains at night or just before dawn with one outlaw on the train as a paying passenger who would crawl over the tender and sneak up on the engineer.
Butch started robbing trains because his earlier career of stealing horses and busting banks had become uncomfortable. Too many posses too close on his trail. As railroad owners devised steel express cars and posses on wheels, it looked like Butch’s train robbing days were over.
Robbing trains had gotten out of hand. Between 1890 and 1899 thieves successfully plotted 261 train robberies resulting in 86 injuries and 88 deaths. Most of the robberies had occurred in the West. What did the trainmen think? They were getting used to robberies and to Butch. Even the Pinkerton Detective Agency stated that Butch was “amiable and agreeable.” Though occasionally a railroad engineer might be whacked on the head by an outlaw’s pistol, train robberies were relatively safe compared to operating trains. Statistics for 1889 from the Interstate Commerce Commission revealed 2,000 rail workers killed and over 20,000 injured on the job.
At Tipton, Wyoming, a masked robber crawled over the tender and told the engineer, “Slow down when you see a fire along the track and don’t try any funny stuff.” The engineer complied. Soon valuable express shipments carried extra guards with repeating shotguns. Rumors abounded of the potential use of Gatling guns. Butch had second thoughts, too, but he wanted one last heist before moving to South America.
Under Butch’s leadership the final exploit of the Wild Bunch occurred near Wagner, Montana, where on July 3, 1901 the boys held up a Great Northern train. After uncoupling the express car and using their trademark dynamite to open the safe, they took $40,000 in unsigned banknotes. The funds would help Butch and the Sundance Kid begin a ranch in Argentina.
They supplemented their ranch income by robbing Bolivian banks, but Butch never got proficient speaking Spanish. He missed the soiled doves in Fort Worth and there were few female companions on the Argentine pampas. In 1908, Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh robbed their last train near Eucalyptus, Bolivia. The robbers made off with $90,000 in cash. Perhaps they needed the money or maybe they did it for old-time’s sake.
The cowboy outlaw era ended with Butch. Robbing trains became a thing of the past, but at the turn of the century, railroad executives did their own thieving by conspiring to fix high freight rates which forced small farmers into bankruptcy. Charles Kelly wrote of the Wild Bunch, “These wild, free souls saw great fortunes being made all around them by cattle kings, railroad magnates and mining nabobs who got there first. ... Cowboy-outlaws resented this attitude and felt no twinges of conscience whatever in robbing railroads, mines, and banks.”
Who was robbing whom? If Butch and the boys stole a few dollars, the unregulated railroad industry squandered human lives. In 1907 unsafe working conditions and long hours killed 4,354 railroad workers and countless accidents injured thousands more. Folksinger Woody Guthrie said it best when he wrote:
As through this world I wander/ I meet lots of funny men
Some men rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen
As through this world I wander, and through this world I roam
I never saw an outlaw drive a family from their home
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. His grandfather was a railroad detective on the Great Northern Railway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.