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Bungled Train Robbery


This date in 1897 was an inglorious day for a young group of would-be train robbers. The previous night at about midnight, westbound Train No. 1 was late in arriving in Fargo. The Bismarck Tribune reported: “The delay was due to the special request of a number of highwaymen and was unavoidable under the circumstances, as the highwaymen were temporarily masters of the situation. It was a surprising event, considering the locality, as it has always been supposed that the holdup line was a good deal farther west.”

Engineer Hooker was just a few miles east of Moorhead when he noticed a man on the mail car. A few minutes later, he was confronted with two revolvers and, as the Tribune put it, “requested to very good and very obedient in his handling of the engine. Within a few minutes, other masked men appeared with Conductor Corcoran and his brakeman, who were also left on the engine, under guard, with an injunction to behave themselves.”

The robbers seemed to know what they were doing. They unhitched the passenger cars and what they thought was the baggage car, all of which coasted to a stop in the distance. Then, they took charge of the engine, the mail car and what they thought was the “express car,” in which would be a safe filled with money.

A distance down the tracks, the train was brought to a halt, and all the trainmen were put under guard. “[It] is stated,” reads the story, “that one helper who was asleep when the raid began was forced to stand out on the grade during the time the men were at work inside, attired in his night dress, and [wondering] what the wild waves were about.”

The robbers started first with the mail car – “to make their selections of property.” The story reads, “They took a number of loose registers, opened a number of letters looking for money, and left them torn and scattered about the floor of the car, and made away with what valuables they ran across. But their work was very incomplete, for they left a dozen registered pouches on the rack, all of them filled with registered letters and parcels – a valuable haul, had they secured it.

“The conductor of the train was also relieved of $25 in cash, but was left his watch. The other trainmen contributed as liberally as they were able, and the engine and car were allowed to proceed to Fargo, where it was discovered that they were short the balance of the train.”

The story went on to say an engine was sent out to retrieve the missing cars, including the passenger coaches. “Some of the passengers were well heeled,” the story reports. “It is said that one man had $6,000, and another $1,000, all of which will be grief to the robbers, when they learn of it. There were three or four of the robbers, and when the stop was made to rifle the mail car, one of the men exclaimed: ‘Where in [heck] is the express car,’ showing that they had intended to cut that off and go through it also.

“The men are said to have been young, cool headed and apparently adept at the business, although their rifling of the mail car, overlooking the articles of real value, and failing to land the boodle in the express car would indicate that they were a cheap brand of highway robbers.”

Investigators found the robbers left behind 20 sticks of dynamite – doubtless for use in blowing up the safe in the missing express car. “It was a solid piece of work,” the Tribune reported, “but as far as a successful looting of the train is concerned, it was much of a fiasco...”

Source: Bismarck Tribune. 27 Sep 1897.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm