Verdi Train Robbery: Part I

Most motorists driving past the small town of Verdi never give much thought about this little community located on the Nevada side of the state line on Interstate 80. The hamlet was originally called O’Neil’s Crossing for a man who built a toll bridge there in 1860 so he could charge for stage and freight traffic.

In the same manner that the town of Truckee received its name, an official of the Central Pacific Railroad christened Verdi in 1868 when the company’s train tracks finally ran through the Truckee River Canyon. The town was re-named Verdi by Central Pacific founder Charles Crocker, who honored the famous Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. (Verdi locals pronounce it vur-dye.)

Ironically, it was just two years later that the bustling mill and lumber town of Verdi would make headlines as the scene of the West’s first train robbery. By 1870, pulling a railroad heist was nothing new in the United States, but when a bold gang of masked bandits successfully nabbed more than $41,000 from an express train 4 miles east of Verdi, it was big news. It signified a new threshold of violent crime for the detectives of Wells Fargo and Central Pacific Railroad.

The bustling mill and lumber town of Verdi would make headlines as the scene of the West’s first train robbery.

Early in the morning of Nov. 4, 1870, Central Pacific’s Atlantic Express No. 1 rolled out of Oakland carrying $41,800 in $20 gold pieces and $8,800 in silver bars. The coin was a payroll shipment for the Comstock mines and the bullion for deposit in Nevada banks. The train chugged into Truckee two hours late where the passengers were advised to get out and stretch their legs. Travelers didn’t mind the short stopover in Truckee. The rowdy mountain town boasted a popular gambling house and comfortable saloons where visitors could try their luck or quench their thirst.

While passengers checked out Truckee’s honky-tonk nightlife, Wells Fargo guards Frank Mitchell and Frank Marshall hunkered down in the express car with the valuable strongbox. Within the hour, engineer Henry S. Small blew his whistle and steamed out of Truckee. He soon accelerated down the Truckee River Canyon intent on making up lost time. It was after midnight when he slowly braked into the sleepy hamlet of Verdi.

With a loud hiss and a belch of black smoke, the lurching train screeched to a stop at the deserted station. The night was unseasonably cold and a light snow was falling. Wasting no time, the water tanks were quickly topped and the tender loaded with wood. As the train began to roll away from the station, several men in long linen dusters appeared out of the darkness and leaped onto the express car behind the tender. The train’s conductor, D.G. Marshall, spotted them immediately. Thinking they were passengers who had boarded late, Marshall made his way toward them, but the masked bandits pulled out revolvers and ordered Marshall back into the coach. After securing that section of the train, the intruders moved forward.

Among the perpetrators were A. J. “Gentleman Jack” Davis, John Squires, E.B Parsons, and Tilton Cockerill — all seasoned criminals. Along for the ride was James Gilchrist, a dull-witted miner who had decided to try and get rich the easy way with a gun, not through honest work. Davis, a well-respected and affable Virginia City businessman, was the ringleader of this hardened group of bandits. Other men in the gang included John E. Chapman, a former Virginia City Sunday school superintendent, who had traveled to San Francisco to find out when a valuable railroad shipment was coming through. Reno resident R. A. “Sol” Jones was a local carpenter and, like Chapman, a novice in big-time crime. Jones received Chapman’s cable that the No. 1 was loaded with gold and silver and he relayed it to Davis who was hiding in a cave near Verdi.

This holdup was no spur of the moment whim. Unbeknownst to virtually everyone in Virginia City, the charismatic Jack Davis was actually a clever criminal who had mastered the art of robbing Wells Fargo stagecoaches during the 1860s. During the day, Davis worked as a mining recorder, operated an ore-stamping mill and raised flowers as a hobby. But at night, Davis and his masked accomplices robbed stages near Huffaker’s Station, along Six-Mile Canyon and on the Geiger Grade near Lake Tahoe. Davis used his mill as a cover for income and to rework stolen bullion.

Compared to the relative simplicity of surprising a stagecoach driver and overcoming the lone shotgun guard before grabbing the Wells Fargo strongbox, pulling off a successful train robbery meant stopping the train, overcoming the armed guards and then dealing with the conductors, engineer, coachmen, firemen, brakemen and passengers. Davis was confident that he and his cohorts could pull it off and they began to carefully plan the heist. By early November 1870, “Big Jack” and his gang of outlaws had their scheme laid out and were ready when they received word from Chapman that gold was on the way.

After boarding the train at Verdi, the armed men surprised engineer Small and his fireman with their six-shooters and then ordered them to run the train about 1 mile down the line toward Hunter’s Station. The telegraph wires had already been sliced near the holdup site so no alarm could be sent.

Further east at the Central Pacific depot in Reno, Wells Fargo agent Nels Hammond was aware that the No. 1 was running late, but he was prepared for its eventual arrival. Hammond had a company wagon manned by armed guards ready outside the train station, waiting to rush the valuable shipment to the secure steel safe at his Wells Fargo office. But thanks to Jack and the boys, the precious cargo would never make it to Reno.

Meanwhile, back at the crime scene, the robbers braked the train to a halt and yanked the coupling pin. They then throttled the locomotives forward, pulling only the engine tender and express car containing the gold coins and silver bars. The baggage and passenger cars were left behind on the tracks, adrift without motive power. Davis ordered the hijacked train to a deserted quarry where more gang members waited. The outlaws broke open the strongboxes and stuffed as many gold coins as they could into special purses they had made from boot tops and buckskins.

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition of The Tahoe Weekly.


Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.