The Great Train Robbery at Verdi

Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

The Central Pacific’s Train No. 1 was two hours late out of Truckee. It departed from Oakland on Nov. 4, 1870, and arrived on schedule in Truckee. On its arrival, passengers were informed of a freight derailment up ahead. Conductor Mitchell told passengers to “stretch their legs on the platform.” In the express car, the Wells Fargo & Company guards remained guarding a shipment of gold and silver bullions and greenbacks worth more than $41,000. Presumably, only the guards knew the nature and value of the shipment. 

Just after midnight, No. 1 left Truckee and Conductor Mitchell noted that they might make up some time because it was a downgrade all the way to Reno, Nev., and the Humboldt Plain. 

No. 1 slowed at Verdi for a scheduled halt, momentarily. Just as it began to start up, two masked men climbed into the engine car and covered the engineer and fireman with six-shooters. Three other robbers boarded the express car.  

Half a mile east of Verdi, the bandits ordered Engineer Small to slow the train and as it slowed, the three men on the express car cut the bell rope and pulled the coupling pin at the rear of the car. At this time, Engineer Small was ordered to give her steam. When Mitchell went to see what had slowed the train, he discovered that the express car and the engine car were nowhere in sight.  Just 5 miles west of Reno, the robbers who had subdued Frank Minchell, the Wells Fargo messenger, ordered the train stopped and jumped off the train carrying the sacks containing the gold and silver bullions and the greenbacks. 

Thirty minutes later, the news quickly spread of the West’s first biggest express robbery. A reward of $30,000 was offered.  

Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

It was later revealed that the mastermind of the holdup turned out to be A. J. “Big Jack” Davis, a respected Virginia City businessman and ex-superintendent of the San Francisco Mine. He was implicated by a man named Gilchrist who had already confessed to the robbery. Big Jack was arrested and he led the authorities to a railroad culvert near Verdi where $19,760 had been hidden. Eventually, practically all of the money was recovered. 

In all, seven men were involved in the robbery. Three men, having helped authorities in the capture of the others, went free. Three others received 21 years imprisonment and Big Jack received 10 years, but the governor decreased the sentence to three and Big Jack was out in two because of his “fine reputation as citizen of the Comstock.” 

Not more than seven years later, Big Jack was killed while trying to hold up another stage. 

For a list of summer activities that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration on Facebook.