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A Wild West Train Robbery … with a Mormon Twist

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 15, 2009

In mid-December 1882, five men robbed John Devine’s store at Deep Creek (now Ibapah), Tooele County, Utah, and fled toward their hideout, pausing en route to rob a sheep camp and a cattle ranch.

A posse went in pursuit, but the bandits seized them, relieved them of their guns and horses, and sent them back to town on foot.

One month later, the engineer of the Central Pacific’s Train No. 1 pulled into the Montello water stop, just west of the Nevada-Utah line, at 1:00 a.m. The engineer climbed down to investigate the red caution lights blinking frantically on the tracks ahead. He was immediately surrounded by masked men who robbed the train crew of their watches and cash, then locked them in the tank house.

They then ran to their real prize, the Wells, Fargo express car. Its safe, guarded by a single expressman, nearly always carried large sums of cash and gold.

Aaron Y. Ross, the quick-thinking Wells, Fargo guard on duty that night, awoke to the sound of the bandits pounding on his express car door. “Give me time to get my boots on, will you?” he called, as he piled boxes in front of the door and barricaded himself behind piles of merchandise.

The highwaymen fired through the wooden door. Ross returned fire, driving the bandits back. They fired from both sides of the car at once, but Ross only ducked lower, then resumed shooting.

The bandits called to Ross, telling him they would not harm him if he would let them enter. Ross answered with his revolver.

The outlaws then uncoupled the Wells, Fargo car from the rest of the train and pushed it some distance away, Ross firing occasionally in a futile attempt to prevent them from doing so.

Using a pick ax, the outlaws began to break in the car door. Ross continued to shoot, causing the outlaws to hide beneath the car, then leap up to swing the ax a single time before diving again for cover. Eventually the door was smashed open, but Ross’s gunfire kept the bandits from entering.

They next fired random shots through the sides of the train car. Ross hunkered down, returning fire.

One of the outlaws brought a torch, but the car wouldn’t catch the flame. They hunted wood in the train’s tender to light a bonfire under the car, but this particular train was fueled by coal.

Finally, after more than two hours of fruitless effort, the frustrated highwaymen ran out of ideas. They rode away, leading two horses with empty saddlebags. When they were gone, one of the train’s nine passengers released the trainmen from their temporary prison. Ross’s battered Wells, Fargo car was reattached, and Train No. 1 hurried on to Ogden, where a doctor treated Ross’s three minor injuries.

The Central Pacific and Wells, Fargo announced a combined reward of $1,000 for the capture of each of the bandits.

This time the law went after the desperadoes in earnest. Posses from Utah and Nevada, under the command of Utah County Sheriff John W. Turner, trailed the outlaws to their lair in the Antelope Mountains on the Nevada side of the line. They surprised two of the men away from their fortified stockade; both were wounded, then captured, then forced to write a note instructing the remaining three outlaws to surrender. Surprisingly, once the note was tossed into the outlaws’ cabin, all three came out with their hands held high.

Taken to Salt Lake City for medical treatment, then to Elko to stand trial for highway robbery, the outlaws – Frank Francis, Frank Hawley, Sylvester Earl, Erastus Anderson, and Ormus Nay – ended their travels at the Nevada Penitentiary, sentenced to terms of 11 to 14 years.

Messenger Ross received a $1,000 bonus and a gold watch from Wells, Fargo, a new revolver from his brother express messengers, and a story to tell for the rest of his life.

That’s where the story ended when I published this in the Tribune a while back. What I didn’t tell that audience, though, was that Sylvester Earl and Ormus Nay took up (and failed at) train robbery immediately after having withdrawn from the United Order community at Kingston, Utah — they themselves were not full-fledged UO members, but their families were, and both men had lived there for a considerable period.

United Order. Train robbery. Holding all things in common, indeed.



7 Comments »

  1. “Holding all things in common, indeed.” Ha!

    Another triumph. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 15, 2009 @ 7:17 am

  2. Holding all things in common, indeed.

    guess they forgot about the “voluntary” part.

    Comment by ellen — July 15, 2009 @ 10:21 am

  3. “United Order. Train robbery. Holding all things in common, indeed.”

    Yep, it appears Sylvester and Ormus worked on this enterprise in a cooperative manner. [rim shot]

    This was great. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — July 15, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

  4. Ardis-

    What a great story.

    Comment by Brandon — July 15, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  5. Ormus Nay was married in 1871 in Pine Valley, Washington, Utah to Louisa Ann Earl. Maybe Sylvester Earl was his brother-in-law. I really don’t know; just wondering out loud.

    Comment by Maurine — July 15, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

  6. Yes, Maurine, you’re right. There’s a heartbreaker of a newspaper account of her (Louisa) and their baby coming to visit Ormus while he’s being held in Salt Lake prior to going to Nevada for trial and imprisonment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 16, 2009 @ 3:56 am

  7. I seem to recall a western starting out this way, except the bandits figured out they could use the dynamite from the mining car and, well, it ended differently.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 16, 2009 @ 6:09 am

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