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Bold bandits robbed express train three miles from Roseburg

The job got off to a bad start when the fireman escaped and sprinted for the nearby town. The main suspect in the robbery quickly left town, and a few months later was killed in a streetcar holdup in Washington.

A passenger train passes through the town of Shasta Springs, making for the Oregon border, around 1910. The train robbed near Roseburg in 1897 had passed through this town a few hours earlier. (Image: Postcard)

It was just another work night for the engineer and crew of the No. 15 California Express on the night of Jan. 29, 1897. They’d passed all the long, lonely stretches where train robbers liked to operate, and were now in settled country, steaming past the little community of Shady Point; in three miles they’d be pulling into Roseburg. So when a man with a lantern started signaling frantically for their train to stop, they weren’t particularly suspicious.

But they probably should have been. A few months previously, Judge Charles Bellinger had overturned the conviction of two men who had almost certainly robbed the same train in Cow Creek Canyon in 1895 — Jack Case and James Poole. The two of them had been seen around Roseburg. And as if they weren’t trouble enough, another notorious train robber, Bob Hinman, was rumored to be hiding out in town after breaking out of prison in The Dalles.

The unsuspecting engineer — a man named Mr. Morris (the newspapers give no first names for anyone involved in this story) — promptly reached for the brake and started the laborious process of bringing the train to a halt.

Jack Case and James Poole, as depicted in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 30, 1897. (Image: R. Michael Wilson)

A few minutes later, a neighboring farmer named Mr. Lindsey heard a big explosion down by the railroad tracks. The train crew might not have been thinking of robbers, but Lindsey sure was. He reached for his Winchester and started toward the railroad tracks — then stopped short. In the distance he could see flames starting to brighten the sky, and that suggested the explosion was an accident — maybe a catastrophic one. Lindsey put the rifle down and, catching up an ax and a bucket, ran to help put out the fire and rescue the victims.

Alas, upon arriving he realized he’d brought the wrong tools. It was indeed a robbery.

It had started off well enough for the robbers. After the engineer pulled up at the signal light, the signaler gave him a good look at the business end of a revolver; then another robber stepped up around the coal tender to join him. This second robber, apparently looking to make sure Morris didn’t get any heroic ideas, sent a couple bullets singing past his ears — which alerted the fireman, Mr. Hendricks, as to what was going on.

Hendricks found himself on the other side of the engine from both bandits. The town of Roseburg was less than three miles away. So he leaped from the train and sprinted for his life toward the cover of a nearby embankment, as the cursing robbers hustled to get around the train in time to shoot him down. For an instant he was exposed to their fire as he vaulted over a short wire fence — if the robbers had been ready, they could have picked him off easily — but they weren’t, and after he was over it he was gone.

There was nothing for it but to work fast. Hendricks would cover the three miles to Roseburg in less than a half hour and a mounted posse would be on its way minutes after that.

The robbers hurried to collect the train crew as hostages and, so to speak, apply for admission to the express car — where all the good stuff was located. The escape of Hendricks probably meant they wouldn’t have time to crack the huge express safe, but there would probably be other things.

Inside that express car, the express messenger, a Mr. Butler, had heard the pistol shots and quickly deduced what was up. He readied his shotgun and waited to see what would develop.

Soon someone was thumping on his main door. “Open up here, or I’ll blow you to hell,” the robber yelled.

Cautiously leaning out the other door, Butler cut loose with a charge of buckshot at the shadow beating on the side of the car — but he must have shot high, because the robber whipped around and fired at his muzzle flash. The woodwork behind Butler’s head splintered. Butler pulled the trigger again, but his second barrel didn’t fire. Dodging back into the car, he started feeling around for his box of shotgun shells.

“As I was groping around to find it he suddenly threw a big bomb in the car, and I knew it was time to get out,” Butler told the Roseburg Plaindealer afterward. “I was taking a good many chances to get out, but I knew that if I had stayed there I would be blown to pieces the next minute. I jumped out on the river side of the car, a jump of about six feet, and ran, gun in hand, into the coach behind. The next minute the bomb blew up with a terrible explosion, splintering the window glass in the coach I was in and tearing the express car nearly to pieces.”

This was the explosion farmer Lindsey had heard, and it soon started the fire he’d seen.

The robbers grabbed what they could, forced their way into the mail car and ransacked the registered-mail pouch. But they made no move to bother the passengers — either because they were aware that a posse was probably already on its way, or because they worried about being shot or “made” by one of the passengers.

In any case, “the passengers were not subjected to the mortification and indignity, to say nothing of the financial loss, of a ‘stand and deliver’ ordeal,” the Plaindealer writes. “Nevertheless, there was a hasty concealment of valuables and those who were traveling with their wives, knowing the gallantry of the Western bandit, gave their purses into the keeping of the weaker half.”

But the robbers merely grabbed what they could from the wreckage and galloped away. Behind them, they left the burning express car in such a shambles that no one was ever able to figure out how much valuable property was stolen and how much simply destroyed or burned up.

They never did figure out for sure who the robbers were, either. The next day, Jack Case emphatically denied that he’d had anything to do with the job. And in fact, he may not have been lying. It was not Case’s style to neglect to rob the passengers. But perhaps aware that he’d be the first suspect, he quit the town almost immediately, making his way north to Washington, where he apparently hoped to find fresher pickings.

He did — and he found something else, too. About halfway between Tacoma and Steillacoom up in Washington, he threw down on a streetcar full of passengers and started relieving them of their valuables. One of his victims — the superintendent of the streetcar line, a Mr. Dame — pulled a revolver on him. The air for a moment was thick with smoke and lead, and when it all cleared away, Mr. Dame had been shot in the arm and one of the passengers had taken a bullet in his leg.

As for Jack Case, he was lying in the gravel beside the car, stone dead.

(Sources: Roseburg Plaindealer: 2-01, 2-04 and 5-24, 1897; The Dalles Chronicle, 2-03-1897; Sacramento Union, 2-02-1897 Wilson, R. Michael. More Frontier Justice in the Wild West. Helena: Twodot, 2014)