In the early days of railroads there was a subset of law breakers called Train Wreckers. They were sometimes involved in union activities, trying to derail a train as part of a labor action, but most often robbery was the motive. The activity inspired hundreds of headlines and at least one stage production.
The three most popular methods of wrecking a train were, first, to take out a trestle, which would send a locomotive plunging. Second, was the removal of frogs, the structure that ties two rail ends together. This could be accompanied by the shifting of at least one of the rails. Third, vandals would put some obstruction on the track, ranging from logs to boulders. Derailing the train was often the result, but simply stopping it would do nearly as well.
In 1890 newspaper readers in the Treasure Valley followed the story of an attempt to wreck the Montreal Express near Albany New York. In 1891, wreckers were foiled when someone found a piece of iron fastened to tracks near Minneapolis. The plotters were caught and confessed they were planning to rob the disabled train.
In September 1892, Passenger Train Number 8 was derailed west of Osage, Missouri. Four men were killed in the attempted robbery of a million dollars on board the train. Thirty-five men, women and children were injured. That same year a train wreck was foiled in Coon Rapids, Iowa. There were alleged Mafia ties to that one.
In 1893, train wreckers bumped the Vandela Express from its tracks near Brazil, Indiana. In February 1894 a train was derailed near Houston, and the wreck robbed in a hail of bullets. That same year there were train wreckers in Colorado and California. And Idaho.
Some lament that Idaho is late to every party, but this wasn’t one to which anyone sought an invitation. It came by way of rail.
On a September day in 1894 a westbound train chugged out of Mountain Home across the desert toward Nampa. The train carried passengers, mail, and freight. Things were progressing routinely until the engineer squinted into the distance. There was something on the track. That something was moving toward them. It was a handcar with two men aboard pumping furiously into the teeth of the barreling locomotive. The engineer pulled hard on the brake lever, raising a hideous shriek from steel wheels sliding on steel rails.
The sudden action threw passengers from their seats. When the train came to a stop the travelers piled out of the cars to see what was up.
Aboard the handcar, now snugged up to the cowcatcher, was the railroad section foreman and a section hand, out of breath from pumping.
In words you are welcome to color with your imagination the engineer inquired as to the purpose of putting a handcar in the path of a speeding train. In fact, the section foreman had an excellent answer. He had been on a routine inspection of the tracks in his section near Owyhee Station when he noticed that someone had removed the frogs and fish plates to misalign a track section that ran across a gully. The next train to hit that trestle would have plunged 45 feet into the channel with cars piling behind it like loose dominos.
The railroad men had worked feverishly to repair the track before the scheduled train could hit the bad spot. Repaired though it was, the men thought it would be prudent to warn the coming train to take it slow and careful, and not just out of an abundance of caution about the repair. While working to fix the vandalized section the railroad men had spotted a man on horseback, well-armed, watching their progress from a nearby hilltop.
Fearing there might be more mischief ahead, the train crew prepared the passengers for a possible attack, having them crouch low on the floor. It was about then that the aforementioned horseman appeared as a silhouette on a ridgetop. As it happened, the assistant superintendent of the Oregon Short Line—so named because it was the shortest route between Wyoming and Oregon—was on board. S.S. Morris walked out to have a chat with the rider. The man declined the invitation by spurring his horse and disappearing behind the rise.
The slow, careful chug into Nampa with eyeballs examining the rails along the way, was accompanied at one point by the mystery rider. He galloped alongside the train, showing off his rifle in an aggressive way, but never firing a shot. It must have been an act of frustration.
The train rolled away, but the rider pulled up and turned his horse back toward Owyhee station where he found the section foreman and his section hand moving the handcar to a siding. The mystery rider began sending bullets in their direction. The rail men, no fools they, took cover. The bullets left a mark on the handcar, but the men were unharmed. The would-be robber finally rode off.
As soon as the train rolled into Nampa law enforcement got involved. Since the potential robbery of a mail car was involved, that brought in the U.S. Marshall. A renowned Indian fighter named Orlando “Rube” Robbins was dispatched to bring the perpetrator(s) to justice. Rube and his posse set out into Owyhee County with the best wishes and high hopes of the gentle people of the region. The Statesman opined, “(U.S.) Marshal Crutcher is fortunate in having been able to lay hands at once on Rube Robbins and start him on the trail. Robbins is like a bloodhound when tracking a criminal, and the fact that his game would have only a few hours start makes speedy capture exceedingly probable.”
Rube and his crew did find some promising tracks to follow, just as a thunderstorm sluiced them away. In talking with locals they uncovered a precious lead, which The Statesman duly reported.
NOTORIOUS BANDIT HERE
Thought to Be the Leader of the
OLD HAND AT THE BUSINESS
Charles Somers, a Famous Outlaw.
Known to Have Been in This
It was reported that Somers had an aunt living in Boise, whom he had recently visited. He had boasted to someone that he had eaten at the Palace restaurant at the table right next to the chief of police!
Excitement about the train wrecker or wreckers and imminent capture of same soon dwindled as the posse came back without a prisoner in tow.
Somers, the main suspect, took some air out of the balloon when he wrote to The Statesman from Toronto, Canada. “I see I am charged with being the leader of bandits who recently attempted to wreck a train near Boise,” he wrote. “And also, with being an old hand at the business. Parties who perpetrated the recent crime deserve no consideration from the pursuing posse and would get none from me if I were a member of it.”
The accused went on to say, “If it will satisfy the curiosity of your readers to know the truth of the report that I ate supper at the same table in the Spanish restaurant in Boise with the chief of police let me end the suspense by saying yes. Such was the case, but is was April, not recently as claimed. I think I could go there and do so again with impunity. As to being a desperate man, I will say I am as docile as a kitten, but confess such charges in your article are enough to drive a man to desperation.”
Somers asked but one thing of The Statesman. Could they at least spell his name right? It was Summers, not Somers.
So, with little more gained from the whole incident than a spelling correction the story of the very nearly almost train wreck and robbery of 1894 faded away like a desert flower past its prime.