ROBBING AN ARIZONA SILVER SHIPMENT
History article by Harold Hough
The mining boom in the West and the shipment of massive amounts of gold and silver sparked the train robbing frenzy of the late 1800s. Robbers would usually stop the train, force the messenger to open the safes in the train and make their escape before the sheriff in the next town found out about what happened.
One such group was Grant Wheeler and Joe George, two cowboys who decided to take up robbing trains in southern Arizona around the silver mines of Tombstone. They soon discovered that robbing silver shipments was a lot harder than it seemed.
Their tale began on January 30, 1895 as the Southern Pacific train began to pull away from the Wilcox, Arizona Territory train station. Wheeler and George, who had hidden aboard managed to quickly get the drop on three train employees just a few miles outside of town. They then ordered the engine and express car be detached from the passenger and sleepers cars and taken further down the line and deeper into the desert.
Unfortunately for the robbers, the train messenger, who is responsible for the valuables, got wind of what was happening and grabbed as many valuables from the express car before locking it up and moving back to the passenger cars. When the locomotive and express car continued on, he remained with the passengers and a lot of the money that the train was carrying.
The train continued on for another three miles before the robbers ordered the train to stop. They then proceeded to break into the express car where the money and valuables were kept. It looked like it was going to be a big haul. Not only were there the valuables in the safes, there were eight sacks of Mexican silver coins worth $6,000 sitting on the floor of the express car. Wheeler and George figured that if that much silver was outside the safe, there had to be even more inside them.
Usually trains had two safes. The “way” safe contained small amounts of money and valuables that would be needed along the route. It was smaller and easier to break into. The “through” safe was larger, kept closed during the trip, and harder to break open. This was the safe that usually contained the silver and gold shipped from mines. It offered the biggest haul, but was hard to break into.
Wheeler and George quickly broke open the way safe and proceeded to try to blast open the through safe. That took more effort that they imagined. Four times they tried to blast it open with the dynamite they had brought along. And, four times, it failed to make a dent in it. They only had one stick of dynamite left, so they put it on top of the safe and secured it with the sacks of silver coins.
Well, that did the trick. It blew the safe to smithereens. It also blew the express car to bits too and sent the silver coins flying all over the desert. What was embarrassing was that the through safe was empty and the only things of value in the car were the silver coins they had blown across the desert. When all was said and done, the robbers only managed to recover $500.
But what was disaster for the robbers was a boon for the locals. For the next few days, the whole town of Wilcox came out to the robbery site to look for the Mexican silver. Some of the coins were found embedded in the trunks of trees and some were found hundreds of yards from the express car’s ruins.
Things only went from bad to worse for Wheeler and George for they never thought to hide their tracks when planning the train robbery. The dynamite they used in the heist had been purchased at the general store in Wilcox just before the train left the station. They had also left behind enough personal effects that locals were able to quickly identify the two hapless robbers.
They may have been incompetent but the railroad company still wanted to catch them. Southern Pacific and Wells Fargo detectives were quickly on their trail as the two fled from Arizona Territory to New Mexico Territory.
But before the law could catch up with them, the two robbers tried to rob a train again. And, this time the results were even worse.
On February 26th, they struck again, near what is today the Arizona/New Mexico border. Ironically, the engineer was the same one that they had held up a few weeks ago and they greeted him with a cheery “Well, here we are again.”
Instead of detaching the express car that had all of the loot, the two bandits made the mistake of detaching the mail car. They were now left with a bunch of mail, not money. In their frustration, they went ahead and set off the dynamite and headed for the hills again.
Not only did they not get anything, but a passenger actually took their picture, which was quickly posted about Arizona and New Mexico. A few weeks later, the legendary Wells Fargo detective Billy Breckenridge found Wheeler in Colorado. The bandit refused to surrender and killed himself.
What happened to George is a mystery. He reportedly left Wheeler because Wheeler snored in his sleep and George couldn’t stand it any longer. Reports say he headed for Texas, where he slipped into the oblivion of history. We can only hope that his two attempts at crime taught him a lesson and he went straight for the rest of his life.