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A Jesse James trick on the old SP

Finally free of the twists and turns of the Cow Creek Canyon, just five miles south of Riddle Station, the Southern Pacific “Overland” was running full throttle with straight track ahead.

At 10:10 p.m., July 1, 1895, the moon was hidden behind canyon walls, its soft light no match for the headlight beam on the northbound train flickering across the steel rails.

There was a thud, a flash and a loud explosion. Engineer Jasper Waite reached for the airbrakes, but too late. Two more blasts rocked the train. Its wheels screeched to a stop. Its front truck twisted and scraping along the rails.

When Waite tried to leave the cab, there was a pistol pointed at his nose. The bandit wore a white flour sack over his head, with holes cut out for eyes, nose and mouth. Ordered to keep their hands stretched above their heads, Waite and fireman Everett Gray jumped down.

“I saw three men,” Waite later testified. “He marched us on around to the express car and told messenger Donahue to throw up his hands. I helped the robber up into the car as he told me to do.”

In the smoking car, a foolishly curious young passenger put his head out the window and instantly felt the barrel of a pistol pressed against his forehead. In the words of a newspaper report, the young man heard “the magic words:”

“You d—d son of a b—, keep your head inside!”

Two of the gang walked beside the train, occasionally firing their pistols and tossing lit dynamite sticks into nearby fields. The first masked man pushed the captured engineer and fireman through the express and mail cars, grabbing whatever he found valuable.

Then, accompanied by the hostage train crew, the bandit made a slow walk through the passenger and sleeper cars, relieving trembling passengers of their valuables.

“The very audacity of the deed by which several hundred men were temporarily deprived of their manhood and their valuables,” wrote an Oregonian reporter, “stamped the perpetrator as a cool, nervy rascal; a real, live, dime-novel hero, who could give pointers to Jesse James.”

A headline in the Salem Capital Journal called this “Daring Robbery” a “Jesse James Trick.”

An hour after it began, the robbery was over. The first bandit warned Waite not to move the train for another hour and, before he left, he shot out the locomotive’s headlight.

With a damaged front truck on the engine, it took nearly three hours to travel the five miles to Riddle. There the crew turned the locomotive around and backed the entire 28 miles to Roseburg, where the only replacement locomotive was available.

The Southern Pacific Company offered a $3,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the robbers, a reward that inspired detective George Quinn to begin a search for evidence that within three days led to the arrests of Albert and James Pool and their cousin, John Case.

The robbers were handcuffed and taken to Portland for a trial that made headlines across the country.

Next week, the trial — with overwhelming evidence of guilt presented to a jury — yet, also evidence that may be suspect, tainted and very worrisome to a highly respected Oregon judge.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.