The Great Train Robbery of 1912 in Poteau, Oklahoma
Poteau, Oklahoma was still a wild and rugged place even after the territory officially became a state. While this story can be repeated many times throughout Oklahoma, it really shows how rural areas were still very much stuck in the old days of the wild, wild west.
It was a clear, chilly morning on October 4, 1912. The Kansas City Southern passenger train Number 4 had just left Poteau, traveling towards Westville, Oklahoma, when it came to a crossing three miles north of town. As the passenger train slowed down to stop at the crossing, three masked men crawled over the tender and silently entered the engine. A fourth man stood guard outside.
As the three entered the engine car, two of the masked men quickly forced the engineer and fireman on to their knees while the other man swiftly applied the air brakes, bringing the train to a complete stop. Once the train was brought to a stop, two of the men rushed back to the express car.
Unaware of what was going on, the messenger, baggage man, and conductor were taken by surprise as two armed men rushed in. The bandits leveled their guns at the men and brutally forced the three behind a large pile of luggage trunks. After the train employees were subdued, the bandits used a good supply of nitroglycerine to blow open the safe. They emptied the safe in record time, stuffing the valuable loot into large gunnysacks.
Not yet satisfied, the bandits rushed back to railway post office car, pried open the lockboxes, and proceeded to stuff anything they could grab into the gunnysacks. Two mail clerks tried valiantly to stop them, but the bandits quickly overpowered them.
Unknown to the bandits, a large freight train was barreling down the tracks towards them. With the passenger train stopped, it seemed inevitable that the freight train would crash into the observation car at the end of the passenger train. Luckily, a brakeman stationed at the rear of the train saw the looming disaster. Risking his own life, the brakeman rushed down the tracks towards the oncoming freight train, frantically screaming and waving his arms. The conductor in the freight train noticed the commotion and immediately applied the air brakes. Even after hitting the air brakes, the train continued for another 4,000 feet before finally coming to a stop. If it hadn’t been for the bravery of the brakeman, the awareness of the conductor, and the long, straight section of tracks, the collision that would have occurred would have been one of the worst in Poteau’s history.
While this drama unfolded outside of the passenger train, inside, the bandits continued to loot passenger train. Once the bandits had taken everything that was of value, the two masked bandits left the train. Outside, they met up with the guard bandit and the one that had taken the engine car. Together, the four quickly escaped into the deep woods that surrounded Cavanaugh Mountain.
During the robbery, the train’s passengers remained oblivious.
After the robbery was reported, a posse of citizens and deputy sheriffs began a massive manhunt for the bandits. Using bloodhounds, the men spent the entire night searching, but by daybreak, it became obvious that the men had easily outwitted their pursuers.
In all, over $7,000 was stolen, along with most of the registered mail that was on board the train.
The Bandits Strike Again
A paper out of Fort Smith, Arkansas reported this on October 5, 1912:
...bandits who held up northbound Kansas City Southern train No. 4, on Tarby Prairie, three miles northeast of Poteau, Okla., Friday evening... All day long posses searched the Cavanaugh Mountains, which are close to the scene of the robbery...
William West, the boy who discovered the bandits boarded the train and whose cries of warning were unheeded by the passengers...J. M. Murray and Arthur Deshiort, two farmers, [said] the bandits rode away on the train...
The end of the wild, wild west days in rural Oklahoma came with the popularity of the automobile between 1915 and 1920. Stories such as this continued up through the 1930s, however, with the growing popularity of the interstate systems, rail travel for many became a thing of the past.
Following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, along with the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, a new kind of bandit arose. Outlaws such as Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde replaced the old six-barrel "gunslingers" of the past.
Still, legends of train robberies and old west outlaws can be found throughout Oklahoma, even after the "glory days" of the wild west faded into memory.