Outlaw Bill Miner’s first train robbery was a fiasco
It had been a good 20 years, but Bill Miner was back and once again, as he liked to say, “on the rob.” Specifically, he was lurking with his partner behind a pile of baggage on an eastbound express train, a dozen or so miles out of Portland, waiting for his chance.
It was September of 1903, and Bill was about to rob his very first railroad train. Or, rather, try to.
The obsolete outlaw
Bill “The Gray Fox” Miner was already a well-known outlaw by this time, a specialist in the frontier art of robbing stagecoaches. Part of the reason he was so well known is, he wasn’t particularly good at it – or, rather, he wasn’t good at not getting caught afterward. Bill had spent 34 of his 54 years in one prison or another. Most of that time had been done at San Quentin. His most recent stint there had been particularly lengthy: Twenty years for stagecoach robbery.
When the Gray Fox got out of the joint, he found that the march of progress had made his skills obsolete. In the early 1880s when Bill was first sent to prison, his had been one of the most valuable specialties in criminal society. Stagecoaches were common in the American West; they frequently carried strongboxes full of gold and valuables; and they followed predictable routes. Robberies were common, and so were stories of the dapper, courteous “gentleman bandit” who called himself Bill Miner.
But after his release, Bill found a different world was waiting for him outside. There were hardly any stagecoaches in use any more, and the ones that were still around didn’t carry money. They weren’t even worth robbing. The real action, Bill realized, was in robbing railroad trains.
Train robbery was a different kind of thing. You couldn’t just step out in front of one, level a Winchester and order it to stop. Train robbery required new skills, better planning, more subtlety. Bill would have to adapt – or get out of the business.
At first, the erstwhile Gray Fox chose to get out of the business. He moved to Washington, where his face wasn’t much known, and got a job in an oyster bed. But a couple years of the law-abiding life were about all he could take. When the call of easy money finally came, it found him eager and ready to go.
The call to adventure
The call came from an old pal from San Quentin, counterfeiter J. Guy Harshman. Harshman had gotten out of “The Q” at about the same time as Bill, and he’d been working shifts at a sawmill in the lower-Columbia-River town of Goble. But he’d been thinking about taking on a train, and wondered if Bill would like to team up.
Bill didn’t need to be asked twice. He quit his job at the oyster beds, moved to Goble and took a job in the mill with Guy. He recruited a third man, a baby-faced young man named Charles “Kid” Hoehn, and they had a team. And they started making plans.
Their first attempt was an embarrassment. The train they planned to rob just lumbered blissfully by, and they realized they’d set the “stop” signal for the wrong set of tracks. And it was just as well, as they later realized; their getaway plan (to high-tail it to Portland and get lost in the crowd) would probably not have worked.
They’d regrouped and done some more careful planning. And that planning had led to the heist Miner was getting ready for now, hiding behind the luggage with Harshman, waiting for the right moment.
When it came, he and Harshman stood up, drew their revolvers, and climbed through the gangway into the engine, where they found the engineer and fireman.
“They ordered us to run the train to twenty-one mile post and stop at a light which would be found there,” engineer Ollie Barrett later recalled. “The bandits told us that if we kept still and obeyed orders, neither of us would be harmed, and we did so. At twenty-one mile post another masked man came out of the brush on the right hand side of the railroad and joined us as the train stopped.”
The other masked man was Hoehn, who had brought the getaway vehicle – a rowboat tied up in the nearby Columbia River. The gang was together again; now it was time to go get the money.
Accordingly, the three of them ordered the engineer and fireman to come back with them to the express car – where the valuables were kept.
Meanwhile, inside the express car, clerks Fred Korner and Solomon Glick were getting nervous. When the train had unexpectedly stopped, Korner had suspected something was wrong, so he’d put the light out in the express car, got his sawed-off shotgun ready, and waited to see if this unscheduled stop meant what he thought it meant.
He got his answer a few minutes later, in the voice of engineer Barrett: “It’s Barrett. Open the door. Don’t shoot.”
Korner and Glick had no intention of opening that door. But they knew what would be happening next, so they retreated as far away from the door as they could get, and plugged their ears.
Sure enough, Miner and Harshman were ready with the dynamite. They lit the fuses, propped the explosives against the door, and hustled back to the engine.
Two great explosions lit up the night.
The best-laid plans …
When the smoke of the blast cleared away, there was a big hole in the express car door, but still no movement inside.
But even as the bandits were hustling back to the badly damaged car, Korner was silently opening the baggage door at the rear of the car, shotgun at the ready. From the shadows, he stealthily drew a bead on the lead robber and pulled the trigger.
The blast of buckshot took Harshman to the ground instantly, looking very dead. A stray pellet hit Barrett in the shoulder.
Hoehn dropped everything and ran for the boat. Miner wasn’t far behind. Korner hustled out of the car and, seeing their shadowy forms fleeing down the hillside, sent another charge of buckshot whistling past their ears, although they were by then too far away for a sawed-off shotgun to be effective.
When they reached the river, the two of them leaped into the boat and rowed furiously downstream to Kalama, on the Washington side. Then, agreeing that they’d be less likely to get “made” if they split up, they went their separate ways.
Harshman was taken to the hospital, where he was not expected to live.
But to general surprise, he rallied, and when he regained consciousness he ratted his former partners out. Hoehn was found in Everett, Wash., and arrested; he drew a 10-year stretch for his part in the caper, and Harshman, when he recovered, got 12.
As for Miner, he ran across the border into British Columbia, where he perpetrated Canada’s first train robbery. This one was rather more successful and netted him $300,000 worth of loot. Caught again, he was sentenced to prison in B.C., but escaped after a year or so under suspicious circumstances; the rumor persists, to this day, that the Canadian government let him escape to the U.S. in exchange for a promise to tell them where the $300,000 was stashed. In any case, he was shortly back in the states, although he never came back to Oregon.
He finished out his days robbing trains in the Georgia area, once again in and out of jails and prisons.
He died on Sept. 1, 1913, at the age of 67.
(Sources: Yuskavitch, Jim. Outlaw Tales of Oregon. Guilford, Conn.: Twodot Press, 2007; Meier, Gary. Oregon Outlaws. Boise: Tamarack, 1996)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.
Images above: filmmakeriq.com. Actor Justus Barnes takes a shot straight into the camera at
the end of “The Great Train Robbery.” It’s hard to miss the similarity
between Barnes’ character and Bill Miner.
Edison Films. This movie poster advertises a 10-minute silent movie called “The Great Train Robbery,” the filming of which started in November 1903 – two months after Bill Miner’s gang tried to rob the train just outside Portland – and the lead robber sports a suspiciously Bill Miner-like mustache.
McKenzie River Reflections