Union Pacific Big Springs robbery
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The Union Pacific Big Springs Robbery of 1877 was a legendary robbery of $60,000 in newly minted $20 gold pieces being shipped from the San Francisco Mint to a bank in the East. Coverage of the sensational heist in the contemporary press made famous Sam Bass and his gang of "Black Hills Bandits." The event remains the biggest single robbery in the history of the Union Pacific railroad.
On September 18, 1877, Sam Bass, Joel Collins, Jack Davis, Tom Nixon, Bill Heffridge, and Jim Berry, robbed a Union Pacific train out of San Francisco. Under the cover of night, The Black Hills Bandits, as they were referred to, made off with “$60,000 in newly minted twenty-dollar gold pieces from the express car and $1,300 plus four gold watches from the passengers” (Clayton). Boarding the train at 10:48 on a Tuesday night, the bandits found $450 in the way safe, used for storing passenger’s valuables.
After interrogating an attendant as to why the main safe would not open, one of the bandits pistol whipped the man. While the accomplices did not believe the lock was on a timer, making it impossible to open the safe before the train reached its destination, Bass realized the attendant was not lying (“Sam Bass and His Train”) and called off his rowdy comrade.
As the gang was walking toward the door—all but empty handed and ready to flee the scene of the crime—something caught the eye of one: three wooden boxes stacked by the main safe (“Sam Bass and His Train”). Opening the boxes, the gang discovered “$20 gold pieces headed from the San Francisco Mint to an Eastern bank”, them its $60,000 contents(“City of Round Rock”). Each member of the Black Hills Bandits made off with his share of the earnings, split six ways, accounting for the “first and greatest robbery of a Union Pacific train” and placing our character Bass in the midst of a crucial turning point in his life (McEntire 195).
Later named the Big Springs Robbery, this seizure of the Union Pacific express train No. 4 at a water station in Big Springs, Nebraska, resulted in no fatalities. However, there was one capture — John Barnhart, station-master (McEntire 195). Though he made it out alive, others among the gang were not so lucky. Eight days after the robbery, Collins and Heffridge were killed by Sheriff Bardsley and a group of “ten United States Soldiers” ( McEntire 195). Berry, having been wounded at the hand of the law, died a short distance from his home in Mexico, Missouri. Two thousand, eight hundred and forty dollars was recovered from his person (McEntire 195). Assumedly, Nixon escaped home to Canada, while Bass and Davis drove south-bound with their money and their lives, the former hidden under the seat of their escape buggy (“City of Round Rock”).
Bass’s robbery of the Union Pacific marks his succession to fame. Before this job, the fatherless outlaw had worked as “farmer, teamster, gambler, cowboy, saloon owner, [and later as a] miner” (O’Neal 35) in order to support himself. However, his continual losses on the race track and in the saloons led Bass to robbery. After a brief stint of trying to operate a freight line “in the black”, Bass turned to stagecoaches. But, not turning a profit, Bass rounded up a gang for the Big Springs Robbery.
Following his Big Springs heist, Bass spent money prolifically, gaining him the title of the “Robin Hood”. He paid handsomely for services rendered: “payments of twenty dollars for a dozen eggs or a pan of warm biscuits were reported from many directions” (“The Sam Bass Legend” 116). Later owing to his success is the ballad written about the man, in which the following lines appear:
"On their way back to Texas they robbed the U.P. train,With all their hard-earned money they had to meet their doom."
And then split up in couples and started out again;
Joe Collins and his partner were overtaken soon,
Only after the Union Pacific job did the law — in the form of freelancers hoping to cash in on a reward — come after the gang (“City of Round Rock”). And even after the robbery, with all of that money in his possession, Bass returned to crime a mere four months later.
As expressed on the City of Round Rock’s website, “Many people have believed that there was no way that he could have spent the money.” People began to think that in his stagecoach-robbing years and up until his robbery of the Union Pacific, Bass robbed for profit. However, post- Union-Pacific, “since it is hard to imagine that Sam could have used up all of his gold before he started train robbing again, it lends credence to the story that Sam robbed for sport more than for profit” (“City of Round Rock”).With the robbery of the Union Pacific, Bass transformed into a bona fide outlaw, from for-profit to for-pleasure robbery.
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- O'Neal, Bill. "Samuel Bass," Encyclopedia of Western Gun-Fighters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983; pp. 35–36.
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- "The First Train Robbery in Texas," Dir. Mark Kaufmann. Prod. Tom Keener and Mark Kaufmann. By Tom Keener. Perf. Craig Erickson. Allen City TV.