Having fun with my father T. J. O’Donnell, after he, I and my brother, Ottomar, were in a train hold-up at Sawmill curve on the West side of Marshall Pass (elevation 10,856 ft. 240 miles from Denver) on Sunday morning, July 13th 1902.
When I must have been 14 years old, we left Denver one Saturday night, Dad, my brother and I, on NO. 315 of the Denver & Rio Grande and in the morning changed to the narrow gauge at Salida. I think we probably had breakfast in the narrow gauge Pullman. At that time, I think the upper berths were still in it, although it was used as a parlor car. In any event, in those early days, the porter served breakfast to the parlor car or Pullman passengers.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and as we got up on the pass, my brother and I sat up on the back platform, it was an open platform, no vestibule, no observation car railing or anything of that sort and chatted with tourists who were marveling at the beauties of the trip. Suddenly, the train stopped at and unexpected place, and I was sitting on a lower step of that open back platform and in a moment or two heard a shot. I looked out and could see the engine and several men there with masks and carrying rifles. Just at that moment, one of the bandits clubbed his rifle, struck the engineer, who had descended to the right-of-way, over the head, and as people looked out over the sides of the cars, they fired a warning shot or two, to keep us inside of the cars.
After this clubbing, the engineer was out of commission and he died some days later. The fireman, under the robber’s direction, uncoupled the express car from the train and proceeded perhaps 25 or 30 yards down the track, where the robbers blew up the express company safe, partially demolishing the express car.
After that, the robbers sent the brakemen through the train to herd us all out on the track, and they stood on each side of the train so no one could get out. My father took what money he had except a $5.00 bill and some change and his gold watch and chain, and we shoved it under the Pullman seat. He took from either my brother or me a dollar Ingersoll watch with a steel chain, as I remember it, and wore that in lieu of his regular watch. For the same reason, he kept $5.00 and a little change in his pocket.
We went out on the curve and all lined up and a man walked behind the brakeman who carried a sample sack and we all made contributions as the collection party went along. I remember distinctly that my brother had a dime and I had two dimes and the robber’s remark was that every little bit helped.
Some woman was worrying about her pocketbook. My father scraped a hole with his toe in the right-of-way, and we dropped her pocketbook in that hole, kicked some dust over it and stood on it while the robbers went by. We were later able to restore her pocketbook to her.
The robbers disappeared in the brush, the train was connected to go again, tore off the broken part of the express car, left it there, and proceeded to Sargents, where a posse was organized. The engine tuned around on a Y and picked up the parlor car for use by the posse.
I went back with my father and the posse to the scene of the crime, and we scurried around the brush, I proudly carried my .22 rifle which, after the robbers had gone, I removed from my suitcase, my father not permitting its removal until after the danger of retaliation on the part of the robbers was past.
As I said before, this was a Sunday morning, and we always believed that the bandits held up the train on the theory that the express car would have a lot of cash, probably the payroll for our mine at Lake City, the Hidden Treasure. They were fooled, because the banks did not ship money on Saturday nights, and their net gain was negligible. They killed the engineer, and for a long time I had a copy of a bulletin that was posted all over the country after this robbery, with a reward offered, but the robbers were never found.
Incidentally, we stopped shipping currency after that robbery. We made an arrangement with the Merchants & Miners Bank in Lake City, a Thatcher bank, to cash our checks drawn on a Denver bank – probably the Denver National – almost certainly so, because Dennis Sullivan had an interest in the mine, and the local bank cashed the checks at our expense.
(Canton O’Donnell was a well know lawyer in Denver at the time of the robbery and this cartoon was done by Spencer and ran in “The Denver Republican”, published 1882-1913.)