STAGECOACH ROBBERY — “Halt! Your money or your life!”

1880's poster advertising daily stage service to Aurora and Bodie

The stage stopped in front of the stone toll-house at Sunshine Station. No need to change horses yet. Nate greeted old Mr. Blanchard, bearded and almost toothless as he smiled and joked and collected the toll.

     “Any word ‘bout the road agents who held up the stage last week?” Nate asked.

     Mr. Blanchard shook his head. “Nary a sign of ‘em,” he said.

     “Probably moved on,” said Nate. “I heard there was another robbery yesterday down by Hawthorne. Could’a been the same bandits.”  

The Second Promise, Chapter 4.

Nate Young, the stagecoach driver, or “Jehu”, is a fictional character, but Hank Blanchard was real. In the 1880’s and 1890’s he owned and operated the toll road which ran from Bodie to the Nevada state line. Mr. Blanchard collected tolls at Half Way House (about half way between Bodie and Aurora), also known as Sunshine Station.

Ruins of Sunshine Station, near the Nevada state line on the Bodie Road

Mr. Blanchard is long gone, of course, but the dirt road’s still there, and so are the ruins of a stone house, said to be Sunshine Station. The road follows Bodie Creek, and close to Bodie, the remains of long-abandoned mines can still be seen on the harsh gray gravel hillsides.

Old mine workings on the Bodie-Aurora Road

Even though the Bodie road heads more or less easterly to Aurora, it was the fastest way to reach San Francisco. You’d travel by stagecoach to Aurora, another stagecoach to Carson City, board the Virginia and Truckee Rail Road, and meet the transcontinental Central Pacific train at Reno. During Bodie’s heyday, two or three stagecoaches left in each direction every day.

Stagecoach robberies were common, especially when the stock market crashed and men were laid off.  On the Bodie Road past Sunshine station, the road curves through Bodie Canyon, flanked on both sides by steep red-rock cliffs. In fact, old-timers reported that robberies were so frequent that the stage horses would stop of their own accord when they reached Bodie Canyon, waiting for a holdup to take place!

Bodie Stage, probably at Bodie Canyon

Most stagecoach holdups did not result in injury to the driver or passenger. The bandit was interested in a quick, easily-carried haul, so he could disappear before any other travelers appeared. He was armed and usually masked with a bandana; once the passengers were out of the coach, he’d order them to deposit all their money, watches, and jewelry into his hat. Unless the coach carried a “treasure box”, there was no armed guard.

Two stages near Yosemite, courtesy William B. Secrest

Here are a couple of stories from William B. Secrest’s fascinating book, The Great Yosemite Hold-Ups (Saga-West Pub. Co, Fresno, 1968.) Secrest mined the newspapers of the time, which relished (and perhaps embellished) the details of stagecoach robberies and the posses who pursued the bandits.

How “The Black Kid” robbed five vehicles and two United States cavalrymen.

In May, 1900, driver A.H. Foster pulled his stagecoach out of Raymond, south of Mariposa, California, taking a party of stone-cutters up to the big trees in Yosemite.  At a sandy stretch of road, a lone man with a shotgun stepped out from behind a tree and told Foster to pull the coach out of sight. The outlaw had blackened his face with soot or charcoal under his mask, and tried to disguise his voice.

The quarrymen were lined up and asked to put their valuables in the outlaw’s hat. The reporter commented: “Adhering to a time-honored custom, the driver of the stage was not robbed.”  Foster sat on his perch. The robber said they had to wait for other stages. Foster suggested a drink while they waited, so they all drank some beer. It got hot on the stage, so Foster asked if he could sit under a tree. The robber granted permission and gave Foster his card, “in case we ever meet again.” His name, in crude printing: “The Black Kid”.

A freight wagon and wood team arrived, and this time the drivers were robbed and directed to stand in line with the quarrymen. (I guess time-honored custom didn’t apply where there were no other passengers to rob).  

Next: two soldiers riding ahead of a troop of cavalry on the way to Yosemite. The bandit waved his shotgun, and they dismounted and dropped their weapons.

Next: a stage full of tourists, driven by Bright Gillespie. The bandit, cool and polite,  passed the hat, which quickly filled with money. He declined to take a watch or a woman’s purse, and allowed the passengers to keep some money for themselves. They stood around joking about their situation.

Next: another stage, driven by Ernest Stevens, with 15 or 16 Chinese passengers. They didn’t speak English, but the shotgun needed no translator. The bandit collected $225 from them. He tried and failed to open the Wells Fargo box. (I don’t know why there was no armed guard on this stage.)

Apparently satisfied with the robbery of five vehicles, “The Black Kid” finally allowed everyone to go, but he put the soldiers in a stage and two passengers on their horses. Foster’s stage headed out, and the soldiers’ horses bolted back down the road to their  troop of 6th United States cavalry, only 300 yards from the hold-up site.

Major Percher was in charge of the cavalry troop. When  he finally realized what was happening, he galloped forward to the site of the robberies. The bandit was gone, the soldiers were gone, confusion reigned, and in the end, the cavalry scrambled to chase the bandit. They found his camp, but never found him.

Hold-up Photographed by Austrian Consul.

Anton Veith, the Austrian consul with a camera

On August, 15, 1905, Anton Veith was Austrian consul and the editor of an agricultural newspaper, on his way to Yosemite from Raymond in an open tourist coach. Veith carried a camera, protected from dust. Fellow passengers included two blacksmiths, an Austrian companion, and women, uncomfortable in linen dusters.

Tourist stage leaving Raymond on the way to Yosemite. Photo by Anton Veith.

Veith was awakened from a doze by the command, “Get down!” by a masked figure in a battered felt hat and ragged duster, carrying both a rifle and a pistol. The bandit made the men get off, robbed the pockets of the two Austrians, and turned to the stage and the women. In an apparent show of class solidarity, he did not rob the driver or the two blacksmiths.

Veith politely asked whether he could photograph the robber with the stage,  permission was granted, and Veith was allowed to retrieve his camera from the stage. The outlaw posed, the picture was taken, the men got back into the stage, and the robber waved as the stage went on its way. Although there are several “posed” photos of stagecoach holdups, this is the only known photo of the real thing.

Anton Veith's photo of the hold-up of his tourist stage to Yosemite, August, 1905. The robber is in the background, wearing a white duster

After awhile Farnsworth, the driver, turned the stage around and went back to Raymond to report the robbery. Interviewed later, Anton Veith said the robber was a gentleman. He had even left Veith’s rosary on the road for him, hanging on a bush.

Today, the Bodie-Aurora road is a rocky dirt track, often interrupted by fallen boulders and deep puddles. The header picture, by Paul Abernathy, shows a cabin in Bodie today. The road to Aurora is at the far bottom right.

These days, well-off adventure travelers choose to explore exotic wild places, often in third world countries. Those vacations, less comfortable and predictable than a bus tour or a cruise, are still carefully organized and seldom dangerous. But in 1883, stagecoach driver Nate Young and his passengers, who were just trying to get to the train, were at real risk for robbery on the Bodie-Aurora Road.

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10 Responses to STAGECOACH ROBBERY — “Halt! Your money or your life!”

  1. Loved your post today. I was given the link by a mutual friend and she knows I love historical western novels. Today’s post was particularly interesting as I just finished a novel entitled, Odessa, and there is a stage robbery in the story. Thanks for such insightful information.

  2. Terri says:

    Do you know of a story about three guys who held up a stagecoach that had a few gold bars on it, and hid them in the hills somewhere in the Bodie area? I don’t remember the rest of the story, except that I think one guy was killed, one was captured and one got away, and the gold is still in the hills somewhere. I have heard the story a couple of times, but I don’t know where to find an official version. I’m writing a children’s book and am looking for that story to put in it.

    Thanks!

    • Kathleen says:

      Terri, I hadn’t heard that story, but it’s a good one. Not sure there’s any “official” record of stagecoach robberies. So much about Bodie was the stuff of legend.
      I looked in Larry Poag’s “Guide to Shopkeepers and Shootists of Bodie”, but I think that focused on crimes right in the town. (They are organized by a town map.)
      There was another book about gunslingers I saw in a used book store in Jackson, CA, but I didn’t buy it and have regretted that ever since. Don’t know whether it focused on stage robberies.
      Keep looking! Lots of people have been fascinated by these robberies, and take their info from the newspapers of the time. So what if those journalists exaggerated? There was probably a kernel of truth in there somewhere.

      Check with your public library. You may be able to access old newspapers online through a service not generally available to private parties.

      The Second Promise includes the legend that at Bodie Canyon, on the way from Bodie to Aurora, the stagecoach horses had been held up so often that they would stop on their own whether or not a “road agent” stepped into the road. Don’t know if it’s true, but I liked it so I included it. If you’ve heard the legend of the lost gold, go for it!

      Kathleen

      • Terri says:

        More than a year later, I see this reply. Lol.
        I did include the story in my book. Whether or not it’s true, it makes for good lore.
        I’m now sending my book to an editor!
        Thanks!
        Terri

  3. dave says:

    Has a stagecoach ever out ran the robbers like they do on television westerns

  4. T.J Raines says:

    This story was told to me, some years ago, by an old man, in his late 90s.
    He stated, as a very young fellow, growing up in Bodie, California, he
    remembered hearing everyone talking about Jim Cains bank, being robbed,
    he thought it was sometime around 1894.
    Two brothers Emiliano & Gregoria Morales, got away with $20,000. in gold,
    and fled to a cabin, in the Lundy Mountains, some 20 miles away.
    A quickly organized posse, trailed the brothers to the cabin, and a shoot-out
    occurred. Both brothers were killed, and one posse member was severely
    wounded. A search was conducted inside & outside, of the cabin, but
    according to the old timer, the gold was never found.
    With Metal Detection equipment, of today, this $20,000. in gold, could very
    well be found.

  5. Sue says:

    Re: Sunshine Station in Mineral County, Nevada

    Hank Blanchard never owned Sunshine Station. Mr. Blanchard’s toll house that served his Bodie to State Line Toll Road was located inside California from the State line. In the mid-1890’s, the USGS surveyors who ran the “oblique boundary” lines to finally established the line between California and Nevada, determined that Sunshine Station was some 200 yards inside Nevada on the Aurora and Bodie Road. This history of Sunshine Station and its owners was included in Mineral County Nevada, An historical perspective series, Vol. 3-Early Transportation: Stagecoach, Steamboat and Narrow Gauge Rail which was published in 2011. I researched and wrote the then-4 volume set on behalf of the Museum Associates of Mineral County for the benefit of the Mineral County Museum. As the book you were writing was to be part fiction, you may not find any of this of interest. If you do want to know more, all of the series of books is available at Amazon.com.

    Sue Silver

    • Sue, many thanks for this information. I was unaware of your Mineral County historical series, but will certainly check it out. Indeed, this confirms my conclusion that most of the popular books about Bodie are half true at best. Yes, my story is fictional, and I’m willing to stray from the truth, but very often the actual facts are better than the popular gloss.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Todd Davis!
    The above story, on Bodie California, (Jim Cains Bank Robbery)
    By T. J. Raines.
    I’am not for sure, but I knew of a Western Film Star, during the
    days of the Silver Screen Cowboys, who went by the name
    T. J. Raines, if that’s you, (You Are A Legend), “Wow” “Wow”,
    I know you started acting, when you were 6 years old,
    sometime around 1951.
    I first saw you on a TV show, called Sky King, then on to film
    many Western’s
    I worked at Corriganville Movie Ranch, Simi Valley Calif.,
    as a camera man.
    You Must be the last, of the Silver Screen Cowboys left, their
    all gone.

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