The Case of The Vanishing Train Robbers

Excerpt from “Arizoniana” by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.

On the evening of April 27, 1887, southern Arizona’s only passenger train, the Sunset Express, was making its run toward Tucson. The train was a few minutes behind sched­ule, so the engineer gave her a little more steam to make up time. About 20 miles east of Tucson, the yellow streak from the headlight picked up a figure standing on the track waving a red lantern. About that same time, the big drive wheels ran over a torpedo. The bomb-like blast served as a warning of trouble on the line. He slammed on the brakes and stopped just before crashing into some upraised railroad ties jammed between the tracks.

Out of the darkness, rifle shots cracked and several holes suddenly appeared in the engine’s boiler. Two masked men appeared beside the locomotive and ordered the engineer, Colonel Bill Harper, to step down off the train. They took him back to the express car and told him to have the Wells Fargo express messenger open the safe then unlock the door and get out.

“Or what?” The stubborn engineer asked.

“Or we blow it up,” one of the bandits replied, holding up a stick of dynamite.

RailroadInside the express car, messenger J.E. Smith heard the conversation and unlocked the safe. Then he removed $5,000, took it over to the cold, potbellied stove, lifted the lid and stuffed it in. The money safely hidden, the resourceful messenger unlocked the door and jumped out.

The robbers, members of the Doc Smart gang, found only a few scattered bills in the safe. Disappointed, they took their meager haul and after a few hurried instructions on how to run a locomotive from engineer Harper, climbed aboard and headed towards Tucson.

Later that night, in Tucson, when the Sunset Express failed to show, a relief train was sent out to search. About 15 miles east of Tucson, they discovered the abandoned steam engine and its ransacked express and mail cars. A few miles further on down the track, they found the anxious crew waiting by the passenger cars.

The next day a posse, led by Papago Indian trackers, went to where the engine was found to pick up the trail of Doc Smart and his desperados. They searched in vain but found no tracks. It was as if the gang had vanished into thin air.

Clever fellows, those outlaws, except they didn’t get much loot since J. E. Smith had so cleverly hidden the money in the stove. The newspapers made a big deal out of it and Smith was a local celebrity for a spell.

On August 10, the Doc Smart gang struck again. Same train; same location; same operendus; and the same mes­senger, J. E. Smith.

This time the train didn’t stop in time and the engine jumped the tracks and flipped over on its side on the edge of a steep embankment. Out of the darkness, the outlaws opened fire. One bullet passed under the nose of fireman R. T. Bradford, burning off part of his mustache. Engineer Jim Guthrie hopped out of the prostrate locomotive and tumbled over a steep bluff, landing in the top of a mesquite tree.

Doc and the boys weren’t taking any chances this time. A stick of dynamite blew open the door of the express car. Inside was their old adversary, J. E. Smith. One of the robbers pointed the business end of his Colt .45 at the messenger and hissed, “Smitty, that stove racket don’t go this time.”

The gang got away with $3,000 that time and while lawmen scoured the Arizona country Doc Smart and the boys were livin’ it up in Texas.

Things went so well the last time, two of the outlaws decided to rob the Southern Pacific outside El Paso, a couple of months later. Ironically, J. E. Smith was in the express car again. By now the feisty messenger was getting tired of getting heisted. This time he greeted the train robbers with his guns blazing. In a few brief but furious moments, outlaws Kid Smith (no relation) and Dick Meyers were laid out stone cold on the ground.

Smart detective work enabled lawmen in El Paso to locate the boarding house where the two outlaws were staying. Soon they rounded up the rest of the gang including the notorious Doc Smart.

Doc Smart was given a life sentence for his part in the three train robberies. Somehow he got his hands on a sixshooter and tried to commit suicide. Doc fired three slugs into his head but the soft lead collided with his hard head and couldn’t penetrate. Doc Smart got nothing for his efforts except a severe headache.

It wasn’t until several months later, after Doc Smart and his gang were captured at El Paso, that investigators learned what happened at the robbery east of Tucson. It was really quite simple. The outlaws merely rode the locomotive into the outskirts of town, then put the ol’ iron-belly into reverse and sent it eastbound. The perforated boiler ran out of steam about ten miles down the track and that’s where it was found—with no tell-tale tracks to follow.


  1. SaraD says

    “…outlaws Kid Smith (no relation) and Dick Meyers were laid out stone cold on the ground.”

    Except for that part, the words “Alias Smith and Jones” come to mind.

    I love this story.

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