The Truth About The Greatest Train Heist In History

The Wilcox Train Robbery was the greatest train heist in the Wild West. Bringing to life the outlaws, manhunts, and shootouts of old western movies, the heist later inspired a memorable scene in the 1969 movie "Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid."

The heist went down on June 2, 1899. According to an article in the Sacramento Daily Union the following day, it took place at 2:15 a.m. in Laramie, a town half a mile west of Wilcox, Wyoming. A group then described as "six masked men" held up a Union Pacific Flyer train. Two of the men threatened Engineer W.H. Jones with guns in the engine cab and demanded he stop the train. The train had just crossed a small bridge, which the masked men threw a stick of dynamite onto in order to collapse it and prevent the second train from crossing over.

Engineers and messengers aboard the train tried to stand up to the gang, but it's hard to stand up to dynamite and billy clubs. The thieves clubbed Jones over the head after he refused to stand by and let them rob the train. They then used dynamite to blow open the train's safe and to loot the express and baggage cars. When the messenger, Woodcock, refused to open the door to let them out, the robbers blew the door open with more dynamite, injuring the messenger in the process. The rest, as they say, is Wild West history.

A notorious gang ran off with a fortune in the Wilcox Train Robbery

The men responsible for the Wilcox Train Robbery escaped, police were dispatched from all directions, and a wild chase on horseback ensued. Rumors flew about who the robbers might be and how much money they made off with. "The shipments of money west are said to have been unusually heavy lately, and from this fact estimates as high as $30,000 have been made to-day," read a Sacramento Daily Union report at the time. "Those who place the amount high do so largely from the fact that a tremendous effort is being made to catch the six men." Despite several shootouts, the police were unsuccessful in capturing the robbers.

The gang made off with roughly $50,000, which is equivalent to $7 million in modern-day currency, as noted by The Telegraph. The Sacramento Daily Union reported that their haul included $10,000 worth of diamonds, and that the gang destroyed a substantial amount of their loot with their own dynamite.

There were three theories about the robbers' identities at the time. One was that the heist was carried out by railroad workers who were working on train grades nearby. Another was that the gang was led by a man named Jack Nolan. And the third was that the men were involved with Butch Cassidy's notorious "Hole in the Wall Gang." The third theory, of course, was true. (Cassidy is pictured above.) And, per The Telegraph, dollar bills with charred corners turned up everywhere from New Mexico to New York in the years that followed.