Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Most westerns are set in what I call the Mid-west- Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico. I live in the West- Oregon. You can’t get much more west in the continental U.S. than along the Pacific Ocean. LOL
While the “mid-west” did have some colorful outlaws and lawmen, the real west “Oregon” wasn’t without its own troublemakers.
Wherever there are gold mines, trains, and stage coaches there are bound to be men who thought it was a whole lot easier to rob than do an honest day’s work. There were daily notices in the newspapers of stage coach hold ups. Shipments of $5000 - $10,000 in gold was not uncommon on the run from Sacramento, CA to Portland, OR. This was tempting to the lawless population. And many “withdrawls” were made along that route particularly in the Siskiyous where the stage stations were farther apart and lawmen were few. Masked robbers stepped out from behind trees or boulders when the heavy wagons lumbered up a grade. The driver would concentrate on keeping the stopped vehicle from rolling backwards while the robber called to have the express box and mail sacks thrown down. The drivers complied because their hands were full. When the box and mail hit the ground the robber ordered the driver to keep going. All of this took less than a minute.
A brazen road agent would also rob the passengers of money and valuables. The most famous stage robber in the Siskiyous was Mr. Charles E. Boles- Black Bart. He robbed 28 stages from 1875-1883 He’d stop the stages and proclaim, “Please throw down the box”. Black Bart was courteous and dapper. He was the nemesis of Wells Fargo.
Train robberies became the new “stage holdups” in the late 1880’s. The robbers went for the express car which carried gold, valuables, and money. They usually boarded when the train was crawling up a grade. They jump on the platform in the front of the windowless express car, just behind the tender. The space was known as “blind baggage” because it couldn’t be seen from the engine or the express car. From this spot, the robber would climb over the tender and draw a gun on the engineer and fireman. The train would be stopped and the outlaws could take what they wanted from the express car. If they were greedy, they’d also walk the cars taking valuables from the passengers. Only the most brazen and desperate would rob trains. It was dangerous and tough. One robbery where the outlaw’s used dynamite to not only stop the train but frighten the passengers by setting it off every few minutes as a hold up man went through the cars collecting valuables, the local law used CSI type tactics to find the road agents. They made drawings of boot marks, an unusual horse shoe print, and a drawing of one of the robbers whose scarf had slipped. They followed the tracks to a camp where they collected gray horse hair, sacking, and twine that they later matched to materials in the suspect’s family home.
One of the Northwest’s most colorful badmen was Hank Vaughn. He was in the ranks of Hickok, Hardin, and Bonney . He liked to shoot, had a quick temper, and a quirky sense of right and wrong. His first gunfight was in Canyon City in 1864 at the age of fifteen. It happened while the two were drunk and in the lawless gold town no charges were ever brought. The next year while rustling horses, he shot a deputy and wounded a sheriff. He went to jail and was released with a new profession. He plied that trade for a few years then fell back into a disreputable life again, stealing horses and reselling them. He was fast with a gun and got into trouble because of his temper and his drinking. He was a small man who dressed like a clergyman or gambler and he was never without his gun. He loved jewelry and wore several rings and a gold chain. He’d ride horses into saloons, shooting his gun damaging lights, glasses and whatever he felt like. As you can figure he wasn’t welcome in those establishments. When he wasn’t drinking he was peaceful and law-abiding. In 1882 Hank came up against a similar gunman in Prineville.OR. They were gambling, drinking and conversing until they riled one another and they agreed to a fight to the finish. Each took hold of one end of a scarf. They pulled out their guns and in the middle of the saloon started shooting at each other. Every shot hit their target. They were both wounded several times. When word got back to Hank’s stomping grounds that he’d been shot in the chest, the people celebrated. Unfortunately he recovered. And when Hank returned and read a story about him being measured for a “shroud and plank coat” he ran the newspaper man who wrote the story out of the office. When Hank was drinking he liked to make strangers “dance”. If the man didn’t of his own free will, Hank would shoot close to the man’s feet. One time a “stranger” took exception and shot back, wounding Hank in his right arm and punctured a lung. In the end, his own recklessness killed him. He raced his horse down the main street of town and it stumbled, falling and landing on the most colorful fast draw in Oregon history.
This has gone on long enough, In my next blog, I’ll tell you about a bank hold up that happened in my neck of the woods and to this day is reenacted every summer for tourists.
And this is why my books are set in the Pacific Northwest, the colorful characters, the vastness of climates and topographical areas and I enjoy sharing “my” west with readers.
My resource was ”Oregon Outlaws- Tales of Old-Time Desperadoes” by Gary and Gloria Meier.