Trouble on the Tracks
by Nancy Oswald
I have always loved trains and have ridden most of the narrow gauge trains in Colorado at one time or another. I’ve also visited the wonderful train museum in Golden, Colorado, where many old trains can be seen. Some include lavatories where lifting the toilet lid reveals a hole straight down to the tracks below.
The idea for a train robbery, however, came from a newspaper article in The New York Times published March 25, 1895. The title and subtitle of the article read: “Train Robbery in Colorado -- Two of the Masked Robbers Tracked by a Bloodhound, and Captured in a Log Cabin in the Woods.” The train robbery took place on the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad south of Victor, Colorado, a mining town about six miles from Cripple Creek and along the same railroad route.
It didn’t take long for my writer’s mind to start working, and although some of the details were changed to fit Ruby’s story, others remained. For instance, the robbers went through the cars, robbing the passengers “relieving them of $500 and watches.” They also went through the express and baggage cars, and when the Sheriff Bowers (I used his real name without the “s” in the story) tried to track the robbers the “nature of the ground precluded the following of the trail.”
One more fascinating fact jumped out at me from the article. That was the arrival of the Walsenburg bloodhound at noon the next day on a special train. A crowd of 2,000 people followed the dog and the tracker to the cabin where the robbers were caught. The idea of 2,000 people tramping through the woods was a little hard for me to grasp, but I did think it was worth including some “tag-alongs” in the story.
I had fun with some other historical facts. I researched the Pinkerton Detective Agency and discovered that detectives often wore disguises while tracking criminals. This knitted quite nicely with the Sherlock Holmes stories that were originally published one-at-a-time in magazines beginning in 1887. Later these stories were collected into a book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in England and the United States in 1892.
As for the other outlaws and outlaw names in the book, I took a few liberties with the reference to Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. They would not have been well known until the late 1890s or early 1900s. In fact, in 1896, Cassidy had just been released from jail for some of his earlier robberies. The gang itself, which often changed members, had not yet become notorious train robbers.
The Bassett Sisters, too, are historical figures. They lived on a ranch in northwestern Colorado and were known to assist Cassidy and his gang by providing food and fresh horses. It is said they had love interests with some of the gang members and occasionally they rode with them. Harvey Logan, also known as Kid Curry, is also a historical figure. He was photographed with the Wild Bunch and, as Ruby mentioned in the story, he had a hideout west of Canon City This hideout was documented by Bruce Lamb in his book The Kid Curry Story. Unlike Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who maintained they had never killed anyone, Logan was known to have killed at least nine lawmen and was chased across the country by the Pinkertons and others. He was killed in eastern Colorado after a train robbery there.
The final bit of history, I’d like to comment on is the Cripple Creek fires of 1896. There were two in less than a week’s time. The first one was on Saturday, April 26, 1896, and the second one was four days later on April 30. Together, these fires gutted the downtown area, leaving the people without food, water, housing, and other necessities. At that time, the population of Cripple Creek and surrounding areas was estimated at 30,000 people with about 16,000 of those living in Cripple Creek. Tents, clothing, food, and blankets came from all over the state on relief trains. Myron Stratton, one of Cripple Creek’s first millionaires, paid for at least one of the trains. In the first fire, 3,000 people became homeless. This numbered doubled by the end of the second fire.
The school where Ruby “volunteered” was arranged as stated in the fictional story with tents outside for the men and a community dining room set up in the basement. Desks were removed in the upstairs part of the school to make sleeping quarters for the women and children. Many more tents were set up around the town and used as dormitories and kitchens. One huge tent, called a tabernacle tent, housed several hundred people.
Because of these two fires, Cripple Creek citizens changed their building code. No downtown buildings could be built of wood—only bricks could be used. It is said the town returned to normal in “record time.” The first permanent building on Bennett Avenue was built by May 5, less than two weeks after the first fire, and it is true there was a parrot in the Midland Terminal station that screeched, “Burned out. Burned out. Polly burned out.”
The Midland Terminal Depot was used to house prisoners temporarily after the fires while a new jail was being built. Historical accounts tell us that during the first fire, the jailer opened the doors of the “lockup” and released twenty prisoners in order to save them. Probably anyone jailed during the second fire would have already been in the basement of the train depot. But learning about the prisoner release, gave me a good excuse to turn Jake Hawker loose and set him to work causing problems for Ruby and Maude.
As a writer of historical fiction, I enjoy learning about the setting and history of the places where my characters live. As for Trouble, she is based on my experiences with the many cats that have lived on our family ranch. More than once I have had a cat pattering along behind me on short walks, and one cat in particular hiked with me for longer distances. Beyond the historical facts noted here, the story is invented.
Click to return to previous page