Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s last train robbery was a dynamiting doozy
(Missoula Current) It was the last of the great Missoula-area train robberies. Dynamite (and lots of it) was used.
Just before midnight on the night of May 27, 1905 the eastbound North Coast Limited (Northern Pacific) was flagged down and boarded at Bearmouth by “three men ... with revolvers.”
The engineer was hit over the head and the crew “was ordered to cut the express and baggage cars from the train. (The cars) were run a mile up the track and dynamited.”
The robbery occurred in the same area as a hold-up a year earlier. It was apparently an ideal spot for such deeds, with “timber-covered mountains coming down on either side of the canyon so it makes tracking almost impossible.”
Initial newspaper reports told of three men being involved. “One of the three guarded the coaches that had been left behind ... until the sound of the explosion told the passengers that the express car was being looted.” That man then stepped off the coach and disappeared into the darkness.
By the next day, those reports were discounted, in favor of a single gunman. The robber had ordered the train fireman to walk back to the coaches which had been uncoupled from the engine, and “remain there if he valued his life.”
The engineer, George Wilson, was forced at gunpoint to “rap on the door of the express car” and induce the messenger to some out.
The bandit then proceeded to demonstrate his skills (or lack of) with dynamite.
“Four sticks of dynamite were first fired but with little effect. Then a second charge of six sticks and later a third one of sixteen were ignited, the latter blowing open the big overland safe and shattering the car, throwing splinters in all directions.”
As the robber turned his attention to the booty from the safe, Engineer Wilson and Express-man George Laub exchanged signals and overpowered the desperado.
The bandit, once jailed, “refused to reveal his identity,” but insisted he worked alone. Many folks disagreed, theorizing there had to be two or three suspects, given the weight of the dynamite carried to the scene, and other factors.
Meantime Engineer Wilson and Express Messenger Laub were the heroes of the day. Wilson’s friends told reporters, “a man who could run a train into Missoula even when his skull is fractured has grit enough to carry him through any emergency.”
The Northern Pacific Railroad quickly dispatched $1,000 as a reward to the engineer and express messenger for “saving the train from being looted.”
A few days after the robbery, railroad detectives identified the suspect as Clarence A. Young, age 24, “a lumberjack well known throughout Missoula County.
Young was tried and sentenced to 50 years in the state penitentiary. He claimed all his troubles stemmed from alcohol.
The Fergus County Argus newspaper in Lewistown quoted Young as admitting, “While drinking one day, I had the notion I could successfully hold up a train.”
The newspaper called it “a temperance lesson for young men,” adding “Young is not such a bad fellow. He did not want to take a human life. Had be been more desperate and experienced, he would have succeeded in his undertaking.”
They concluded, “He was weak in the belfry.”
Meantime, the Northern Pacific Railroad honored George Laub, the express messenger, by naming a small station 20 miles east of Missoula after him.
“At that point is displayed a big sign bearing the name ‘Laub’ which may be seen for some distance by all east and west bound trains.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.