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Knowing Nevada: The First Train Robbery in the West

A collection of individual photos of those involved in the robbery, victims include. The piece includes a drawing of the Central Pacific Railroad #1. Courtesy: UNR Special Collections.
A collection of individual photos of those involved in the robbery, victims include. The piece includes a drawing of the Central Pacific Railroad #1. Courtesy: UNR Special Collections.
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Hollywood films have a certain depiction of the 'wild west.' Movies featuring Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and Steve McQueen show battles between bandits, buckaroos, Native Americans, and pioneers.

A question I've asked more than once is: was the west as 'wild' as we've been told?

In the mid 1800's, there wasn't as many train robberies reported as you may think. Sure, the stories of famous criminals, such as Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, can be recalled. Yet, robberies either didn't happen as often - or many weren't 'fully' reported.

Central Pacific Train No. 1

In the spring of 1869, the last spike of the First Transcontinental Railroad had been laid in Promontory, Utah. This railway stretched across the western United States - connecting California to Utah for more than 2,000 miles.

The Central Pacific Railroad was the western portion of the FTR which travelled throughout California across Nevada.

Trains had been the 'eye-candy' of bloodthirsty bandits since banks used cargo to exchange gold and silver coin during the gold rush era and the Comstock Lode of Virginia City.

One of the first trains on the track was Central Pacific Train No.1. The train was stationed in Oakland, CA. Federal banking and money exchanges had only been taking place in the country for less than 100 years. In 1852, A famous bank by the name of Wells Fargo was booming out in the San Francisco Bay Area and in parts of Sacramento, CA. According to an article from the Territorial Enterprise, this train was carrying (roughly) $41,800 in $20 gold pieces and $8,800 in silver bars. This was for the payroll to the Comstock mines and the bullion deposit in Nevada banks to cover large commercial drafts.

The Verdi Heist

In the evening of Nov. 4, 1870, a group of five men boarded Central Pacific Train No. 1 as regular passengers. Right before midnight, the train made a stop in Verdi before trekking forward into Reno. One of the men on posing as a passenger was Jack “Smiling Jack” Davis, who worked as a miner and lived in Virginia City. Reports say he was the one leading the charge of the soon to be first train robbery in the west.

It was near the area of Lawton by the Truckee River, at the railroad stop where Woodland Avenue and White Fir street connect today, that Davis and his crew put on their masks, held other passengers at gunpoint, and stopped the train. The bundle of bandits were tying up the railroad workers aboard and collecting thousands of gold and silver from the baggage freight.

The loot was split between the five involved and each jumped off the train, hop on their hitched horses, and departed in all different directions of the Truckee River banks.

This robbery was reported immediately to the Washoe County Sheriff's office and other local authorities. A Territorial Enterprise article released on Nov.5, 1870 says Sheriff Sharley Pegg and Jim Kinkaid began a weeklong search for every member involved in the robbery.

As luck would have it, both the lawmen were able to apprehend the gang in just a few days. They recovered $39,500 dollars of the stolen money.

Some stories say the gang met up at an inn in a valley just 50 miles west of Verdi. All but one of the gang members stayed at the inn. He was later found by Undersheriff Kinkaid by finding boot markings in the snow

As for the justice system of the time, the band of bandits were either sentenced from five to 23 years in the Nevada State Penitentiary.

Where Is the Rest of the Loot?

What happened to the remaining $3,000 that's still missing?

Many say the loot is still being sought after by treasure-hunters and modern-day gold diggers.

Books and articles say a few of the robbers buried their share of stolen goods with plans to dig it up at a later date.

There continues to be speculation that is it buried somewhere along the Truckee River, somewhere near the train tracks, or in the hills of Peavine Mountain. That money would be worth more than a million today, according to historians.

To conclude and answer my aforementioned question: how wild was the west? It was wild for about a week.

So, next time you tune into to watch your favorite spaghetti western, just keep in mind its just a depiction - because in reality, robberies weren't as common as we've been told.

Knowing Nevada is a historical heritage series that highlights some of the interesting, unknown, and known, tales about the state of Nevada. This series is researched and put together by our own native Nevadan, Miles Buergin. If you have any suggestions for our next Knowing Nevada, please e-mail him at:

For more Knowing Nevada stories, click here.

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