Lost Gold of the Overland Express
by Charlene Paul
Stories about Nevada’s past would not be complete without a tale or two about gold, trains, and outlaws. Six miles west of Reno, the Great Train Robbery of 1870 had all of those elements, and has become a bit of a Nevada Urban Legend.
On the 5th of November 1870, news flashed over the wires that the Overland Express heading out of San Francisco toward Virginia City the day before had been held up by masked men near Verdi, about ten miles west of Reno. The men were heavily armed and ended up with over $40,000 in gold. What made this robbery especially eventful was that it was one of the first train robberies in the world. It captured the attention of newspaper reporters on two continents.
Nevada quickly garnered the unsavory credit of being one of the first states in the Union that had outlaws daring and ruthless enough to stop a train and rob it of all its gold. Large rewards of around $30,000 were offered by Washoe County, the State of Nevada, the Central Pacific Railroad Company, and the Wells-Fargo Express Company for anyone who could apprehend the robbers. It didn’t take long before men from far and wide set out to apprehend the outlaws.
The story is told that just as the train pulled away from the Verdi station, five masked men boarded. Two of the robbers climbed aboard the engine room pointing their six-shooters at the engineer and the fireman, and quickly took control of the train. One of the robbers boarded the express car at the front platform while two others boarded it at the back. After the train had gone approximately half a mile east of Verdi, the robbers in the engine room ordered the engineer to give a short blast of the whistle signaling the brakemen to set the brakes. It also signaled the three robbers in the express car to cut the bell rope and pull the pin at the rear of the car. Once the pin was pulled, the engineer was ordered to “give her steam.” When the conductor went to find out why the train had stopped, he discovered that the engine, mail car, and express car were gone.
About four or five miles west of Reno, the engine was stopped by an obstruction placed on the track by the robbers. Once it was stopped, there was a knock on the express car door. When the messenger opened the door, he was met by a double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun. He surrendered without a fight and sat quietly in the corner as the robbers tossed the Wells-Fargo sacks of gold out the side door into the brush. When they were finished, they tipped their hats to the messenger for being so cooperative and not making them kill him, and disappeared into the night.
Once the rest of the train coasted to the spot of the robbery where the engineer and fireman were busy clearing the debris from the tracks, they re-coupled the cars and headed into Reno. The robbery was so quick that the train was only thirty minutes behind schedule.
The sheriff and his undersheriff saddled their horses and rode off for the mountains, expecting to head the robbers off somewhere between Truckee, Carson City, and Virginia City. They had no luck, giving the robbers a day’s head start. Upon returning to Reno, the sheriff learned that detectives from Wells-Fargo and the railroad, as well as a few Reno officials and a posse, had also been unsuccessful.
The hunt continued. Because of a distinctive boot heel print, the posse was able to track down one of the robbers to a farm house. He was a miner from Virginia City with a good reputation. This was his first endeavor as a hold-up man. The lady of the farm house gave the posse a good description of two of the other men, one of which wore a particular pair of boots with a distinctive heel.
In less than four days, the entire gang had been rounded up, arrested, and most of the money was recovered. By Christmas day, they all found themselves in the Nevada State Prison to serve out their sentences, ranging from five to twenty-three years. Once the robbers were sent to prison, the stage-robbing industry in Nevada was nearly wiped out. It is thought that these robbers were the same men who had been involved in every stage-coach hold-up.
All of the loot was recovered, with the exception of 150 twenty-dollar gold pieces. Some of the gold was carried in old boots, but those boots were never found. It could be that one of the outlaws doubled back to retrieve the gold once he was released from prison, but who knows. If you ever find yourself in the middle of nowhere in northern Nevada, keep your eyes peeled for an old boot. At today’s prices, that gold could be worth a half a million dollars.