October 18 – Train holdup at Big Springs!

On this day in 1877 Sam Bass (right) and the Black Hills Bandits robbed the Union Pacific gold train from San Francisco at Big Springs, Nebraska.

It was almost an accident and still ranks as the largest robbery of the Union Pacific, netting Bass and five accomplices $60,000 in $20 gold pieces (more than $1 million today) and another $1,300 in cash and valuable from the passengers.

Bass and the boys, Joel Collins, Jack Davis, Tom Nixon, Bill  Heffridge and Jim Berry, boarded the train at 10:48 on October 17 and interrogated the attendant as to why the safe in the express car wouldn’t open.  They failed to believe him when he told them it was on a timer and could not be opened before reaching the final destination.

After pistol-whipping the employee in frustration, the gang was preparing to leave largely empty-handed when they spied a stack of boxes next to the unyielding safe.  They were full of newly minted gold on its way to an East Coast bank.

Nobody died but the Big Springs station master John Barnhart was captured and  then released.  Eight days later, however Collins and Heffridge met their maker at the hands of  ten soldiers from Fort Hayes, Kansas who were escorting the pair off to jail.   Jim Berry had been wounded in the robbery and died not far from his home in Mexico, Missouri.   Tom Nixon was believed to have returned to his native Canada.  Bass and Davis escaped to rob another day.  

Bass rode south, formed a new gang and by 1878 had robbed several stage coaches and two more trains but none of them yielded the big payoff of the Big Springs heist. 

He managed to elude the Texas Rangers until one of is new confederates, Jim Murphy, (left) was persuaded to turn informer.   Murphy’s seriously ill father was taken into custody by the Rangers and denied  medical treatment until Murphy complied.

On July 19, 1878, Bass and his gang were scouting out the Williamson County Bank in Round Rock, Texas.  Deputy sheriff A.W. Grimes (below) approached the men and asked for their guns.  He was shot on the spot.  In an attempt to escape, Bass was himself shot by either Texas Ranger George Herold or Richard Ware (bottom).  Herold was credited with firing the fatal shot but eye witnesses reported it was in fact Ware.

 Bass was found in a field July 20 by a party of railroad workers who summoned authorities.  He was taken into custody and died the next day, July 21, his 27th birthday.  He is buried at Round Rock.

The handsome young bandit had garnered more public sympathy than many outlaws of the day.  Orphaned at age 10, it appeared he made an attempt to be law abiding for a time but turned to crime after failing as a farmer, a wrangler, teamster, miner and saloon keeper.  Earning a reputation as a Robin Hood of sorts, he paid lavishly for goods and services with other people’s money.  

Several colorful leading men have been cast as the outlaw, including Howard Duff in the 1949 Western “Calamity Jane and Sam Bass” and Chuck Conners in the an episode of the television series “Tales of Wells Fargo.”    

The city of Round Rock,Texas, part of Austin’s metro area, reenacts the famous shootout that killed Sam Bass every July Fourth during the community’s “Frontier Days.” The bandit is buried  in the Round Rock Cemetery, not far from where he was shot. There’s a Sam Bass Road and his original head stone can be found at the Round Rock Library. 

While Bass wasn’t a resident of Round Rock, notorious frontier con man, Soupy Smith was and allegedly witnessed the Bass shooting.  Smith himself, died in a confrontation with members of the Skagway. Alaska “Vigulence Committee” in 1898. 

In addition to the Bass gravesite, nearby Brushy Creek Regional Park is located where the famed Chisholm Trail crossed the creek at the “round rock” and features scenic hiking and picnic areas.  The Palm House Museum in downtown Round Rock is dedicated to preserving the history of the area’s Swedish settlers.  For more information on the Frontier Days reenactment and other locations go to www.roundrocktexas.gov, e-mail info@roundrockchamber.org or call (512) 255-5805.

© Text Only – 2017 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain