Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Masked robbers hit passenger train in Blue Mountains

Eastern Oregon was all a-twitter in July of 1914 when a gang of thieves held up the passengers and crew of the No. 5 passenger train between Kamela and Meacham. One of the robbers was killed and a deputy sheriff was wounded during the holdup, but no other injuries were reported and the loot was returned to the penny.

Three men boarded the train at Kamela around 1 a.m. July 2 and first rounded up the train crew, leaving them under guard by one of their number before the remaining robbers looted the express car. The men then proceeded to wake up the slumbering passengers, demanding money and valuables. Deputy Sheriff George McDuffee of Heppner was on the train, returning from testifying in a case in Canyon City. When he realized that a robbery was taking place, he waited until the two masked men passed him by and then leapt up and started shooting, hitting the leader and killing him. Another of the robbers returned fire, and McDuffee would have been killed had not a brass pencil case in his chest pocket deflected the bullet. As it was, the bullet grazed him and he ended up in the hospital for a week.

The second robber jumped out of the train and summoned his remaining accomplice, and the two took off for the timber. No. 5 continued on to Pendleton, where a pair of deputy sheriffs and Chief of Police John Kearney returned to the scene of the crime to begin a manhunt that eventually involved bloodhounds from the Walla Walla Penitentiary, special agents from the railroad and law enforcement officers from Pendleton to La Grande. A $1,000 reward was posted for each of the escaped fugitives.

The identity of the dead bandit was much in contention for days after the robbery. Originally he was identified as Hugh Whitney, a notorious bandit who had plagued Idaho, Montana and Wyoming for years with his brother. A Wyoming man eventually identified the dead man as Charley Manning, his brother-in-law and a friend of Whitney.

The two escaped robbers were caught at Hilgard three days later and brought to Pendleton, where they were lodged in the jail. Clarence Stoner and Albert Meadors willingly confessed to the entire robbery, and led law enforcement to several caches in the Blue Mountains where the loot from the robbery was stashed. Every item that was stolen during the hold-up was returned to its owner. During questioning Stoner claimed that they only joined with Manning for the robbery on the condition that no one would get shot.

It turns out the bandits thought they were holding up the fast mail train and not the passenger train; they were unaware that the westbound fast mail was only known as No. 5 until it reached Huntington, where it changed to the No. 9 train. The total take during the robbery was only about $1,500, and most of that was in vouchers and drafts that the robbers could not have redeemed themselves. The rest was jewelry and around $50 cash.

Passengers from the train inundated the sheriff’s office with claims for money they were relieved of during the robbery, but the claims far exceeded the actual cash recovered. There was also a squabble among the La Grande trackers who brought in the surviving bandits for the reward money.

Manning’s body was returned to his family in Wyoming; he left behind a wife and four children. Stoner and Meadors were held at the county jail until the grand jury convened in September, when they were sentenced to 13 years in the state penitentiary in Salem. “We have been treated mighty square ever since we were arrested both by the officers and newspapers and I want to say we appreciate it,” said Stoner as they departed on the No. 17 train in the custody of Sheriff Til Taylor.

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