Photo by Solomon Butcher
A similar train parked in 1890 near Sargent, Nebraska.
The single biggest train robbery of the Union Pacific railroad happened back in 1877, just 73 miles down the road from North Platte -- in Big Springs. As the Bulletin reported in July, cavalry soldiers from North Platte rushed out to help hunt down the robbers but couldn’t find the thieves, who were led by the notorious Sam Bass.
At the time, Big Springs was just a railroad station, with a few settlers nearby.
The water spring for which the town is named had long been used by Indian tribes, according to Kathy Weiser, a writer on the Legends of America website.
And later, travelers on the Oregon and California trails used the spring water.
The village was named in 1883 as “Lone Tree” because a large cottonwood tree was there, believed to be around 100 years old at the time, serving as a beacon to emigrants, stage coaches and Pony Express riders.
According to Weiser, when Union Pacific built the railroad line, UP established a water station and used the spring water for steam powered locomotives.
The railroad called the stop Big Springs.
Sam Bass was born on an Indiana farm on July 21, 1851.
Orphaned by age 13, Bass lived with an uncle for a short time but ran away at an early age and headed to Texas. He was destined for notoriety.
According to Dallas Morning News article written April 11, 1942, “When it Came to Train Robbery, Sam Bass Stood Out as Master.”
Bass worked as a cowhand on a ranch. He was a teamster and he also tried his hand in horse racing. By the summer of 1876, Bass and a fellow Texas cowboy Joel Collins, made their way to the Big Springs area, driving a herd of cattle to northern markets, Weiser said.
After selling their cattle and making $8,000, the two decided to try gold prospecting and headed for Deadwood, S.D. But, they lost all their money and did not find any gold, so the two cowboys turned to outlawry, Weiser said.
Bass and Collin, along with four new partners, Jack Davis, Tom Nixon, Bill Heffridge and Jim Berry, turned to robbing stage coaches and became known at the "Black Hills Bandits." They held up seven stages, four of which were directed at the Deadwood stage. On March 25, 1877, Bass and his gang tried a fifth and final time to rob the Deadwood Stage. During the robbery, they killed the stage driver, Johnny Slaughter. The gunshot frightened the team of horses pulling the stage and they took off running toward Deadwood.
That was enough for the robbers, according to the Dallas Morning News, and they decided the profits were too thin in stage coach robberies. They turned their attention to the more lucrative business of robbing trains.
The gang made their way to the Big Springs station.
According to Louis A. Holmes, author of Fort McPherson, Nebraska: Guardian of the Tracks and Trails, on Sept. 19, 1877 an urgent telegraph arrived at Fort McPherson notifying the commanding officer that a Union Pacific train had been held up and robbed.
Bass and his Texas outlaws had been hanging out around Ogallala, letting their trail cool after the last attempt at robbing the stagecoach in South Dakota. They made their way to the station at Big Springs. They tied up the station master after forcing him to signal the train to stop, Weisner reported.
When the train stopped, the outlaws boarded the train.
It was 10:48 p.m.
They found $450 in the mail car, then they found a larger safe, but could not get it open. They brutally beat the express messenger in an attempt to get him to open the safe, but the messenger was unable to open it due to a time-lock, which would not open until the time the train was supposed to reach its destination.
The outlaws continued searching the train, however, and they found some wooden boxes, which when they were opened, revealed $60,000 in freshly minted $20 gold pieces. That is roughly equivalent to $4 million today. Then, they robbed the passengers.
The bandits escaped with $60,000 in gold coins, $450 from the mail car safe, and about $1,300 and four gold watches from the passengers, Weisner said.
According to Holmes, a $10,000 award was offered. Soldiers from the North Platte Station, a small military base that protected the railroad, were sent to find the robbers. Troops were unsuccessful in their search and returned to the post several days later.
After the robbery, the gang split up the money six ways beneath the “lone tree” east of Big Springs. They split into pairs, each heading a different direction.
Collins and Heffridge were killed near Buffalo Station (Gove, Kan. today) eight days later. Berry was captured in Mexico, Mo. and died two days later from wounds with $2,840, according to Wikipedia. Nixon disappeared. According to Berry, he had $10,000. He was never seen again. Bass and Davis escaped in a horse buggy, heading south.
They kept their money under the seat and made their way back to Texas, posing as farmers. During the ride to Texas, Davis tried to persuade Bass to go to South America with him, but Bass refused. The two split up and Davis was never seen again.
In Texas, Bass told people that his new found wealth was from a gold strike in the Black Hills.
Soon, Bass formed another gang and started robbing trains across Texas.
In the winter of 1877-1878, Bass and his gang held up two stagecoaches west of Ft. Worth. His first train robbery was in the prairie station of Allen, Texas. After several more train robberies, the governor of Texas appointed June Peak of the Texas Rangers to go after Bass. Pinkerton agents were also on the hunt for the gang.
The downfall of Sam Bass started when his former friend and gang member, Jim Murphy, betrayed him. Murphy warned the Rangers that Bass and his gang were in Round Rock and planned to rob the bank there.
The Rangers set up an ambush in Round Rock.
On July 19, 1878, Bass and his gang went into a store there to buy tobacco. Deputy Sheriff A. W. Grimes saw the men and ordered them to surrender.
Bass shot and killed the deputy.
As Bass tried to escape, Texas Ranger George Herold shot him. Texas Ranger Richard Ware also put another slug in Bass. Bass got on his horse and made it about three miles before he fell off in a pasture.
The Rangers found him a few hours later.
Bass died two days later on July 21, 1878. He was just 27 years old. The Galveston newspaper reported the next day that Bass remained tight-lipped on his death bed.
“He refused to inform on his accomplices, saying that it was against his profession,” the newspaper said.
According to a report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the same day, Sam Bass’s last words were: “This world is but a bubble -- trouble everywhere you go.”
Today, Big Springs is relatively trouble free. It is located near the junctions of I-76 and I-80.
First published in the Bulletin's Oct. 2 print edition.