Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sam Bass / Texas' First Train Robbery

texas flag
While visiting the Dallas Texas area, there is some unique old west history that might be of interest to the traveling history buff. One such old west story involves Allen Texas. 

The history of Allen Texas is all about the railroad. Named after Ebenezer Allen, a railroad promoter and former Texas Attorney General, the town was essentially a water stop for the new Houston and Central Texas Railroad. The town which today is a northern suburb of Dallas and part of the huge Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex was just a very small town in the 1870's. The town actually saw it's boom days during the latter part of the 1900's. In 1960, Allen had about 625 residents. It's population jumped from 1,940 to 8,314 between 1970 and 1980, mainly due to the economic growth of Dallas. In the year 2000, Allen had grown to over 40,000. By 2007, the population had nearly doubled. 

The railroad, and the reason for Allen's founding, was built in 1872 and was then a major transportation link into Texas. The rail line had it's earlier start as the Galveston and Red River Railroad. The ports of Houston and Galveston were extremely busy and was the natural location for the railroad terminus. The original owners of the H&TC had it for only a short time. In 1883 the line was taken over by the Southern Pacific. This was when the H&TC was sold to Charles Morgan in March 1877 and came under Southern Pacific control when that company took over the Morgan interests in 1883.
outlaw sam bass
Sam Bass, Wikipedia

The big claim to fame for Sam Bass, one of the more famous train robbers and Texas outlaws of his day, was the robbery of the Union Pacific gold train in Big Springs Nebraska. After capturing the station agent and destroying the telegraph, Sam Bass and five companions stopped the Union Pacific express train. He and his gang reportedly took some $60,000 in this robbery alone. This kind of stolen loot made Sam Bass one of the great train robbers. The stolen money was in $20 gold pieces freshly minted at the San Francisco Mint. This was an absolutely  huge amount of money in that era. The story of the robbery is that the gang initially found only about $450 but just before leaving they came across the crates of gold pieces. The robbery turned violent when the gang pistol whipped a freight agent on the Union Pacific train.  

History states that this was and still stands as the largest Union Pacific robbery to ever occur. This type of heist made Sam Bass one of the great train robbers and in the sights of the country's lawmen. What's also interesting is that the Nebraska train robbery netting this huge amount of money was the gang's first train holdup.

On February 22, 1878 a gang of Texas outlaws headed by Sam Bass again made history of a sort. The gang rode up to Allen Texas to ascertain whether there was anything of value around to rob. They decided that the train through Allen was a good target. After the Nebraska train robbery it seemed that trains could be very rewarding. The Houston and Central Texas railroad was robbed. The entire train was pillaged. The brazen robbery stunned the community. Interestingly enough, the tale is that Sam Bass in the beginning was a businessman. At various times Bass worked as a teamster, cowboy, farmer and saloon owner. 

His business failures are what historians claim turned him into a train robber. To show you the brazenness of Bass' crime sprees, in the year 1878, Bass and his gang held up no less than two stagecoaches and four trains within 25 miles of Dallas Texas. You can imagine how high up on the Texas Ranger wanted list Bass was. Supposedly the largest amount taken from these robberies in Texas was only $500. Far smaller than the large take from the Big Springs Nebraska robbery.


jesse and frank jamesWhat sometimes happens with outlaws of the old west is that their legacies become embellished. This was true with Jessie James, Butch Cassidy and to some extent with the Confederate renegade William Quantrill. Even though people were robbed, injured and even killed, a sort of Robin Hood characterization took hold. The public's imagination grew. This of course was fiction often advanced by the press and authors of old west dime novels. In the case of Sam bass there was even a ballad written entitled "The Ballad of Sam Bass". There is absolutely no evidence that Sam Bass and his gang were nothing more than a criminal gang. The image at right is of the train robbers Frank and Jesse James.


Sam Bass met his end in Round Rock Texas. Round Rock is just a short drive north of Austin Texas, the state capitol. Bass' plan was to stage a robbery of the Williamson County Bank in Round Rock. The only problem was that one of his gang members turned informant. When the Texas Rangers, who were in hot pursuit of Bass, learned of the gang's intentions they set up an ambush. A Round Rock deputy sheriff  noticed the Texas outlaws casing out the town. When the deputy insisted that the men disarm themselves he was shot and killed. At that point Bass attempted to run but was himself shot and killed by two Texas Rangers. The story is that Sam Bass was shot twice but did not die until the next day which happened to be his 27th birthday.

Like everything else, which Texas Ranger who actually was responsible for killing Bass in the shootout is still a question. One account attributes the deed to Ranger Dick Ware. Another account was that Bass was shot several times by Ranger George Harrell. What is certain however is that Bass' career of crime certainly didn't last long. The Bass was buried in Round Rock Cemetery. A few years later his sister erected a small tombstone at his grave. This marker has been chipped away by souvenir hunters over many years. Another modern marker was placed at his grave in front of the old marker, which is still in place. The photo below is the Sam Bass grave marker in Round Rock Texas. Another modern day attraction is the Round Rock theatre. The Sam Bass Community Theatre has been offering live quality performances for decades.


sam bass grave
GFDL photo by Larry D. Moore
Located about 15 miles north of Dallas, the city of Allen Texas, now a bustling business center in north Texas, puts on a Sam Bass Day which includes local students reenacting the 1878 Houston and Central Texas train robbery. Also featured is a documentary and lecture of the life of Sam Bass and his impact on Texas history. The Sam Bass day is organized by the Allen Heritage Guild.

In the case of Round Rock Texas, one of the cities major streets bears his name as do several businesses. Texas history has often referred to him as "Texas' Beloved Bandit" or "Robin Hood on a Fast Horse". Much of this lore is simply untrue. As a legend, the accounts of Sam's life are as different as the number of people telling the tale. 

The real story is that Sam Bass was probably more inept than  noble. His robbing of trains, stagecoaches and banks was more of sport to him than anything else. By all accounts, any citing of Sam's bravery was fictional. As with many old west legends, the line is somewhat blurred between who was famous and who was infamous. This certainly was the case with Sam Bass.

The final resting place of Deputy Sheriff A.W. Grimes, killed by the Bass gang in 1878.
Round Rock Cemetery in it's own way tells the other side of the Sam Bass story. While Sam Bass and his gang were immortalized in songs, festivals and memorials, there isn't a whole lot remembered about one of the other people killed in the shootout at Round Rock. Case in point is A.W. Grimes. Grimes was a former Texas Ranger who was serving as Deputy Williamson County Sheriff when the Bass gang came to town. He was the lawman who attempted to disarm the gang and was shot down. His marker can also be viewed at the Round Rock Cemetery. Another interesting story is how the XIT Ranch built the state capitol in Austin Texas.

While on your Texas vacation, a side trip to both Allen in the north and Round Rock in the center of the state offers many opportunities to  explore both the story of Sam bass as well as old frontier Texas history.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from public domain)

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