Jesse James, fabled outlaw of post-Civil War days, cut his teeth in the business of train robbery by wrecking, robbing and looting a Rock Island Lines train on July 21, 1873, near Adair, Iowa.
The gang robbed the express messenger of cash and relieved the passengers of their watches, cash and jewelry. It was one of the first recorded train robberies west of the Mississipppi and expanded Jesse James and his gang's operations from his specialty of bank holdups to train robbery.
It was about 8:30 p.m. when Rock Island Lines passenger train No. 2 was climbing a steep grade and approaching a sharp curve. The train, made up of two Pullman sleeping cars, five coaches and an express-baggage car was about four miles west of Adair.
Near the end of the curve the James gang lay ready with a rope tied to a rail they had pried loose. As the train rounded the curve the engineer, John Rafferty, saw the rope tied to the rail and immediately reversed his engine. However, the train ran into the gap and turned on its side, killing Rafferty and injuring the fireman.
The locomotive tender and two baggage cars were thrown from the track. Out of the bushes came the outlaws firing their guns in the air and causing panic among the crewmen and passengers. Jesse and his brother, Frank, with .44's cocked, confronted the express messenger. He quickly opened the safe, was tied and thrown into a corner.
The passengers, slightly injured in the accident, were confronted by armed men masked in full Klu Klux Klan garb. Panic set in with women and children screaming and crying and men hiding their cash, watches and jewelry. All the loot was dumped into bags and the robbers rode off, uttering a rebel yell characteristic of the Civil War period. They disappeared as quickly as they had come.
According to an account at the time, on July 22, William A. Smith, conductor of the ill fated train, testified today at the coroner's inquest on the body of John Rafferty, the engineer, who was killed when 'the train was wrecked 2-1/2 or three miles west of Adair station, and 600 or 700 feet east of Turkey Creek bridge."
According to Smith's statement, "I was in the smoking car near the front end. From the noise I thought the engine was in the ditch, with one or two cars piled upon it. I was thrown under the seat in front of me. Don't remember which of the car I got out, but know that I reached the engine on the north side. I went forward to see what was up. The first person that I met was one of the masked men, near the baggage car door, who pointed a revolver in each hand toward me and told me to get back, firing at me at the same time. I backed down as far as the sleeping coach before I felt I was out of his way. There I met Dennis Foley, the fireman, who said 'Bill, Jack is dead'. The passengers were in a hubbub, and the women and children were crying. I told the passengers that I thought the masked men were trying to rob the baggage car and tried to borrow a revolver but failed.
"I could still see the man from where I was. I saw another passing up and down the opposite side of the train. I think he was firing at me, also. Some of the passengers asked me to get into the train as these men were firing at me and I would be the cause of some of them being killed. I then went into the sleeping car at the rear, still trying to get a revolver, urging the passengers to keep quiet, as these men were robbing the baggage car. I went out of the ladies' car, up the back and thence to the engine.
"Two balls passed through my clothing while I was on the bank. These shots came from the south side of the train. I did not see a man on the north side then; did not see or hear anything more of the masked men. After the passengers got quiet, I went forward to investigate the cause of the wreck. At the hind truck of the smoking car I found a fish-plate had been removed from the rail at the west end and the rope was passed under the south rail across the ditch and up on to the bank. A piece of the rope was also found which seemed to be taken from the other. It was a new rope, the size of a common bed cord.
"The west end of the rail, when I saw it, was only a few inches from the south rail. The hind trucks of the smoking car were still on the track. We had been running 18 or 20 mph."
Law enforcement agents formed a posse and went in pursuit of the robbers and in September, 1873, the Lafayette County Vigilantes Committee, "traced the train robbers to Johnson City, St. Clair County, and surrounded the house where they were supposed to be hiding, but the birds had flown. The band consisted of three Youngs and the James brothers. McCoy was not with them. There was a reported fight between the robbers and vigilantes and the wounding of one of the Youngs. It was believed that the robbers had started for Texas." The Rock Island Daily Argus, July 25, 1873, stated that "A telegram from Wells, Fargo & Co., at San Francisco, Cal. fixes the sealed package taken by the robbers at $637, making the total amount secured by the robbers $2,337. Of that, $950 belonged to the CRI & P Company, and was being transported for them."
It had been at Council Bluffs, Iowa, the James-Younger gang learned that the No. 2 train of the Rock Island Lines would be carrying $100,000 or more in gold on July 21, 1873, for eastern banks. At the last moment the shipment had been changed to a later train. The United States Express Co. offered a reward of $500 each for the arrest of the railroad bandits. This made a total of $12,000 to be paid to the man who produced the arrest and conviction of the villains. A total of $5,000 was put up by the railroad company, $3,500 by the state and $3,500 by the express company.
Rock Island Daily Argus, Thursday, July 24, 1873: "Des Moines, July 23. - Nothing entirely reliable in regard to the pursuit and capture of the railroad robbers has been received at this place today. It is thought that they have crossed into Missouri and are making for the wilds of Mercer County in that state. The total amount taken by the robbers from the train in now known to be twenty three hundred and thirty seven dollars.
"The latest advices from the railroad robbers is that last evening between Creston and the State line, pushing for Missouri with the utmost speed. They passed a farm house last evening, about dark, their horses being well jaded. The company divided, one-half going in another direction. Dispatches received from the officers in pursuit, this morning, state that they have got between them and Missouri, whither the robbers are going. They are evidently regular Missouri guerrillas, who understand the business they are in. The country is all alarmed and hundreds are in pursuit and it seems impossible for them to escape although they are mounted on horses of racing stock.
"The engines on the Rock Island road are draped in mourning for the death of Rafferty, the engineer killed at the railroad robbery."
The robbers were too wily for those in pursuit and headed for their hideout in the hills of western Missouri where they were fairly safe from lawmen among their friends and relatives.
Besides Jesse and his brother, Frank, the gang included Jim and Cole Younger, brothers; Robert Moore, whose home was in the Indian territory of Oklahoma; Comanche Tony, a Texan; and Cell Miller. Jesse Woodson James was born September 5, 1847, in Kearney County, Nebraska. Robert Ford, a member of the second James gang, murdered Jesse in his home, April 3, 1882, at the age of 34 years, 6 months, and 28 days.
This article appeared in in a special edition of the Rock Island Argus newspaper on August 7, 1985, called "Iron Horse Days", and was entitled "Jesse James got his start on Rock Island Lines". The article is used here with permission of the Rock Island Argus and the authors, James and Lucille Sampson of Rock Island, Il. Mr. and Mrs. Sampson are both members of the Rock Island County Historical Society, and Mrs. Sampson is still an officer there (February, 1997).
Text contributed to the RITS WWW site by Wade Calvert.
Image from Dick Tinder's Virtual Train-Watching in Iowa.