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The W.Va. train robbery of 1915

by Bob Stealey

editor

Bonnie Collins of Fairmont recently sent me a copy of a short story written by Brooks Pepper titled "West Virginia's Great Train Robbery (at Central Station, Doddridge County)," which I'd like to retell in today's Bob'n'Along, continuing Wednesday and Friday. Remember, this will be completely in the words of Brooks Pepper, so I won't introduce each paragraph with quote marks, as is my usual preference. Please enjoy!

Perhaps one of the most skillful train robberies of the past two centuries took place in the hills of West Virginia in the fall of 1915. Old newspaper accounts of the time tell the story of an event that brought a touch of the Old Wild West to the Mountain State.

This well-planned and daringly executed train robbery took place at Central Station, Doddridge County, on the main line of the B&O's route between Washington and St. Louis. It was estimated in the newspapers that the robbers made away with $300,000 in federal bank notes and other negotiable currencies.

Where the bandits assembled to plan their escapade was never exactly divulged. Since the robbery had the tinge of a family affair, one guess was that the ringleader assembled his group and laid his plans in a Midwestern city, probably Cincinnati, Ohio. Undoubtedly, the robbers did have advance knowledge about when shipments of treasury notes would be made.

The gangleader was Jeff, then 63. His henchmen were a half-brother, Dick; a nephew, Carl, and a youngster we will call Johnny, who was not related to any of the others. Although no evidence at the trial placed Dick at the actual scene of the robbery, testimony and evidence left no doubt but that he was mixed up in it. Inadvertently, Dick played an important role in leading authorities to other members of the gang.

But despite information gained from Dick, the other three train robbers might not have been convicted had it not been for a young farm girl, Genary Duckworth. It happened like this:

Two or three days before the train robbery took place at Central Station, residents of Toll Gate, a country town five or six miles west of there, saw several strangers loitering around the railroad tracks in the area. No one was suspicious. Hoboes, those "knights of the road" who hopped on and off freight trains almost at whim, were fairly common. Three more men walking along the railroad tracks caused little interest.

Actually, the three strangers had been camping out for several days in Wellington Duckworth's orchard, three or four miles west of Central Station. Apparently, they made little effort to escape detection. After the robbery, any number of area residents could recall seeing them. But only vaguely.

Genary was out walking with her dog.When he darted into a thick hedge row on some game trail, she went after him instead of calling him back. As she was picking him up, she saw the three strangers resting in a clump of bushes nearby. A little frightened, she slipped away quietly, but later came back without her dog. On her second visit she studied the faces of the men carefully, suspecting they might be up to some mischief. At home she told her father about the strangers, and the Duckworths locked up carefully for the next few nights, but otherwise did nothing.

Central Station was a watering stop for almost every train that passed between Grafton and Parkersburg on the B&O's Monongaha (cq) Division in those days. It had a telegraph office, several dwellings, a country store and a post office. Normally, it was a busy little hamlet, but it wasn't busy in the early morning hours, when Jeff's gang made its play.

Their plan was to rob Number One, a fast mail and passenger train from New York to St. Louis. For their purpose, Central Station was an ideal spot. It was about midway between Parkersburg and Grafton, more or less remote from a town of any size, 35 miles from Clarksburg to (its) east and 52 miles from Parkersburg (to its) west.

As Number One pulled up to the water tank, the three men were hidden around the buildings housing the pumping equipment. Earlier, one had shinnied up a telegraph pole and clipped the main wire to the east.

Just before Number One was ready to pull out, two of the bandits boarded the engine, climbing over the coal hopper and scrambling down to the deck. One stuck a gun in the midriff of engineer Grant Helms. The other held his pistol under the nose of fireman Clarence R. Knight.

At first, Helms thought it was some kind of a practical joke and roughly flung his assailant back. It could have cost him his life. Fortunately, the gunman gave him a second chance. When Helms and Knight realized this was no joke, they complied with the gunmen's requests. Helms remarked later: "The mouth of that pistol looked like a toy cannon and the man behind it acted like he JUST MIGHT set it off."

(Continued on Wednesday)

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