Engineer Colonel Bill Harper squinted into the darkness when the Southern Pacific westbound Sunset Express emerged from a long, narrow railroad cut. In the distance, he spotted what looked like a red lantern and applied the air brakes. 

Sunset Express

Sparks exploded from the big iron wheels as the locomotive skidded along the rails and slowed to a stop about an engine-length from the wooden barricade at Papago Station, about seventeen miles from Tucson.

Harper glanced at his watch and noted the time at 9:55, April 27, 1887.

Seconds later, a volley of rifle balls exploded in the night air and slammed into the Wells Fargo & Co. Express car just behind the main engine.

Four men in black masks came out of the darkness and boarded the cab, holding Harper and fireman John Clancy at gunpoint.

After relieving Harper of $12 in cash, one of the bandits forced each of the train men to hold sticks of dynamite.  

“Take this dynamite and go down to the mail and express cars,” one of the men told him. “Tell your agents to open the cars and surrender, or you will blow up the cars with dynamite.”

Harper told the gunmen the dynamite wouldn’t be necessary because he “could get the men out of the car without hurting anyone.”

Once the Southern Pacific men left the cab, a couple more masked outlaws appeared.

The bandits threatened to kill Harper if he failed if he didn’t convince the Wells Fargo Express Messenger and the mail agent to abandoned the cars. But he succeeded. 

A couple of the bandits uncoupled the mail and Express coaches from the rest of the train while the others cleared the track of the barricade.

All of them climbed aboard the engine. A couple of minutes later, however, one of the gang leaped to the ground and escorted Harper back to the cab.

“I was then made to show them how to work the levers, and told to start it easy, and after it was going to jump off, which I did,” Harper told the Daily Alta California newspaper in its April 29, 1887, issue.

Five miles up the track, the gang cleaned out the express and mail units, disabled the engine, and then disappeared.

Wells Fargo estimated the loss from the robbery at between $3,000 and $4,000.

Before opening the door, quick-thinking express agent C.F. Smith managed to hide a few thousand of gold inside a stove.

No estimate was available for the loss associated with the stolen U.S. mail.

According to Harper, there were five men, all masked. A sixth man stood on the banks with his head lowered, dispatching orders to the others.

When word of the robbery reached Tucson, authorities organized a posse and alerted military authorities, as well.

Southern Pacific and Wells Fargo both offered a $1,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of each robber.

Lawmen searched for the unknown outlaws but they were never found. The gang committed what is believed the first train robbery in Arizona history.


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