Verdi train robbery occurred 145 years ago | NevadaAppeal.com

Verdi train robbery occurred 145 years ago

Railroad workers gather in Promontory, Utah, to celebrate the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869. The completion spurred Western train robberies such as the one at Verdi because the trains transported large amounts of gold and silver bullion.
Andrew J. Russell, photographer-National Park Service |

On driving trips to and from Fallon and the San Francisco Bay area, I often pull off I-80 about two miles east of the Nevada-California state line to visit the picturesque village of Verdi and have a sandwich at its community park.

Given its name in 1868 by Central Pacific Railroad baron Charles Crocker to honor the Italian operatic composer Giuseppe Verdi, the community soon had a population of more than 1,000, most of whom were engaged in cutting and sawing timber for the construction of the transcontinental railroad that passed through Verdi and the collection and storage of winter ice for California’s valley and coastal towns, according to David W. Toll, author “The Compleat Nevada Traveler.”

Today, little Verdi serves as the hometown of retirees as well as commuters who work in Reno, about 10 miles to the east.

Verdi also is known as the site of what is believed to be the first train robbery in the West. This epic event occurred on Nov. 4, 1870, and the 145th anniversary of that crime falls 12 days from today.

My interest in railroad stickups began as a boy, when my friends and I went to the local movie house on Saturdays to devour Western-themed movies that featured stagecoach and train robberies. In 1963, at the age of 27, that interest was rekindled when my wife and I arrived in London the same day the Great London Train Robbery took place.

Before that holiday weekend in London, I had been serving in West Berlin in a special Army assignment as a public affairs officer. Ludie and I had been married in Los Angeles in mid-June of that year, and she traveled with me to West Berlin where one of my responsibilities was to help coordinate press arrangements for the visit to Berlin of President John F. Kennedy on June 23, 1963.

About six weeks after Kennedy departed Berlin, my wife and I flew into London just hours after the train robbery there went down.

We were glued to the TV set in our hotel room to witness BBC reporters interview embarrassed railroad executives and Scotland Yard officials and breathlessly describe the robbery of the Glasgow-to-London mail train that had been boarded before dawn by a dozen men wearing ski masks who had brought the train to a halt by changing a signal light from “GO” to “STOP.”

The robbers had then opened the door of the engine compartment with a crowbar, beaten the driver on the head with a club, handcuffed the other crewmen and driven off in three waiting vehicles with millions of British pounds in cash they had seized from the mail car. Their hideout was soon discovered by the police and nearly all of the bad guys were eventually nabbed along with most of the stolen money.

But getting back to the Verdi train robbery…

The driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869 – just 18 months before the Verdi holdup – not only heralded the completion of the trans-U.S. railroad but also provided new opportunities for resourceful badmen, such as Butch Cassidy and Jesse James, to branch out from bank and stage holdups to a new enterprise: Stopping and robbing trains which often carried large stashes of cash and precious minerals, wrote Phillip I. Earl in “This Was Nevada.”

The Verdi affair scenario began on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 1870, when Central Pacific Train No. 1 left Oakland, CA., carrying $41,800 in $20 gold pieces and $8,800 in silver bars, the payroll for the Comstock mines and bullion for deposit in Nevada banks to cover large commercial drafts.

Led by “Big Jack” Davis, a prominent Virginia City miner and businessman who had no prior criminal record, a group of five men boarded the east-bound train as paying passengers when it stopped at Verdi about midnight. Following the Verdi stop, the train left for Omaha, making numerous stops along the way including one at White Plains in northern Churchill County. The tiny salt mining community, which lay near the present-day intersection of Highway 95 and I-80, has been long abandoned.

About a mile east of Verdi, Davis and his compatriots donned masks, drew pistols, halted the train, tied up the crew, scooped up the gold and silver from the baggage car, divided the loot among themselves and took off individually into the hills and along the banks of the Truckee River that runs through town.

Several of the robbers buried some of their booty, planning to dig it up in days, weeks or months. The next morning, Nov. 5, Washoe County Sheriff Charley Pegg and deputy Jim Kinkaid left Reno to search for the desperados. Within a week, every member of the gang was apprehended, and $39,500 of the stolen money recovered. Two of the robbers tuned state’s evidence against the others and were released. The rest of the gang drew sentences of from five to 23 years in the Nevada State Penitentiary.

What happened to the remaining $3,000 that is still missing?

There continues to be speculation that is it buried somewhere along the Truckee River or in the slopes of Peavine Mountain. That money would be worth more than a million today.

Perhaps the next time I’m in Verdi, I should forsake my relaxing lunch at its local park and head out with a shovel to search for the missing loot.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be reached at news@lahontanvalleynews.com