READ The Wildest Train Robberies in History  

Amanda Sedlak-Hevener
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Daring, real-life train robberies seem to have occurred frequently in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Stories abound of masked thieves approaching trains on horseback, armed with guns and ready to take the treasures concealed onboard. Great train robberies, some quite sensational, appear in old Western movies, but they happened in real life as well. In reality, actual train robberies involved all the things Hollywood portrays them as having - large amounts of loot, epic chases, and even explosions. In some cases, real train robberies were even more badass than their dramatized counterparts. 

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid Blew Up A Bridge In Pursuit Of Loot


Butch Cassidy And The Sundance... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Wildest Train Robberies in History
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

On June 2, 1899, Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch - a gang that included the Sundance Kid - stopped a Union Pacific train in its tracks just outside of Wilcox, Wyoming when they set dynamite into the trestle of a small wooden railroad bridge. Although the explosion they created didn't topple the bridge, it forced the train to an explosion-induced halt. After it stopped, the Wild Bunch boarded the train, wearing masks and bearing guns, and made off with $50,000 in gold and other loot after blowing up the train's safe. Although the U.S. government offered a $1,000 "dead or alive" reward for each individual involved, the legendary gang got away and went on to rob again. 

Jesse James Derailed A Train To Commandeer Gold Bullion That Wasn't There


Jesse James Derailed A Train T... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Wildest Train Robberies in History
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first train robbery committed by the famed Jesse James took place in 1873, and, although it was kind of a failure, it wasn't because it lacked the proper planning. James and his gang painstakingly reviewed train schedules before choosing to rob the Rock Island line just outside of Adair, Iowa. Their method? Loosening the train's track so that it would run off the rails, making it all the easier to board and rob. In preparation, they loosened part of the track and then tied a rope to it. As the train approached, James and the gang pulled the rope, forcing the tracks to move and the train to derail. They then boarded the wreckage in pursuit of what they believed to be a massive haul of gold bullion. In reality, the safe contained a measly $2,000 worth. Ever the resilient robbers, the James gang held up the passengers on board to make up for the pathetic amount of loot in the safe.

The First-Ever Train Robbers Forgot Over $20,000 Worth Of Spoils On Board


The First-Ever Train Robbers F... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Wildest Train Robberies in History
Photo: Edwin S. Porter/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

At a time when the price of land was a mere $5 an acre, $41,000 in gold coins - a weight of over 150 pounds - was quite a haul. In 1870, a group of thieves (who actually committed their robbery before Jesse James's "first" train robbery in the West) commandeered that much booty after plundering the Central Pacific line right outside of Reno, Nevada. They forced the engineer to stop the train, separate the cars so that the express, tender, and baggage cars remained attached to the engine, and then keep on moving (leaving behind the most treasure-filled parts of the train). Then they coerced the expressman (with the help of sawed off shotguns) to open the boxes in the express car, where the gold was stored. Although the nameless thieves got away with quite a bit of cash, they left behind around $22,000 worth of gold and silver. In a very un-Jesse James like turn, they were also all either apprehended or killed before they had the chance to revel in their spoils. 

English Train Robbers Committed An Almost-Successful "Invisible" Robbery


English Train Robbers Committe... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Wildest Train Robberies in History
Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Contrary to popular belief, train robberies weren't the exclusive province of the Wild West. An "invisible" mega-robbery also took place on a train traveling from London to Paris via the English Channel in 1855. During the robbery, criminal masterminds William Pierce and Edward Agar discretely boarded the Paris-bound train. While aboard (and with the essential help of a railway clerk), Pierce and Agar accessed the safes filled with gold bars - the precious cargo the train was actually transporting. They replaced the bars with lead shots, leaving the authorities none-the-wiser until after the heist had been successfully committed. That is, until they were discovered with the bars in Dover and immediately jailed.