The Bill Miner Hold-up

VERNON LACHANCE February 1 1933

The Bill Miner Hold-up

VERNON LACHANCE February 1 1933

The Bill Miner Hold-up


THE WESTERN STATES have always had their bad men, and some of them have crossed the Canadian boundary to try their luck. Of all these desperate adventurers who have given trouble to the Mounted Police, Bill Miner had perhaps the longest record. In 1906, when the events to be divulged took place, Miner was reaching his fortieth year of crime, and forty years is longer than the Mounted Police had been in the saddle.

No one now remembers what his first act of violence was. It was probably not the typical short-lived sort, not shooting up a bar or branding other men’s cattle. Bill Miner was too broad across the brow for that. He was canny. He held up stage coaches in New Mexico and disappeared. He waylaid trains in Colorado and disappeared. Mystery grew up about him.

And then the end came. For twenty-five years he did time behind the bars of San Quentin Prison and train crews had less to worry over. The legend was displaced. Greying and past middle age, he shook hands with Captain Kelly of the penitentiary and disappeared.`

One day in 1904, the Canadian Pacific flier was held up at Mission Junction, an anonymous hold-up with some loss. No one was caught.

In 1905 a similar operation was performed on a Great Northern Railway express with great skill. Bill Miner was the name on the old-timers’ lips. There was the same sudden appearance, the same deft action, the same vanishing without a trace. But Bill Miner was getting on. Could an old man terrorize a second generation as he had the first? Or had a new master appeared? Then, as between all of Bill Miner’s exploits, a lull fell, posses disbanded, people forgot.

The Incredible Happens

A HOLD-UP was the last thing in Engineer Duggan’s mind as the C. P. R. westbound train pulled out of Duck Station in British Columbia for Kamloops, twenty miles away, at 11.30 p.m. of May 8, 1906. Spring was in the air, a brilliant moon drenched the woods and distant mountains, and if Duggan talked with Fireman Kelly about anything, it wasn’t hold-ups. Canada had been singularly free of such lawlessness, and ever since the Canadian Pacific had first pushed across the plains the Mounted Police had created a broad swath of security across the map, in glaring contrast to the desperate perils of travellers south of the line. The Mission Junction hold-up had been a rare exception, and, of course, beyond the Mounted Police precincts.

Consequently, when Duggan was nursing his charge along at fifteen miles an hour and two men jumped down from the tender into the cab, the engineer was only surprised, not alarmed.

“We’re here to hold up the train,” said one of the men in quite a casual, off-hand manner.

The manner was so very off-hand that both Duggan and Kelly laughed and made the contemporary remark synonymous with “No kidding?”

Nothing happened. Duggan was busy inspecting the curves ahead; Kelly evidently did not notice that the two men in the shadow wore masks. For a mile, and then another mile, the train chugged on; then one of the strangers tapped Duggan on the shoulder, saying, “This is where we stop.”

His tone was off-hand no longer, and both Duggan and Kelly looked around indignantly to find themselves covered by revolvers. The man behind Duggan was tall and thin, with a red mustache and wearing a slouch hat cocked on one side of his head. Kelly found himself the victim of a much younger man, of ordinary build, dark of eye and hair, and wearing an old ragged sweater of faded blue. He could have knocked him off the cab with one hand, but the slightly swaying orifice of the revolver would speak first. The incredible had happened. Nothing remained but to stop the train. As it came to a halt, a third man dropped from the

rear of the tender, carrying a sack.

He immediately took charge. I íe was older than the other two. a spare old man but active, intense, giving his orders with a conviction that they would be carried out. As he wore goggles and a black handkerchief for a mask, only the hair on his face and a slouch hat stuck in Duggan's memory for jxjssible identification—if they got out of this alive.

Still with the muzzle of the revolver as his only horizon, Kelly was compelled to uncouple the mail car, immediately behind the engine, frorr. the rest of the train. The halt and the noise had now begun to arouse passengers. A head or two protruded from raised windows. The picketing outlaws pointed out that it was in the interest of the passengers’ health to pull them back again, and the heads withdrew. Duggan was ordered to pull ahead. The three men and Kelly swung on the engine and the silent party ran up the line a couple of miles.

“Stop here,” commanded the old man in the goggles.

The Escape

THE MAIL CLERK had been making up the mail for Kamloops and was still in his car when he. too, was faced by a revolver and the request to hold up his hands. “Where’s the box?” demanded the bandit in goggles. “What box?”

“The express box.”

“There’s none on this car.”

A ¡xiuse of disappointment as goggles looked around. “Hand over the registered mail pouches then,” he ordered.

The clerk pointed them out. and the man went through


“Is that all? Where’s the ’Frisco bunch?”

“Not on this car,” said the clerk, who was recovering his wits. “We’re not carrying mail and express in the same car.”

Another longer pause.

“We’ll go back for it then.”

“You’re a day late,” said the clerk, almost happy. “It went through yesterday.”

The bandit cursed so vigorously that the black handkerchief slipped down. The clerk had a glimpse of whiskers, and a two weeks' beard before the outlaw, shielding his face with his hand, adjusted the mask.

Continued on page 41

Continued rfom page 13

“What’s in that pile?”

“Just papers.” The clerk was enthusiastic now; he had just told an enormous lie and was getting away with it, for the bandit with one regretful look around, caught up the registered mail and swung down from the car.

“Come along, boys,” he said to his fellow outlaws, and once more he ordered the engine ahead. After another mile and a half —"Ease her down now,” said the elderly one. peering into the passing woods. “Here’s our station.”

1 There was no station, only a thicker growth of bush. Carrying the registered mail pouches, they dropped off, one by one, the crew being still covered.

“Good night, boys,” sang out the man with the red mustache, “and take good care of yourselves.”

Then the three vanished into the deceptive moonlight.

When they were well away, the mail clerk whispered something to the crew. The bandits had missed the bigger haul, overlooking a package containing between $35,000 and $40,000 which the clerk had nonchalantly covered. “Consummate bluff,” the newspapers were to call it. But withal enough evil had been done. His Majesty’s mails had been tampered with, and a train subjected to indignity. And somewhere in a world of moonlight, three successful robbers were making their escape.

Rewards Offered

THE HOLD-UP had been consummated in the small hours of Wednesday, the 9th. Beginning with the alarm from Kamloops, an ever-widening series of instructions aroused the whole West. British Columbia had already modelled a provincial police force after the Mounted Police, and the two local constables, Pearse and Fernie, set out in immediate pursuit of the hold-up trio. The nearest sheriff assembled a posse of settlers, Indians and half-breeds, for the chase. The C. P. R. wires throbbed with instructions, pouring investigators—their own and from private detective agencies— into the area.

But the vice-president of the great system in Winnipeg realized that these efforts would likely be insufficient. For Kamloops was almost central in the great wilds of southern British Columbia. All the armies of Europe could hide under that forest or lose themselves in those mountains. In time of need, turn to the Mounted Police. It was a Western custom. So the C. P. R. requested Fred White, Comptroller of the Force, for aid. The Minister concurred. Shortly afterward, orders were rushed to Regina, Calgary. Macleod and some Western detachments, looking toward the equipping and dispatching of picked men for the pursuit. The commissioner, with the map of British Columbia before him. planned the strategic disposition of the small parties he was about to throw into the wilderness.

It was obvious to the commissioner that the outlaws would hit, sooner or later, for the south. By what trails or water, it was impossible to guess. But southward they would go. The trouble was that the obviousness of this would certainly occur to the bandits, and would lead them, if they possessed the minimum of wit, to try some other direction for a blind. They might, for instance, steal northward along the North Ihompson, or travel eastward, on the 1 hompson’s other branch. They might separate and, at caches previously planted, lie low until the furore had died down—a Bill Miner trick, if Bill Miner it was. Or they might, singly, board a train in some disguise and be lost in Vancouver. The odds in the bandits’ favor seemed, at first glance, tremendous. But bandits must eat. Against them were arrayed the brains and the systems of wide-awake law enforcers. And for extra stimulus to the countryside, the C. P. R. posted a reward of $5,000, which was quickly followed by another offer of $5,000 by the Government, and $1,500 by the Province of British Columbia.

The Mounted Police Take Hold

DY 7 A.M. of that exciting Wednesday T-J the first move had been made when Engineer Duggan ran Constable Pearse in a special engine out to the scene of the getaway for a reconnaissance. Later in the day, Pearse led a posse of settlers and Indians southward along the trail made by the departing outlaws.

From Kamloops another party under the C. P. R. detective manager, with half-breed trackers, took steps to cut off escape to the westward. Constable Fernie was working his way up the north bank of the South Thompson. Men from Enderby guarded the country north of Lake Okanagan. Along this lake’s headwaters Indians were aroused and sent out in scouting parties, while sectionmen patrolled the C. P. R. between Kamloops and Sicamous far to the east, Mounted Indians were sent up the North Thompson, while ranchers blocked what western trails they could.

Meanwhile the parties of the Mounted Police were moving. Inspector Church with ten men on horseback reached Penticton, below Lake Okanagan, to reinforce the blockade of searchers who sought to barricade the way to the south. SergeantMajor Belcher was forming a reserve of ten men with rations and forage for twenty days and waiting for orders. And Sergeant Wilson, who had left Calgary on Friday, picking up extra men at Morley and Banff, arrived at Kamloops at 3 p.m. of Saturday, with his party of six men especially chosen for their ability and staying powers, to press southward.

The commissioner had picked Sergeant J. J. Wilson to head this party for good reasons. Wilson had joined the Mounted Police ten years before, at the age of twentyfive, and had proved a man of courage and keen judgment in the Yukon, where he had seen duty. He had later accepted the job of Chief of Police at Paris, Ontario, but like many another Mounted Policeman, had discovered that a little extra money did not compensate him for the satisfactions of life with the Force. He returned to the scarlet, mature, experienced, a leader.

His first act was to acquaint himself with the results of Constable Femie’s scouting. Fernie had gone clear-headedly to work by studying the footsteps of the robbers along the railway, and had fixed in his mind the print of a smooth shoe with small heel and a bevelled edge. By elimination this was found to be one of the bandits’ shoes; the others had worn hobnailed boots.

Equipped with this clue, Fernie patiently scrutinized the sides of the right of way, until he reached the place where these men had plunged aside. Once through the bushes, the trail became comparatively well-beaten. It led him to a camp, now burned, but obviously their rendezvous before the robbery. It was 100 yards from the trail along which Pearse had led his posse, and this proximity doubtless had worried the outlaws.

Fernie was an adept tracker. By poking around this rendezvous he determined that the robbers had had three horses, two of which were shod, and he trailed the party through rough and smooth until he found, on a slope called Campbell’s Range, camp number two.

This was highly encouraging, a definite step forward. Also it tallied with the presupposition that the trio would attempt to escape southward. Fernie was nonplussed. therefore, at getting word that the bandits had been seen on the North Thompson. Indian scouts had even fired on them from ambush. Fernie would not believe it, and he was right, for events proved these men to be residents of Kamloops who had never even heard of the robbery.

Trailing the Fugitives

TN SPITE of these unsettling rumors, Fernie pushed on along the trail. At times it grew dim, vanished; but he picked it up again and followed it for another day until persistence brought him another reward. In the still woodland ahead of him he heard horses stamping. He crept close, looked through the trees, and saw a camp. This was no burned, no deserted camp. The fire, to be sure, had burned cold, but he saw a saddle on the ground, and down in the bushes two horses.

Hours never passed more slowly, and finally Femie was forced to believe that the place had been suddenly forsaken and the horses were as deserted as the camp. He saw that they had been hobbled, American fashion, one hind and one fore foot, and it occurred to him that when these horses had been turned out to forage the night before they liad wandered farther than their owners intended, and then, when the bandits had no time to chase them, they had been abandoned, whereupon they had wandered hack. No other hypothesis fitted the facts, So F'ernie hunted a while for caches of plundered mail in vain, and then resumed his tracking. This was on May 12, three days after the alarm, and the day when Sergeant Wilson’s squad had detrained at Kamloops.

To save time the authorities had decided that the province should mount these men, who accordingly brought only saddles and ! bridles. It was not a wise decision. Two of the horses awaiting the Police were old and I broken up, the others were too young, almost unbroken bronchos, and the men were required to stage a sort of Wild West show before they could travel.

Bronchos or no bronchos, however, this patrol left Kamloops at 6 o’clock that evening and rode rapidly southward for twenty miles along the course that the outlaws had presumably taken. By midnight the grass-fed horses were played out, the rain was thickening if anything, and it was hopelessly dark. Wilson thereupon aroused a rancher named Blackburn, who allowed them to camp near by.

Here Wilson learned news. A man named Gilson had been come upon in the woods to the west of the hold-up—a hard-looking sort who had pulled a gun upon a provincial constable who tried to arrest him. Gilson excused this action by saying lie thought the constable was a bear. When taken in, shaved, washed up and identified, Gilson turned out to be a reputable prospector.

Another enquiry was occasioned by the finding of a newspaper at camp number two, bearing the name and address of a resident at Nicola, not far away, “a man of whom not too much was thought.” This diverted suspicion into new channels. Also, in the towns, vagrants were being arrested right and left—twenty-five, before the chase was over. But Femie all the while was pushing southward, regardless of rumor, toward Campbell’s Meadows, on a track which still yielded signs of having been traversed by the outlaws, now on foot.

A study of the map revealed Douglas Lake and its surroundings as the logical place to intercept the bandits if they were still pressing south. So, at daybreak, Wilson left the ranch with his men and rode as fast as the slowest horse would permit. Near Douglas Lakeat the centre of the territory under scrutiny the sergeant supplemented his patrol with a pack outfit and a guide. Into the semi-vacuum of this region had penetrated more news - that three men with packs on their backs had been seen at Campbell’s Meadows.

Darkness and the condition of the horses prevented further movement that evening of Sunday. May 13, but at daylight Wilson patrolled briskly toward the Meadows. At noon, as the kettle was being boiled, Constable Femie rode up. The two forces, following the lines of their logical advance, had met.

“I’ve seen them,” said Femie excitedly, “the three of them. They’re on the Chapperon Lake trail.”

“How close did you get?” asked Wilson, with the others crowding around.

“I couldn’t get too close. But I waited till they’d passed and swung around to look at their tracks. They’re wearing the same shoes, one pair smooth and two hob-nailed.” “How do we get there?”

Fernie could not describe the route but could take them there. The tea was abandoned and the bronchos were off in full gallop, making the seven miles in twenty minutes. Femie pointed out where he had seen them, showed the tracks, but the trail soon grew confused and was lost, nor could Femie be sure of the direction taken.

This was both maddening and heartening; maddening to have lost the three when so close, heartening to have them close at all. F'ernie had, of course, been wise not to tackle the bandits single-handed, for they would have disposed of him instantly. But the guilty scare easily, and it looked as if they had seen him, confused their trail and then vanished into the boundless bush.

Three Shaggy Men

CERGEANT WILSON now showed his qualities of generalship. He unearthed an Indian tracker from the neighborhood— rather a conjuror's feat in itself—showed him the few visible marks and bade him follow them. Sergeant Thomas was dispatched up one of the near-by mountains on the chance that he might observe any hurrying figures. Constable Femie set out to warn the Douglas Lake district. Constable Browning was sent along the trail to Quilchena Lake.

Browning came hastening back in a short time, saying that he had found tracks. The Indian gave his opinion that they were “Chinamen” tracks. Wilson, however, thought best to scatter his patrol in the Quilchena direction, sending Constable Tabuteau with a guide and the Indian back along the general direction the robbers were thought to have come from. The net was spread as wide as the manpower would stretch. With this disposition accomplished, Sergeant Wilson took Sergeant Shoebotham, Corporal Peters and Constable Browning down the valley in a wide-spaced line.

For a mile and a half they walked their horses, wondering if the bandits had taken to the wooded slopes of the mountains or had ensconced themselves under some shaggy spruce until nightfall. To the dinnerless men. this combing of a landscape where all the odds were with the pursued must have seemed a close approach to futility itself, when Wilson saw Corporal Stewart, down at the left of the patrol and a little ahead, suddenly wave his hat. It was a signal.

An electric change came over the men. Silently and swiftly they converged ujxin Stewart, who pointed to smoke in the bush. Just smoke. Wilson wondered that their excitement could rise so high on so slender a case.

The sergeant gave orders to dismount and leave the horses standing, to get sidearms ready and advance into the brush. They crept ahead noiselessly from three directions, heard voices over the crackling of the fire, and. parting the bushes, came upon three men eating. They were shaggy men in slouch hats and wom clothes, and one of them wore a faded blue sweater. There could be no doubt. The three started at the apparition of the five serious-faced hunters converging upon them.

“Good day. men,’’ said Wilson.

“Where've you come from?”

The slightest pause and then the eldest pointed over the valley.

"Across the river.”

“Where were you before that?”

“A piece farther up. Campbell’s Meadows they call it.”

“How long since you left there?”

“A couple of days, I guess. Yes, all of that,” continued the elderly one, now quite self-possessed.

“What’re you doing around here?” pursued Wilson.

This time it was another who answered ; a shorter, smiling, even good-natured fellow. “Prospectin’,” he said.

“Prospecting, hmm.” Wilson looked sharply at each in turn. “You three men answer the description of the train robbers, and we arrest you for that crime.”

Nobody stirred.

“We don’t look much like train robbers,” began the elderly one, when the other, the genial chap, rolled over and got on his legs, shouting, "Look out, boys; it’s all up!” and pulled his gun.

The Capture

INSTANTLY there was action enough.

Shorty was firing as he ran. Wilson, oblivious of the bullets whistling by him, covered the elderly man who was reaching for his hip and froze him into that position. Corporal Peters, nearest to the young man in the blue sweater, shouted to him to raise his hands, and as he did so, snatched from him the revolver he had just pulled. Shorty alone was escaping, still firing, but Shoebotham, Stewart and Browning were now running after him, firing at his legs. It was exciting but brief. Twenty shots had been exchanged when the bandit fell headlong into a hole and threw up his hands, yelling, “I’m shot. I’m hit.”

The Police ceased firing and closed in on the man, taking two revolvers, still partly loaded, from him. Blood dripped from his leg. Wilson gave it a swift examination; the bullet had gone through the calf. The wounded man looked up at Shoebotham and said, half humorously:

“I wish you had put it through my head. But you couldn’t blame me, could you?”

It was a moment of happy triumph. Ten minutes before, five Mounted Policemen had been wandering around British Columbia in search of three bandits for whom rewards totalled $11,500. They had gone through hardship, disappointment, suspense, danger. Now the shooting was over and the bandits were in hand. The rest was routine.

Three things were now more urgent than dinner: to get word to the commissioner, to have the bandit’s wound dressed, and to check up on the robbers’ effects. A search of the last-named revealed an arsenal—a rifle, three ordinary revolvers, and three automatics.

‘.‘Enough to stand off an army,” said Wilson, “if they’d been properly posted.” The goggles worn by the elderly robber were discovered, and a bottle of catarrh cure known to have been taken from the mail car. But very little money was found. Meanwhile a rig was being brought, and a doctor. Dunn, the wounded one, joked while the doctor probed his wound.

At 5 p.m. of Tuesday, the 15th, the Mounted Police delivered the prisoners and their effects to the provincial jail at Kamloops. Not quite a week had elapsed since the hold-up, and the Province of British Columbia had not been big enough to hide the bandits from Constable Femie’s keeneyed tracking and the indefatigable pushingon of the Police.

Sergeant Wilson’s report concluded:

“I wish respectfully to draw your attention to the good work done by every member of my party, work done for the most part in pouring rain and darkness. The distance covered was about 185 miles in three days and nights. And I would especially draw attention to the work of Sergeant Shoebotham, Corporals Stewart and Peters, and Constable Browning. Their coolness and courage under fire from an automatic revolver, I think, could not be surpassed.”

The personality of the elderly bandit became the feature of the trial. Kelly from San Quentin was brought north, and identified him as Bill Miner. The famous outlaw, shorn of whiskers, was a rather fine-looking old fellow who inspired confidence. And not only in his followers, for it transpired at the trial that, as divine service was being held at Duck Station a few days before the robbery, a woman had asked this veteran of noble appearance to lead in prayer. This lead Miner was quick to take. He preached “a fine sermon and offered a delightful prayer.” When the woman saw him in the prisoners’ dock, she was the most surprised jierson on the Pacific Slope.

The same sense of humor which had induced Miner to pray sustained him through the trial, and his only comment on hearing the judge deliver the sentence of imprisonment for life, was that he was surprised the “old duffer” did not give him ten years more. Dunn, too, kept on joking, and when he got bored by the trial complained that they were being worked overtime.

All three seemed to appreciate the absence of animus in the Police. They recognized the skill which had trailed them down in a wilderness which one might think had been especially created for the escape of bandits. And it was Dunn who remarked, as he said good-by to Sergeant Wilson;

“You may think it funny, cornin’ from me. but I certainly admire the way you boys do your work.”