Canada’s last great train robbery
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
It had everything — banditry gunplay and a manhunt. CPR's No. 63 was climbing through the Crowsnest Pass when this drama on wheels began — as it ended — with conductor Sam Jones’ new gold watch
When masked gunmen robbed a train near Woodstock, Ont., last August most Canadians could recall nothing like it outside of American wild-west history or a Saturday matinee.
No shots were fired, no passengers molested and the case quickly paled beside news of intercontinental missiles. In short, it had none of the violent drama and suspense that made headlines and kept Canadians on the edges of their seats just over thirty-seven years ago when bandits staged a holdup more bizarre than Hollywood ever produced. It happened in the Crowsnest Pass, the mountain corridor that links southwestern Alberta with southeastern B. C.. and it had everything: holdup, getaway, gun battle, manhunt, tragedy, w'ry humor and a final capture based on a single clue—the train conductor’s watch.
For those who shared in the Crowsnest case, Woodstock’s robbery merely freshened an unforgettable memory. Mrs. Mark Gaskell, an elderly widow in the Pass village of Michel, B.C., remembers the Crowsnest holdup well; she was a passenger on the train. Ray Hobkirk, now an insurance-company official in Vancouver, then an RCMP constable, will never forget the seventy-two eerie sleepless hours he spent with a posse, combing the Rockies for one of the gunmen.
People still coax big Ernest Schoeppe, now a Vancouver factory maintenance man. then an Alberta Provincial Police detective, to tell how he tracked down the last bandit in a story-book finish. And in Medicine Hat a retired CPR conductor, Samuel Edward Jones, need only pull a worn gold watch from his bureau drawer to relive the dramatic event. It really began and ended with Sam Jones' watch . . .
It was nearly five p.m. on August 2. 1920. CPR train No. 63—first-class coach, wickerseated smoking car, baggage and express cars— labored slow ly into the Rockies. Behind was the town of Coleman. Ahead was Sentinel. Alta., a whistle stop. Beyond lay the Pass and B. C.
It was a warm drowsy day. Jones, a slight auburn-haired man of about forty, paused to admire his watch. It was a thin 23-jewel Elgin, marked in both twelve and twenty-four hours, with one hour hand for Mountain time, another
for Pacific time. He'd paid ninety-six dollars (most of a month's wages) for it exactly two weeks before and he was extremely proud of it.
He pocketed it and strolled through the smoker. Thirty or forty passengers were aboard: commercial travelers, housewives, a few campers en route to the Rockies, three laborers from Lethbridge. As usual, this trip from Lethbridge to Cranbrook. B.C., was a quiet run. Which was why. as he glanced into the lavatory. Jones could scarcely believe his eyes. One of the swarthy Lethbridge laborers was training a pistol on Jones’ stomach.
“You’re drunk!” gasped the conductor. “Put that thing away!”
But a second “laborer,” short, authoritative, with hard beady eyes and wearing a Stetson hat and high-laced boots, sprang up at the opposite end of the car with a Mauser automatic in his hand.
“Put up your hands, everybody!” he shouted.
The passengers stared numbly. A third gunman—big. dark, square-faced with a shaggy mustache and an artificial eye—brandished a Luger. Then, not bothering to put on the conventional bandits’ masks, the trio began to rob the train.
Train holdups were almost as inconceivable then as now. By 1920 everyone assumed that faster trains, fast telegraphy, sturdier express cars and motorized police forces had made train robbery impossible. The shear audacity of this one began to irk conductor Jones as he fretted in the seat where he'd been shoved at gunpoint.
When the passenger beside him urged, “Pull the signal cord,” Jones said “I think I will.” He yanked the cord, which set off a whistle in the locomotive cab. One jerk meant. “Stop at next point, passengers detraining.” Two jerks meant, “Stop immediately.” Before Jones could pull the cord a second time the gunman with the Mauser whirled and fired. The bullet smacked foto the woodwork beside the
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Move!” The bandit fired and the train raced furiousiy for help
conductor’s hand. He sat down abruptly. In the cab, engineer George Alexander interpreted the signal as. "Stop at Sentinel.” Number 63 chugged on.
The gunmen, barking orders in strong Russian accents, herded all the passengers
into the first-class coach. There was no resistance; everyone was cowed by the gun shot. But the women, at least, were terrified. Mrs. Mark Gaskell and her small daughter Annie huddled together, expecting to be robbed and perhaps man-
handled. Mrs. Gaskell dropped her voluminous hat over her purse; Annie shoved her puppy under too.
But the bandits seemed to have a vague sort of chivalry. No women were searched. On seeing this, several men passed
their wallets to women who tucked them into dresses or under hats.
Two men saved their cash by slipping it into their socks. A power-company manager stuffed a thousand dollars in cash and cheques behind his seat cushion. As a bandit approached, the manager said, “My money's in the right-hand pocket.”
The bandit drew out sixty-five cents.
"Keep it,” he said sourly.
“Thanks for leaving me supper money,” said the manager, but politely.
The quick-triggered man with the Mauser relieved conductor Jones of $27.95 railway money and fifty dollars of his own. He took twenty-five dollars from baggageman J. H. Staples, and forty from a brakeman named Hickey.
“By God, that’s all I've got!” complained Hickey.
“That’s all right, you earn more,” said the bandit.
Within ten minutes the trio had about three hundred dollars but were grumbling disappointedly. Obviously they'd expected a large bankroll. They ignored the express car but frisked two men down to their underclothes. Then the train stopped at Sentinel.
“Why we stop?” cried one of the bandits.
Jones refused to answer. The trio headed for the door. As a final indignity the man with the Mauser yanked Jones’ watch from his vest, breaking the gold chain. Jones fumed, but in silence.
Outside, one gunman shouted to the astonished engineer. "When I shoot, you move!” Several passengers who’d planned to detrain at Sentinel changed their minds. The shot rang out, the bandits vanished over a knoll and Number 63 puffed so furiously over the next five miles, including a twisting route around Crowsncst Lake, that Mrs. Mark Gaskell thought “we’d all fall in the drink.”
At Crowsnest station Jones telegraphed to the Alberta provincial police. The alarm chattered through Coleman, Cowley, Fort Maclcod, Calgary. Edmonton and scores of intermediate stations. Everywhere people were aghast. Freda Bundy, wife of the CPR agent at Cowley, gasped. “But people just don’t rob trains any more!” The telegraph went wild with messages and soon armed men began pouring into the Pass.
That was Monday. By Tuesday the Pass was teeming with provincial police, RCMP. CPR police, reserve-army men and civilians. Three East Kootenay Indians were called in as trackers, dut the bandits had vanished. It was perfect hideout country: bush, craggy mountains, ten coal-mining and farming communities within a thirty-five-mile span and, in the very middle, the Frank Slide— thirty-two-hundred acres and seventy million tons of boulders that had spilled over the valley from Turtle Mountain in 1903. crushing a town and sixty-six people. In the Slide, searchers would have to step on a man to find him.
But police at least were able to identify the bandits from their descriptions. The brawny mustached man with the glass eye was Tom Basoff. His Mausertoting pal was Ausby (Alex) Auloff. I he third was George AkofF. Wags in the posse soon referred to the three as the “All-offs.” They were described as Russians in their twenties or thirties. Basoff and AkofF had worked in the Pass as casual laborers and sheepherders.
There was a possible special motive for the crime too. Police thought the trio had expected to find the “king" of prairie bootleggers, Emilio (Emperor Pic) Picariello, or a confederate, on the train. Picariello, until he was hanged in 1923 for his part in the shooting of a Moun-
tie, ran liquor between the U. S. and Canada. It was said he made “collection” trips by train, carrying large bankrolls. It was even rumored that Emperor Pic started out on No. 63 that day, sensed trouble and dropped off at Coleman. At least, judging from the way they searched male passengers, the bandits thought he was aboard.
For five days Basoff, Auloff and Akoff eluded the posse. Later, police reconstructed their movements. The trio quarreled and Auloff headed for the international boundary, fifty miles south, with conductor Jones’ watch. (It was never established what happened to the three hundred dollars.) On Friday night Basoff and Akoff visited a dance hall and a bawdy house in Bellevue, Alta., a grimy little mountain coal town. No one notified the police. Among their friends, Basoff and Akoff were known as “good sports.”
At two p.m., Saturday, August 7. Basoff and Akoff strolled jauntily down Bellevue’s main street. They paused in front of justice of the peace Joseph Robertson’s office window to read and chuckle over their own “Wanted” posters. Robertson glanced out and recognized Basoff by his artificial eye.
The bandits sauntered into the Bellevue Café. . Robertson sprinted for a policeman. He met three: RCMP Corporal Ernest Usher, a twenty-six-yearold Irishman from County Galway; Constable Frederick Bailey, a thirty-year-old Englishman in the natty blue uniform and leather leggings of the APP. and World War I veteran James Frewin. an APP constable in civilian clothes.
Frewin boldly entered the Chinese café and casually glanced around. In the second booth Basoff was munching a steak; Akoff, a plate of cold ham. Frewin stepped outside, checked his .38 Smith and Wesson and his .32 Browning automatic, nodded to Bailey and Usher and led the way back in.
“Put up your hands,” he ordered. “We're police officers.”
“Why for we put up our hands?” said Akoff and reached under the table. Frewin shouted another warning, saw a gun barrel come up and opened fire. Akoff slumped but did not fall. Frewin backed toward the front door, fumbling for his second gun, as Bailey moved forward from a rear entrance.
The powerful Basoff lunged for Corporal Usher's gun. The Mountie fired into Basoff’s right leg. There were more shots. Then Bellevue’s horrified citizens, watching from stores, livery stable and barber shop, saw a grim tableau: Usher stumbled to the door and fell bleeding on the step. Bailey backed out, fell over Usher and lay momentarily stunned. Next came Akoff, bleeding and retching. He staggered thirty yards from the door and fell mortally wounded.
Basoff limped to the doorway, carrying his I.uger and Usher’s .45. At that moment Bailey stirred and Basoff shot him in the head, then pumped more shots into Usher, killing them both.
From behind a telephone pole Joe Robertson, the middle-aged J.P., gamely fired a .22-calibre pistol, missing each time. Basoff ignored him and limped into the mountains. Around the corner Frewin snapped some shots at the escaping gunman but they were wide of their mark.
With two policemen dead, every other police officer in southern Alberta was determined to take Basoff and Auloff (who was still believed to be in the Pass, though, in fact, he had already crossed into the U. S.). Men came in by car. train and horse-and-buggy. By Sunday at least two hundred were combing the
Pass. It was a weird setting—gloomy Rockies looming through rain and mist, grubby little mining towns full of people who hadn't cared much for the law since prohibition and so weren't always co-operative, lonely mining shacks and pits, any of which could shelter a gunman.
Everyone was jumpy and on Sunday night the inevitable happened. Nick Kislick, an enthusiastic civilian searcher, entered an abandoned shack while a police constable covered the outside. A train went by. Kislick leaped from the shack window, apparently planning to board and search the train. The constable saw a dim running figure. His 'Halt” was lost in the train's roar. He killed Kislick with one shot.
Miraculously, there were no more accidents, although with three police forces working under separate commands there was some confusion. Through all of it Basoff stayed at large.
About 1 1 a.m. Monday he limped to the Joe Holloway ranch near Frank, only about tw'o miles from Bellevue. Mrs. Holloway, alone with her small daughter, hastily handed over bread, cheese, three slices of bacon and a dipper of water.
‘Don't tell the police I was here,” Basoff warned and hobbled away, disheveled and obviously in pain. But Mrs. Holloway took a chance, phoned for help and soon had forty men on the spot. They searched the rocks in pouring rain —but no Basoff.
Basoff’s fleeting appearance added a fillip of excitement. Women barred their doors. Travelers refused to pick up hitchhikers. The Chatauqua. the famous traveling stage show of the 1920s was playing in the Pass to near-empty halls.
On every southern Alberta street corner. conversations began with. "Have they got ’em yet?” People began to heckle the police. A Lethbridge man wired the RCMP, whether seriously or sarcastically no one was sure, “PLEASE PUT OFF SEARCH UNTIL WEEK-END SO I CAN HELP.” At Cowley an ominous crudely lettered note was tossed from a passing train. “Stop the hunt for Basoff or you will rue the day.” It turned out the note w-as written by a mischievous boy.
But the police were doing their best against considerable odds. Some went sleepless for three days. Sudden showers drenched them. Rocks chewed at their boots. Dozens of false alarms had to be investigated; so did every car. train or horse-drawn vehicle leaving the area. Every noise or shadow could mean that Basoff or Auloff had them in a gun sight. One night RCMP constable Ray Hobkirk was frightened nearly out of his wits when a bear cub shuffled onto the lonely trail Hobkirk was guarding.
But on Wednesday, August 12, the searchers took new hope. From Seattle, Wash., came tw'o deputy sheriffs and three highly rated bloodhounds. The bloodhounds—Dynamite, age six. Lightning, age five, and Dan, a pup—were insured for five thousand dollars. Police, citizens and a delegation of mongrels respectfully greeted their train at Frank. The hounds stepped down and bayed ferociously. The local people and dogs were much impressed.
Deputy sheriffs Asa Lee and C. H. Kearney huddled with the Mounties, provincials and CPR police officials. It had rained all night and hundreds of men had crisscrossed Basoff’s five-day-old trail. But Lee and Kearney let the hounds sniff a cap purported to be Basoff's and said reassuringly, “They’ll get the scent!”
Off raced the hounds—in different directions. They were an unqualified failure. Dan, for example, led his party up
a mountain for a half hour, then stopped and sniffed. The police peered warily into the mist, guns drawn. But Dan merely investigated a bush, bayed and led his men back downhill.
As it turned out the dogs were attempting the impossible. By that afternoon the incredible Basoff had slipped through the police cordon, hobbled twenty miles east on his festering wound, clambered eight hundred feet across a railway trestle near Cowley and was close to freedom.
Then he made a simple mistake in hobo etiquette.
Late that evening CPR engineer Harry Hammond, operating a pusher engine three miles west of Pincher station, caught a man in his headlight and was instantly alert. The man looked away as Hammond approached. Most waysiders, even bums, waved or at least looked at a passing train. Hammond went on to Cowley, full of suspicion.
“Come on." he told station agent Clarence Bundy. "I think 1 saw Basoff down the track.”
"You want to chase Basoff without guns?" snorted Bundy. "The railway po-
lice are just five miles from here. I'll call them.”
At 11 p.m. Hammond ferried CPR constables Sawyer, Hallworth, Towler and J. J. Glover into Pincher. Meanwhile. Basoff disguised his limp, entered a Pincher store, bought a bag of biscuits and a tin of bully beef and w'alked out, unnoticed among the many ragged transients that followed the rails in those days.
Outdoors, he squatted beside a stockyard feed shed and wolfed the food, his first since leaving the Holloway ranch sixty hours before. He was still there,
one hand in the biscuit bag, when CPR constable Glover turned a flashlight on him.
“Hands up!” said Glover, drawing his gun.
“You crazy? What lor 1 hold my hands up?” protested BasofT.
“Get ’em up,” snapped Glover. Basoff still didn’t move. Glover, a tall rawboned war veteran, kicked Basoff’s right elbow hard. Basoff raised his hands. Towler snapped on handcuffs. Glover pulled a loaded .45 Colt automatic from inside Basoff’s shirt.
Tom Basoff was convicted of constable Bailey’s murder and was hanged in December. 1'here was still no trace of Auloff or the gold watch. Most Albertans forgot the case but conductor Sam Jones kept hoping and the provincial police kept hunting.
APP Assistant-Superintendent J. D. Nicholson, an ex-Mountie, personally headed the search. He traced Auloff through lumber camps and towns all over the northwestern U. S. At every stop he left Auloff’s description and that of the stolen watch. But Auloff had made many friends (perhaps with train - robbery money). Nicholson was soon marked as a policeman and, somehow, Auloff always was warned as his pursuer closed in.
Finally Nicholson relinquished the search to detective Ernest Schoeppe. Schoeppe was admirably fitted for the job—a patient, powerful thick-shouldered man, more than six feet tall. As a police interpreter he spoke English, German, Polish, Russian, Slavish, Bohemian and Ruthenian tongues or dialects. For three months, posing as a transient and friend of Auloff, Schoeppe drifted through Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington. Auloff’s friends suspected nothing; once, in fact, they urged Schoeppe to start a fund to help Auloff in his flight. But whether by accident or cunning, the train bandit was always a little ahead of the detective.
Auloff disappeared, probably into Mexico. Schoeppe returned to the Calgary detachment and bided his time. On January 18, 1924, he received a telegram from the Portland, Ore., police. Conductor Jones’s watch had turned up in a Portland pawnshop. Schoeppe took a train to Oregon, redeemed the watch and tracked down Ali Hassen, the man who'd pawned it.
“Where’d you get it?” Schoeppe asked.
“1 won it at poker from a miner in Butte, Montana,” said Hassen. The “miner” answered Auloff’s description. Hassen and Schoeppe went to Butte. Within half a day they caught up with Auloff, posing under another name. He agreed to go to Canada but insisted Schoeppe had the wrong man.
The train moved north and Schoeppe pulled out the conductor’s watch with an elaborate pretense of checking the time. Auloff watched from the corner of an eye. Schoeppe dangled the watch a second, then a third time. Finally Auloff grinned ruefully, “All right. I’m your man. That damn watch! I wish I’d thrown it away.”
In Alberta, Jones met the train to identify the bandit and claim his property. As he entered the coach a cocky cigar-smoking Auloff—the man who’d shot at him three and a half years before—called cheerfully, “Hello there, conductor.”
“Where’s the watch?” growled Jones.
“Right here,” grinned Schoeppe.
The watch appeared as evidence at the trial, where Auloff was sentenced to seven years. Then Sam Jones claimed it— and the great Crowsnest train robbery was over. ★