Harmon’s Histories: Early stagecoach rides required bullets and bravery

Of the 400 stage coach lines in the country in the 1860s, only a handful were operating in Montana Territory – and they did so at great risk to life and property.

“Daring Robbery” was the 1864 headline in Virginia City’s Montana Postnewspaper. As the stagecoach traveled between Virginia City and Salt Lake City, “she was stopped by four robbers, and the inmates, four in number, were robbed of from $27,000 in dust.

The newspaper demanded that “prompt measures should be resorted to, to put a stop to these daring outrages. These road agents, as they are called, can easily be dispensed with.”

Easily dispensed with? Wishful thinking. The holdups continued for years.

In 1867, “three robbers completely masked and armed with double barreled shot guns” took over the stage station 16 miles south of Virginia City at Desert Wells.

They tied up the employees and as the coach arrived, “stepped out of the station and, with their guns, covered the driver and passengers (eight), and ordered them to get down, which they did, one at a time, one of the robbers tying their hands behind their backs while the other two kept the guns pointed at them,” relieving them, of their cash.

But the take was disappointing – only a few hundred dollars, and the stage “treasure box” was equally disappointing. The bandits “expressed disgust,” complaining loudly, “if they had made a good haul they would have left the country, but as it was, they would be obliged to try again.”

In his newspaper series recounting the days of the vigilantes, Thomas Dimsdale wrote of one holdup, “The Road Agents roared out, ‘Get down, every (expletive) of you, and hold up your hands, or we’ll shoot the first of you that puts them down.’ ”

One passenger, anticipating the possibility of a robbery, had constructed a special purse “that went down into his pants,” held up by suspenders. But the bandits, with apparent inside information about the ruse, threatened the traveler’s life, whereupon “seeing there was no chance of saving his money, he commenced unbuckling the strap.”

Not all the road agents were so threatening; some acted quite gentlemanly. Near Helena, the leader of a masked trio of robbers, seeing a frightened, trembling woman passenger clutching her little girl, said: “Do not be alarmed, madame; there will be no one hurt, and you will not be interfered with. I would not rob a lady if she had thousands of dollars.

“When he came to the carpet sack belonging to the lady in the coach, her little child said, ‘Don’t take that; that’s my mama’s,’ and the gallant robber returned it unopened.”

By all accounts, the biggest danger faced by the passengers in this robbery was the nervousness of the other two highwaymen. They appeared to be complete novices. “One of them trembled so that (passengers) were afraid (his) shotgun would be discharged by accident.”

All three wore black masks, but the wind ruffled one of them revealing “an ugly scar upon the side of (the man’s) nose.” That clue soon led to the capture of the three.

A few times, the good guys got the upper hand. John McCormick of Missoula was aboard a stage heading from Deer Lodge to Helena when “two men with drawn revolvers attempted to stop the stage.”

McCormick later told reporters: “I drew up my pistol and fired, (then) instantly sent another bullet after the first. One of the robbers fell (and) attempted to rise and make his way into the brush, but after staggering a few steps into the thicket, he again fell.

“The other man then commenced shooting … the bullets whistled pretty close.” In the exchange of gunfire, one of the stage horses was killed.

The report concluded, “No particulars were received as to whether Mr. McCormick’s shot was a fatal one or not, but we all say: Bully for John, anyway.”

By the late 1800s, most of the valuable cargo was conveyed by rail rather than stage, so bandits were forced to update their skill-sets by learning how to topple trees onto tracks, cause landslides, and practice using newly popular dynamite to blow up strong boxes.

Inventive types – those road agents of the 19thcentury!

Over time, passenger travel by stage, then rail, and later private car became safer and safer. Today we have so few concerns that complaining about road construction is one of the few options left to us. Not that I’m suggesting we bring back highway robbery.

Still, the thrill of bullets whistling by …

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.