If you were a train robber in the late nineteenth century, the Texas & Pacific trestle over Mary’s Creek was the place to be.
At 5:50 p.m. on December 6, 1894, the Dallas Morning News reported the next day, three masked men boarded the locomotive of the Fort Worth-bound Texas & Pacific train as it was stopped at a water tank northeast of Benbrook at the Mary’s Creek trestle. The three men then forced the engineer and fireman to break in the door of the express car. The robbers wore masks, fired at least two shots, and got away with a small safe, the Morning News reported. The report mentions two sums for the booty: “upward of $100,000” and “$100,000 to $140,000.” Today $100,000 would be $2.6 million, so these sums might be exaggerated.
Engineer Baker and conductor Bogart lived on the near South Side. Bogart also was secretary and treasurer of the local chapter of the railway conductors union, which met at the Knights of Pythias lodge hall.
By sunset Tarrant County Sheriff Elisha Adam Euless and posse were in “hot pursuit.” (Aside to Amtrak: Note that despite being stopped and robbed, the train was only fifteen minutes late arriving in Fort Worth.)
That robbery marked at least the third time in seven years that a T&P train had been stopped and robbed on the Mary’s Creek trestle. The Burrow gang had stopped and robbed a T&P train there on June 4 and September 20, 1887.
The Dallas Morning News also printed the statement of the locomotive engineer, John Baker. His account of the robbery differs somewhat from the reporter’s version. According to Baker, as the train was nearing the Mary’s Creek trestle, one robber appeared in the cab of the locomotive and ordered Baker to reverse the train and stop. Then two other robbers who had been waiting in the brush boarded the train. Just as the Burrow gang had done, the 1894 robbers forced members of the train crew to use coal picks to break open the express car door. The robbers then ordered the engineer to again reverse the train almost a mile and stop. The three robbers disappeared into the brush but not before warning the train crew with an apparent bluff: “By God, you had better look out going up there, for we have pulled the [railroad tie] spikes. You could not get away from us.”
After the robbery several Benbrook residents told lawmen that they had seen three young local farmers—John C. Ward, John Phillips, and George Sullivan—near the trestle both before and after the robbery. These men became the prime suspects.
As lawmen sought the three suspects, on December 10 Deputy Sheriff William Rea chastised the newspapers for printing too much information about the investigation. Clip is from the December 11 Dallas Morning News.
Nonetheless, the three suspects were quickly arrested. Phillips was arrested in Longview on December 10 and brought back to Tarrant County on “the west-bound cannon ball” of the T&P. The three men were indicted.
Early in 1895 two sensational Fort Worth crimes were in the news. On January 4 the Dallas Morning News reported on the Benbrook train robbery and on the case of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes.
At trial several Benbrook residents testified that defendants Ward and Phillips and Sullivan had reputations as honest, peaceable citizens. But several Benbrook residents testified to having seen the three defendants riding toward the trestle shortly before the robbery. One such witness was James M. Benbrook, for whom the city is named.
When Texas & Pacific had finally laid track westward from Fort Worth Mr. Benbrook had lobbied the railroad to route its track through his settlement, which originally had been named “Marinda” after benefactor Rachael Marinda Willburn Snyder.
During the trial defendant Ward admitted to having been in the vicinity of the trestle at the time of the robbery but claimed he had been there while trying to fetch home his brother-in-law Phillips, who was in the company of Sullivan. Phillips and Sullivan, Ward testified, were drunk and on horseback. Phillips, Ward said, had been drinking a patent medicine all day.
U.S. Deputy Marshal Henry Sisk had been hired by the Pacific Express Company to apprehend the train robbers. Sisk testified that, with a search warrant, he found two pistols buried in a heap of shelled oats at the Ward homestead. Sisk turned the pistols over to Sheriff Euless.
Phillips was convicted, but the case was remanded on a technicality, and the three suspects were released on bond, to be retried later. The three promptly did what freed train robbery suspects are apt to do: They vamoosed.
But in early 1897 Ward was arrested and jailed in Alabama for robbing two trains there. Sullivan also was a suspect in those robberies but remained at large. Clip is from the February 2, 1897 Fort Worth Register. (The “December 1895” date is incorrect.)
After Ward was arrested in Alabama, Phillips turned himself in here and stood trial again. Again he was convicted and sentenced to five years. With Phillips convicted and Ward in jail in Alabama, only Sullivan remained at large. Clip is from the February 27, 1897 Register.
Later in 1897, almost three years after the robbery, enter railroad detective P. R. Burns, whose description as “outlaw hunter” sounds a bit like that of Texan Joe LeFors in Butch Cassidy. Burns had come to Fort Worth, although he declined to say why. In 1896 the Southern Express Company had sent Burns to Fort Worth to look for Sullivan. Clip is from the August 27, 1897 Register. (Again, the “1895” date is incorrect.)
P. R. Burns was a busy man in 1897. In January the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser reported that he had been summoned to Alabama after the second train robbery at the same station within a short period. The telegram read: “Train held up . . . Send Burns.”
But if Captain Burns—or anyone else—ever bought in George Sullivan, I can find no account of it, and the 1894 robbery at Mary’s Creek—and the still-missing money and the still-missing Sullivan—seemed to fall out of the headlines after 1897.
This 1895 map detail shows the lay of the land. The home of James M. Benbrook was labeled, as were the railroad track and Mary’s Creek. And after at least three train robberies, the T&P trestle over Mary’s Creek was labeled “Train Robber’s Bridge.” (From Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
In the years since that third robbery in 1894 train robberies have become almost unheard of, the age of steam has evaporated, the Texas & Pacific railroad is no more, and the world has grown up around the once-isolated railroad crossing over Mary’s Creek. Today you can find the trestle just east of where the creek flows under Vickery Boulevard in an area of decidedly unexciting light industry. Next time you’re out that way, stop your car, pull a mask over your face, and holler, “Reach for the sky!”
I imagine that the trestle would appreciate that.
It looks bored.