#55 Eyewitness to Bill Miner
ESSAY: Eyewitness to Bill Miner: A lost despatch from the Victoria Daily Colonist, 1904
by Fred Braches
First published Dec. 1, 2016
For British Columbians who know their history, the name Bill Miner evokes memories of a failed train robbery in 1906, a crime generously viewed as a gentleman’s transgression. Fred Braches shares new information about a preceding 1904 train robbery which succeeded.
George Anderson, born in Kentucky in 1847, assumed several aliases during his career as a notorious stagecoach robber. What made him famous in British Columbia as Bill Miner, and endeared him to many, was the courtesy and generosity he supposedly displayed alongside his distinctly criminal behaviour.
Most notoriously, in May of 1906, Miner’s attempted train robbery near Kamloops, with two accomplices, led to his arrest and conviction. His charming character became the focus for a Phillip Borsos movie in 1982, The Grey Fox, starring Richard Farnsworth. But as Fred Braches shows here, there’s more to the story — Ed.
After he had served a prison sentence in California for highway robbery, Bill Miner moved to British Columbia. In September of 1904, together with accomplices, he successfully held up a Canadian Pacific Railway train approaching Silverdale, west of Mission, BC.
Much has been written about Bill Miner and this event, but the accounts are mostly sketchy and often based on hearsay.
There is one extraordinary exception: the book Interred with Their Bones, Bill Miner in Canada, by the late Peter Grauer, self-published in 2006.
What escaped even the attention of this researcher, however, is a dispatch published in Victoria’s Daily Colonist. It is an interview with the train engineer, Nat Scott, given only hours after the ill-fated train arrived in Vancouver, and his account must perhaps be given more credence than any secondary source.
The reason why this article so easily escaped attention of researchers is that the Victoria newspaper generally used material from the Vancouver newspapers for its mainland news. Why then look at the Victoria newsletter for information about the robbery?
In this case, however, it was the Victoria paper that took the lead. As the Colonist proudly proclaimed: “Unfortunately for the Vancouver newspapers all their staff were in bed when the train arrived from the East, so they missed the best story of the hold-up that there is to be told.”
Therefore the mainland newspapers depended on the information gathered by the Colonist’s correspondent when they composed their own interpretations of the event. And they gave the Colonist credit for that.
Although in general the stories are similar, details published in the Colonist are missing from the accounts of the mainland newspapers. Not published elsewhere, for instance, is Engineer Nat Scott’s information that the actual robbery took place in Ruskin, across the Stave River, and not in Silverdale as mostly believed.
The following is an extract of the dispatch that can be found in the Daily Colonist of 13 September 1904, showing the sequence of events of that fateful night:
I was going at a pretty good clip about three miles out of Mission Junction. It was 9 o’clock Saturday night [10 September 1904]. I had got to the top of the ascent and was running down the decline when I felt a tap on the side. I turned around and in the indistinct light saw a man’s face covered with a coarse, black handkerchief. I was then commanded in a very quiet voice to stop the train. I replied ‘Oh, get out.’ I thought it was someone joking me and I stepped over to pull off the handkerchief. I then saw that the man had a revolver pointing at me and I saw the shining barrels of two rifles covering myself and the fireman from above the cab.
As I stooped over to pull the lever to stop the train, the quiet voice stopped me. ‘Don’t pull up now. You know that little bridge near Silverdale? Stop there, and if you do as you’re told from this on not a hair of your head will be injured.’ Not a word was said until we reached the bridge across the creek.
Here the man told me to go slow over the bridge and leave the passenger coaches on the east side. Conductor Ward came forward to see what was up but one of the men shoved a rifle into his face and told him to go back where he belonged. Ward lost no time in obeying the order, and going through the cars told the passengers that there was a holdup. But the passengers were not molested.
I was told to go full speed ahead to a place near Ruskin siding. I then uncoupled the engine and stood her a few feet up the track. I carried a torch and we all went back to the express car. The messenger was inside totally oblivious to what was happening. On my calling him he threw open the door and the first thing he saw was a revolver close to his face. ‘Throw up your hands,’ came the command, and up went his hands. The ringleader took the messenger’s revolver out of his pocket. From a safe the messenger took two packages of gold dust, one containing $4,000 in gold dust and the other containing $2,000 in gold dust. He also threw down a valise said to contain bank bills.
Then they moved along to the mail car where the two clerks were told to hand over the registered mail. This they did, when the ringleader said: ‘Now boys, get back in your cars and go to bed.’ The fireman and myself were then marched to where the engine stood.
The ringleader said to me: ‘You know that creek just this side of Whonnock siding? I said I did and as we only had the engine we made good time. When I got to the creek [Cook Creek close to the Whonnock wharf] our guests got off the engine. They were heavily laden. They said ‘Good night’ as they moved off. I replied, ‘Good night; I hope you have a pleasant journey,’ and the ringleader replied, ‘We hope so.’
The locomotive then travelled back to pick up the rail cars left behind at Ruskin and Silverdale before steaming on to Vancouver.
As for Bill Miner, he plied his trade again and stopped a train two years later in Kamloops. But this time he wasn’t so lucky – he was captured and sentenced to life in prison. However, he managed to escape and was never again seen in Canada.
Here is a copy of a map shown in the book Interred with Their Bones, Bill Miner in Canada, by the late Peter Grauer, self-published in 2006. Silver Creek (1), shown on the map as the place where the passenger coaches were left, is actually named Jamieson Creek. The bridge across Jamieson Creek would have been where today McLean Street crosses the rail tracks. Silver Creek was the original name of today’s Silverdale Creek close to Mission and far from Silverdale. The actual looting took place near Heaps mill in Ruskin (2). From Ruskin, without any wagons attached, the engine sped away to Whonnock (3). Bill Miner and his friends were dropped off at “the creek just this side of Whonnock siding.” That was at Cook Creek, right at the Whonnock wharf. There they “borrowed” a rowboat to cross the Fraser and vanished in the night.
The Dutch-born (1930) local historian and creator of Whonnock Notes, Fred Braches, immigrated to Vancouver in 1974 with his wife, Helmi. They have lived for decades on acreage in the community of Whonnock, in Maple Ridge. After he retired in 1995 from a career in ocean transportation that started in Amsterdam in 1953, Braches became increasingly interested in the early history of the eastern part of Maple Ridge and has been steadily amassing a large collection of records related to the past of that area. Braches served as editor and prime producer of BC Historical News for several years before the B.C. Historical Federation changed the magazine’s name to British Columbia History. Later he won their Best Article Award for 2009 and their Website Award in 2008 for his Slumach website. Braches remains active by writing, editing and producing a series on the history of Whonnock and Ruskin (Maple Ridge) called Whonnock Notes, freely available on the internet but also produced in a magazine format for $5 plus $5 for shipping and handling.
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