Stagecoach robbers told Idaho drivers to ‘throw down the box!’

When masked men held up a stagecoach in early Idaho, the prize they hoped to steal, above any other loot, was the Wells, Fargo & Co. treasure box.

Here is a typical example of such a robbery, reported on page one of the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman on Sept. 7, 1869: “The Wells, Fargo & Co. stage from Helena, Mont., to Corinne, Utah, was robbed six miles north of Malad City, Idaho, by 4 masked men, while 3 others could be seen ‘on picket duty.’ The moon was just up on a night that was light and pleasant.”

The robbers got away with two strongboxes filled with gold dust and bullion, but the driver, another company employee, and 10 passengers were not robbed.

In August 1870, the Idaho World reported: “Two stage robberies have occurred within the past week in both of which the road agents appear to have ‘got away’ with considerable booty. The Idaho stage was stopped by four men ... about four miles from Elko on the Cope road, and Wells, Fargo & Co.’s treasure box taken. We have learned no further particulars as to whether they robbed the mail or not or whether anybody was hurt. The express company offers a reward of $3,000 in coin for the capture of the robbers.

“The other robbery took place in the eastern end of our Territory. ... The coach going from Helena, Mont., to Corinne, Utah, was stopped by six men at Snake River and the W.F. & Co.’s treasure box carried off, for which, and the capture of the road gentry, the Company offers a reward of $6,000 in coin.”

In October 1871, the stage between Boise and Umatilla, Ore., was stopped and robbed at about 10 o’clock at night 2 miles from Old’s Ferry by two men who took only the Wells, Fargo & Co. treasure box. Just two days later, Sheriff Bryon brought two men suspected of being the robbers to Boise. For an arrest to have been made so soon, the two must have been recognized at the time of the robbery.

Wells, Fargo & Co. was the target again when a daring nighttime thief dug under the company’s office in Silver City, pried up the floor boards and stole a treasure box containing $600. Highwaymen and burglars must have thought it nice of Wells, Fargo & Co. to box the loot in handy-sized portable containers. Robbers who held up the stage on Kelton Road on July 27, 1875, however, didn’t take the treasure box with them. Instead, they broke it open, emptied it and left it beside the road.

Stagecoach robberies were reported regularly in the Idaho Statesman throughout the rest of the 19th century, and almost always the Wells, Fargo & Co. box was the target, as the Statesman reported several times between Oct. 28, 1875, and Dec. 26, 1881. In May 1876, famed Deputy Sheriff Orlando “Rube” Robbins was one of the lawmen who went to Silver City and brought back a gang of four stage robbers. Robbins was often charged with tracking down road agents and other criminals and bringing them back to Boise for trial. He had a reputation for “always getting his man.”

Following the holdup of the Overland stage by a lone gunman in July 1881, Robbins was again sent in pursuit. The Statesman reported, “In the stage that was robbed were a gentleman, his wife and three children, and a hostler in the employ of the company. The box that was thrown out was the Wood River box, and contained, besides some small sums of money, six hundred dollars belonging to N. Falk & Bro.”

The Wood River mining boom that began in 1880 was at its peak when this robbery took place, and the Wood River Valley had become a major destination of travelers using John Hailey’s Utah, Oregon & Idaho Stage Co. coaches. After Hailey took up land between Bellevue and Ketchum, the new town started there was named for him.

Stagecoach robberies were common in Idaho in the 1880s and ’90s, sometimes within days of each other on the same route, but armed guards rarely rode along to protect them.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.