19th Century Bandits: Great Verdi Train Robbery to Black Bart, Part 1

19th Century train robbery. | Harpers Illustrated

Rumors of buried or lost treasure from 19th Century train and stagecoach robberies abound in the Tahoe Sierra. People are still looking for missing loot from an 1870 train heist along the Truckee River near the state line dubbed the Great Verdi Train Robbery.

The express train out of Oakland carried nearly $50,000 worth of gold coins and silver bullion for Comstock mining payrolls. The caper marked the first railway holdup in the Far West and signified a new threshold of violent crime and large-scale theft. The high-profile incident upped the ante for detectives of the Wells Fargo Express Company that had custody of the shipment and for Central Pacific Railroad that wanted to maintain at least the illusion of tight security over its monetary payloads.

After the stickup, the five-man gang split up in different directions, but law enforcement was quickly on the trail and caught most of the criminals still in possession of their cut of the spoils. After rousting the bad guys and sending them to prison, officers admitted that around $3,000 worth of $20 gold pieces was still missing, allegedly stashed by one or two of the fugitives while on the run in the area. Or was it lost near Central Pacific’s Verdi Depot where the thieves frantically grabbed what booty they could from the express car and fled? Today, that lost coinage is worth at least $70,000 to the party that finds the stash. The value is likely much more as the vintage coins will have a higher worth to collectors.

Millions in the backyard
Tales of lost gold are usually just fantasy but not always. Ten years ago, in 2013, a Northern California couple was walking on their Sierra foothill property when they spotted a small, rusted can partially exposed due to erosion. They took it home and discovered that it contained $5, $10, and $20 gold coins from the 19th Century. They returned to the site with a shovel and metal detector and found seven more containers. Dates on the currency spanned half a century from 1847 to 1894. The coins have a face value of $27,000 but a professional numismatic appraiser estimated the 1,427 specie at $10 million.

The legendary bandit Black Bart successfully robbed 28 stagecoaches over eight years, more than any individual or gang in the United States. And he did it without firing a shot.

The remarkable cache, labeled the Saddle Ridge Hoard, may be the most lucrative discovery of buried coins in United States’ history. The husband and wife who found the treasure have not been revealed. No one wants shovel-wielding prospectors digging around their property and neighborhood.

The couple are also protecting themselves from U.S. Treasure Trove Laws where the whole collection could be taken and given to the descendants of whoever buried it or the government might make a claim. The secretive nature of the case has only fueled boundless speculation about the source of the money. One-third of the coins are unused and in perfect mint condition. An exceptionally rare find.

Mystery behind the treasure’s source
How did the treasure get there and who buried it? The discovery went viral and journalist sleuths lit up the media conjuring semi-plausible theories. Since most of the coins were minted in San Francisco, pundits pointed to the 1900 pilfering of $30,000 worth of gold coins from the cashier’s vault at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco by a trusted employee. After an audit revealed the missing money, federal Secret Service agents suspected Chief Clerk Walter N. Dimmick of taking the 1,500 coins. A jury convicted Dimmick and he was sentenced to San Quentin Prison for nine years.

Authorities never recovered the six bags of uncirculated $20 Double Eagles. Coincidently the bulk of the Saddle Ridge coins were double eagles in pristine condition struck at the S.F. Mint. One of them was misstruck without a motto and the Mint would have destroyed it unless stolen first by an insider. That coin alone is worth $1 million dollars today.

457 stage robberies
Curious historians focused on California stagecoach bandits to explain the treasure. There were 457 stage robberies in the state from the first in 1856 and the last in 1913. The Tahoe Sierra and foothill mining districts were a lucrative market for road agents as buckboards often carried company payrolls in coin in a locked box while passengers traveled with cash and jewelry.

Criminals do not deposit stolen loot in banks so burying it near a recognizable tree or land feature was a frequent tactic. The culprit(s) could then return to town and innocently mix in giving them an alibi with the intent of recovering the plunder when the heat died down.

Hold ups occurred regularly on the busy road between Truckee and Nevada City, the county seat. The mountainous route between Placerville and Virginia City near South Lake Tahoe attracted its fair share of bad men. The list of bold highwaymen and notorious outlaws in the Golden State is long. The legendary bandit Black Bart successfully robbed 28 stagecoaches over eight years, more than any individual or gang in the United States. And he did it without firing a shot.

Black Bart’s spree begins
Black Bart robbed his first stage on July 26, 1875. Armed with a rifle he held up a coach in Calaveras County carrying a Wells Fargo lock box. Ignoring the terrified passengers inside the stage and with his face concealed by a flour sack with eyeholes cut out, he grabbed a bank bag containing $20 Double Eagles and a fistful of envelopes containing cash from the U.S. Mail pouch. As fast as he had appeared, the solitary desperado with the clipped British accent quietly slipped away into the forest. There was no chase or search for him. He just vanished into the brush. Black Bart was the most improbable 19th Century highwayman, polite and rarely threatening. He didn’t even own a horse.

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition or at YourTahoeGuide.com

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at TheStormKing.com. Check out his blog at TahoeNuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.