The Burbank Train Robbery?


(23 December 1893)



From an action gallery website:


Wells, Fargo & Co's Express "Train Robbery" Ledger - 260 pages, 8.5" x 13". Recording 95 robberies, or attempted robberies of trains from 1870-1902, mostly 1890s, on pages headed "Wells, Fargo & Co's Express," with "Train Robbery" on the left page and "Additional" heading the right page. Filled in are the location, time, date, and, if available, the messenger, engineer, and fireman names and monetary amount of Wells, Fargo's loss and the amount recovered. The names of the robbers, if known, are listed. Arrests, sentencing, and/or pardons granted and additional information about the robbers, if available, is included. In some cases, rewards are noted. The locations of the robberies are indexed in the front of the ledger.

An excerpt from the Ledger:

#47 "Near Rosco Switch on the Southern Pacific Railroad, about 11:15 PM., Saturday Dec 23rd 1893...Wells, Fargo & Co's Loss $13.85 Amount Recovered Nothing. Burbank is about nine miles north of Los Angeles. Rosco about four miles further north...This train left Los Angeles on time 10:36 and reached Burbank on time. As this train was leaving the 'Ever Station' in Los Angeles a medium sized man dressed in dark clothes and hat got onto the front step of smoking car and was noticed there by a young [man] occupying the front seat in the smoking car...thereafter the train came to a sudden stop. The young man and two other beats thinking the stop was made to rid the train of tramp ran up by the engine where the young man saw the step man on the hinder with two pistols in his hands pointing toward the engineer...the two robbers took the engineer and fireman to the express car blew open the door with dynamite and robbed the car..."

From the wikipedia entry for Burbank, CA:


Legend has it that beneath the paved streets near Sunland Boulevard and San Fernando Road lies a king's ransom in gold. On December 23, 1893, a Southern Pacific freight train was derailed and robbed. A man named Roscoe was involved in the so-called Burbank Train Robbery. No one is sure whether Roscoe was the brakeman, engineer or robber. The loot was never found, though the bad guys were caught by the famous railroad detective Whispering Smith.


I have my doubts about this story. First of all, the intersection of Sunland Blvd. and San Fernando Road is Sun Valley, not Burbank. And Roscoe is the name of a switch on the Southern Pacific railroad line. I would certainly like to know what the source material for the wikipedia mention of the supposed hidden treasure was...

Doing some research, the only other mention I can find of Burbank and train robbery is this excerpt from the New York Times, dated 1894 - apparently not the same event. Can anyone shed some light on this? Was there really a train robbery in Burbank in 1893?


Update, 20 April 2009: Interested in getting to the bottom of this Burbank Train Robbery I contacted the Burbank Public Library (Main branch) and spoke to David Peterson, a very helpful supervising librarian there. Here are his e-mailed comments and an article that seems definitive:

Mr. Clark,

I skimmed through the following books that the Burbank Public Library has concerning the history of Burbank and nearby areas with no information found about any train robbery.

“A History of Burbank: A special place in history” by Strickland, Mary Jane and Garcia, Theodore X. published in 2000, Burbank Historical Society

“History of the San Fernando Valley” by Frank M. Keffer, published in 1934, Stillman Printing Company

“Burbank Community Book” by Lynn Monroe, published in 1944, Arthur H. Cawston

“Burbank History” by Jackson Mayers, published in 1975, James W. Anderson.

“Glendale Area History” by E. Caswell Perry and Carroll W. Parcher, published in 1981, Eric Schneirsohn, Xanadu Galleries.

“A History of Burbank” published in 1967, Burbank Unified School District.

“Burbank: An Illustrated History” by E. Caswell Perry, published in 1987, Windsor Publications, Inc.

I would consider contacting the Los Angeles Public Library, particularly their History & Genealogy Department and perhaps even the Glendale Public Library might be worth consulting in your search. Other possible areas of additional inquiry would be the resources available at USC, UCLA and CSUN [CSUN has a digital library on San Fernando Valley history ] both their libraries and their Departments of History. Perhaps the Los Angeles Historical Society would be of assistance.

Also, archives or corporate libraries for the involved train companies might yield information. Most likely the internet will yield some information on this or a local public library can provide you with corporate contact information.

I would also look for a local source that might carry the Los Angeles Times on microfilm that you could work your way through looking for mention of the train robbery. While I did find some mentions of this robbery in the Historic LA Times 1881-1986 online database owned by the Glendale Public Library I was unable to pull up actual articles from the 1894 time period, just may be a need for old fashioned research, issue by issue.

I will send separate emails to you with the articles that I found. It would appear that the robbery was in more current day Sun Valley than Burbank. If you still are interested, I could submit your question to our MCLS Reference clearinghouse for their research and response. I hope that this helps and provides you with other avenues of further research.

Good luck with your research!

David Peterson

The ProQuest search our intrepid librarian performed returned this:

L.A. THEN AND NOW; Water Dispute Led to Train Robbery

Cecilia Rasmussen. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Jun 22, 2003. p. B.4

In the West, as Mark Twain keenly observed, "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over."

No one knew this better than a family of Sunland homesteaders whose bitter water feud split a family apart and prompted one of them to rob a train to finance their water wars.

The dispute was so intense that it pitted father against son and brother against brother, yet descendants could only dimly recall its origins.

Over time, the feud turned a respected rancher and father of four into a train robber and killer.

Roscoe -- the town where a derailed train and robbery left two men dead -- would eventually change its name to Sun Valley.

In the early 1880s, Farmer A. Johnson and two of his sons, John and Cornelius, homesteaded land in the tiny, rugged and remote community of Monte Vista, which later was renamed Sunland.

A stream trickled down Big Tujunga Canyon to the Johnson land. A few miles downstream, Johnson's third son, Alvarado -- nicknamed Alva -- owned a ranch and farmland he had gotten by marrying the widow of the man who had homesteaded it.

For nearly a decade, all the Johnsons managed to overcome what nature dished out: fire, mudslides, landslides, floods and grizzly bears. But when it came to water, more precious than gold, they parted ways.

Bitterness began to grow in the late 1880s when the father, along with John and Cornelius, started a water company by damming the water in Big Tujunga Canyon, cutting off the supply to Alva's ranch below. Redheaded Alva, who had a temper to match, hired a lawyer who sued to restore the flow of water. But the costly process drove Alva deeper into debt, and the water stayed upstream.

After years of the Southern Pacific Railroad's jacking up its price for shipping produce at harvest time, Alva was driven out of farming. Although he stayed on the ranch, he managed a grain store in downtown Los Angeles.

Alva hired two ranch hands, William H. "Kid" Thompson and George Smith, both of whom had criminal records, to work his land. Within a few months unsolved train robberies began plaguing the Southern Pacific.

On the rainy night of Dec. 23, 1893, three armed outlaws in masks and long dark dusters robbed the northbound Southern Pacific No. 20 at the Roscoe flag stop, at what is now San Fernando Road and Sunland Boulevard in Sun Valley. The town of Roscoe, believed to have been named for a local land developer or possibly a railroad brakeman whose first or last name is lost to history, consisted of a railroad depot, water tank and grocery store.

Stuffing their pockets with $150 from the train's safe, the trio made off on horseback, leaving no tracks in the rain.

Seven weeks later, money spent, the trio pulled off another heist at the same spot, but with more serious consequences.

As a result, on the night of Feb. 15, 1894, the northbound No. 20 lay beside the railroad tracks like a dead horse.

Instead of slowing for one of the robbers, who waved a torch at the Roscoe depot, engineer David W. Thomas speeded up the engine because he saw a rifle in the man's other hand. But the well- organized bandits had already thrown the spur switch, pitching the engine and two freight cars filled with oranges from the tracks.

Engineer Thomas crawled to safety behind a cactus, while fireman Arthur Masters, 27, lay pinned against the blazing hot boiler, his legs crushed. Train stowaway Harry Daly -- alternately spelled Dailey -- was hurled into the left cylinder. The 19-year-old died from the impact.

Masters' screams of agony could be heard over the robbers' bullets and over the explosion that blew open the safe containing a few thousand in cash and nearly 100 pounds of gold and silver coins.

When the gunfire stopped, the robbers headed out under the cover of darkness, with a wagon full of loot disguised as a milk wagon.

Thomas and other survivors rushed to rescue Masters. Masters begged them to put a bullet into his head or to give him a gun so he could do it himself. Instead, they worked feverishly to free his trapped body. He died an hour later as they pulled him free.

U.S. Marshal George Gard and railroad detective Will "Whispering" Smith were recalled from the San Joaquin Valley, where they were just days away from capturing Christopher Evans, one of two notorious train robbers who had nothing to do with the Roscoe robberies.

As Gard and Smith shuttled between Los Angeles and Visalia in pursuit of train robbers, evidence began to mount. A witness swore he had seen Thompson on the train before the robbery and another claimed that Smith had paid for a prostitute at an Alameda bordello with gold coins from the heist. The lawmen found wagon tracks roughly matching those of Alva's wagon with a worn axle; the tracks led from Roscoe to Sunland.

With a $1,000 reward on their heads, John Johnson claimed his brother and Alva's two ranch hands matched the descriptions of the thieves and murderers. He swore he had seen his brother returning home in his wagon in the early morning, hours after the robbery.

Thompson fled to Arizona, while his crime buddy Smith lay low around town. Alva was arrested, but robbery charges were soon dropped because the evidence was weak. Sunlanders sided with Alva as their outrage swelled against the rest of the Johnson family for turning against one of their own.

Eight months after the deadly robbery, lawmen got a break in the case. A man who helped Thompson launder some of the robbery money turned him in to Arizona authorities. In the meantime, local lawmen caught up with Smith and persuaded him to testify against Alva.

Alva, 36, confessed to the robbery at the urging of his wife and children. He told authorities where he had buried the booty in his Sunland orchard and agreed to testify against Thompson, accusing him of throwing the spur switch. Thompson would accuse Johnson of doing the same, an argument that would save Thompson's neck.

In May 1895, Thompson was found guilty and sentenced to hang. But his lawyer managed to have the conviction overturned on appeal. He argued that Thompson had been convicted of throwing the spur switch, yet no one had proved he did so. Therefore, he could be punished only for robbery and not for murder. He was retried in 1897 and convicted, and sentenced to life in Folsom State Prison.

Alva also was spared hanging.

"During sentencing on November 17, 1895, Alva sobbed uncontrollably until the judge announced a life sentence at the state prison at San Quentin because he had saved the county the expense of a trial," wrote Mary Lee Tierman, editor and publisher of the Foothill Sentinel, in her booklet "The Roscoe Robbers and the Sensational Train Wrecking of 1894."

While he was imprisoned at San Quentin, Alva's wife divorced him. He escaped once and was recaptured. He was paroled in 1907, and moved to Ellensburg, Wash., where he remarried. He was granted a pardon two years later.

In 1920 Alva returned to California with his new wife, Catherine, and worked as a dairyman in Oakdale. "Apparently years had mended the family rift. Alva and his brother John were driving together in Sacramento on September 6, 1920, when a streetcar ran into John's automobile. The impact threw Alva from the automobile and fractured his skull. He died three days later, at age 63," Tierman wrote.

In 1948, more than three decades after Roscoe was annexed to Los Angeles and more than a half-century after the train robbery, Roscoe was reduced to a mere street name, which now serves as the primary dividing line between northern and southern San Fernando Valley. Although memories had dimmed, conflicting stories emerged as to whether Roscoe was the name of the robber, the train's engineer or the brakeman. Never mind that Roscoe was probably a land developer - - townsfolk didn't want the community to be named for a notorious 19th century train robbery.

A chagrined Roscoe Chamber of Commerce polled local residents in 1948 and the name of the community was changed to Sun Valley.

* * *

So it seems our "Burbank Train Robbery" really is, as I suspected, a Sun Valley Train Robbery. As for hidden gold or treasure, I shall be content to follow up a book suggestion our librarian made, "Where to Find Gold in Southern California" by James Klein. - Wes


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