Spirit River and the Wild West Saga

This story was first posted three years ago, but a recent auction of mugshots has brought the story to the media once again (in some parts of the world).  It is the story of the Great Omaha Train Robbery and of one man who certainly found the adventure he set out to find.

This is a truly amazing story for many reasons.  Be patient… it does eventually involve Spirit River.  If you have read it already, please scroll to the end to find some new links.

The Crime

By 1909, the glory days of the American Wild West certainly had waned.  All the great adventures seemed to have been had.  But there was one more, one that would involve two crimes, two countries, and twenty four years.

On May 22nd 1909, a Union Pacific Overland Limited passenger train was held up just outside Omaha.  Four, maybe five bandits, wearing the obligatory long coats, slouch hats, and polka dot bandannas over their lower faces, confronted seven mail clerks and other employees with pistols and orders.  With the prompt cooperation of the hostages, the robbery was over in less than ten minutes.  The train was stopped in a steep cut through a hill to provide cover, several bags of mail were stolen and the mysterious men vanished into the night.

By the next day Union Pacific and the Omaha police were on the trail of the masked men, vowing that the outlaws would be brought to justice.  Pinkerton’s Detective Agency was on the case as well.  So was the public: between the federal government and Union Pacific, the reward for information was set at $24,000.

The media ate it up.  The “Mud Cut Robbery,” or “The Great Omaha Train Robbery” was the biggest news story around.  Everyone was hungry for updates on the “most expert and hardened desperadoes.”

Imagine the excitement of a group of schoolboys who, a few days later, were the ones to discover the first real break in the case.  They found the hats, bandannas and pistols in their school park.  The next day some of the stolen mailbags were discovered in the school attic.

Police kept an eye on the park and sure enough three men showed up, behaving suspiciously.   With suspects available, it didn’t take long before evidence mounted against them.  Union Pacific and Uncle Sam needed to be sure they got their men; these men had “shifty eyes”.  An example had to be made of such bad guys so that no one would dare try something similar.

Four men were brought to trial on largely circumstantial evidence, and after a confession was “sweated” out of one of their girlfriends.  The “gang” had been caught.

The Trial:

As always, there were two sides to the story brought to trial.  The police said some of the men were hardened criminals, some already busted for burglary and larceny, and accused of horse thievery and postal robbery.  They’d been caught at one robbery with nitroglycerin.  (Why hadn’t they been locked up then?)  But one or two members of the “gang” were thought not to have been in trouble before, including our hero.  He swore he had not been in on this robbery either.

Witnesses could not firmly identify any of the accused; after all, it had been a dark night and the desperados were wearing polka dot bandannas.  Witness statements were no stronger than those of the accused when thoroughly examined, and any of the witnesses may have had their memories affected by the fact that the reward for information in “The Great Omaha Train Robbery” had risen to $30,000.  It was a sensational sum, a sensational crime, and a sensational trial.

In the end it was only five major points that convicted the accused:

  • The men had stolen currency on them when they were arrested.
  • Some of the men had been identified as the buyers of the guns used in the robbery.
  • The men had posed together as “the gang” for a novelty photo taken in another city, proving that they were associated with one another.
  • A letter to one of the men was found at the scene.
  • The men presented a weak defense.

There was also one other fact that may or may not have made a difference.  While awaiting their verdict, the men had saws smuggled into their cells. One (not our hero) managed to saw a three-foot hole in the roof of his cell.  This was not supposed to have been made public in case it should sway the jury, but it is suspected that the jurors found out.

The verdict was all guilty.  The criminals were transported to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas to serve life sentences.

It’s time for an introduction to the hero of this true story, the one convicted Omaha train robber who would end up in the Spirit River history book.  His name was Frank Grigware.

The Committed:

Our hero was a boy from the American Midwest with an adventurous turn of mind.  At the age of twenty he left home with dreams of seeing “the world”: cowboys and buffalo and gold prospectors… maybe even a few lawmen.  He started out with his best friend, another of the future members of “the gang” who would hold up the Union Pacific train outside Omaha.  They were eager to start living the life.

Silver prospecting didn’t pan out for the two friends.  In fact, nothing about the Great American West was as romantic as it had seemed before they got to know it as it really was.  Eventually the bright lights of city life seemed to offer far more excitement than cowboys and mines.  In their travels they had met some friends who could show them around.

His time of exploration may have opened Frank’s eyes in some ways, but perhaps he really was too naïve to understand just what his new friends, the “Omaha Train gang,” were really up to… until it was too late.  Whether he went “looking for a job” with them or not, Frank Grigware ended up being tried and convicted along with them.

When he was arrested at the park where the boys had found the bandannas and pistols, Frank said one of the other men had wanted company in going to pick up a “parcel”: Frank had had no idea what sort of parcel it was, or that it was connected to the hold up.  The letter found at the scene that was addressed to him had been stolen from him, he said.

Was he one of the masked bandits?  Witnesses at the scene couldn’t say for sure.  He swore he wasn’t there, had no knowledge of the crime, and did not gain anything by it.  Perhaps, as his contemporaries did, we can judge his honesty by his actions later in life.

The Chance:

Not too far into his time at Leavenworth Penitentiary, Frank Grigware would be involved in yet another sensational story: a great escape!

Using a gun fashioned from wood and shoe polish, some of the other prisoners commandeered a supply locomotive as it made a routine delivery.  In a moment of spontaneity, Frank jumped on board as well.  Like the engineer, he probably little believed that the locomotive would actually break through the gate.

It worked, however, and a few escapees found themselves four or five miles into their freedom.  They scattered, our hero making off in his own direction. The other men were all quickly captured, but Frank managed to make good his getaway – apparently by sheer dumb luck.

Had he not made such a marvellous escape, the FBI may have given up on finding him, especially since he was sentenced on such shaky grounds.  As it was though, a lot of powerful reputations were at stake so long as he was on the run.  Frank Grigware was one of America’s most wanted men.

He didn’t act like a wanted man.  He wandered around, taking jobs where he could.  Eventually he made it to Canada.  That was a place not known to many Americans – especially those parts of it, like the Peace Country, at the farthest reaches of the railway.   And that’s how our hero, now calling himself Jim Fahey, ended up homesteading in Spirit River by 1915.

He built and opened a store, first in the old town of Spirit River and later another in the new town.  He became a Canadian citizen, ran a successful business, got married and had a son (his family had no idea he’d had such an adventurous past).  Well-liked and respected in the community, he was a curler, played hockey, sat on the school board, and was elected mayor.  That’s right, Spirit River had a convicted desperado and prison escapee for a mayor!

After eight or nine years in Spirit River, Jim found that a new venture, raising cattle, had defeated him.  The boy with the romantic dreams of cowboys and cattle was again reminded of the realities of such a life.  He and his family sold out and moved to Jasper to begin anew.

Then, fate caught up with our hero.  Ironically enough, he was caught out when he killed a silver fox out of season (some say it was poached marten).  By simple routine, his fingerprints were taken and checked on an early fingerprint “database”.  They matched those of the famous train robber who had escaped Leavenworth penitentiary 24 years earlier.

You can imagine Jim’s wife was quite astounded.  Everyone was.  The fellow who was looked up to as a model family man was in prison and facing extradition to Nebraska.  He did not deny that he was the convicted Omaha Train Robber and Leavenworth jail breaker.

Incredibly, the people of Jasper rallied to the defense of their upstanding neighbour.  The Chamber of Commerce wired President Roosevelt to request clemency.  The Women’s Institute wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt, describing Jim Fahey as a father (now of three) who should not be torn from his young family.  An auditorium filled with people praying for leniency.

The Alberta Legislature unofficially voted to pardon him, deciding to draw up a petition or resolution requesting clemency or pardon from Roosevelt. Prime Minister Bennett was asked to intercede on our hero’s behalf.

The efforts were successful. Extradition proceedings were dropped.  Frank Grigware/Jim Fahey was officially “the man who made good”.

His involvement in the hold up didn’t really matter to his supporters, nor to the U.S. government after all those years.  But our hero still declared complete innocence.  He was confident that the other members of “The Omaha Train Gang” would agree.  A sworn declaration did come, from that original best friend (and admitted train robber) that our Frank had had absolutely nothing to do with the Omaha Train Robbery.

After 24 years of trying to quash a guilty secret, Frank Grigware was finally completely free.  He didn’t have to be ashamed of his past, at least in Canada, as a respected citizen and mayor of Spirit River.

Perhaps because there was no concluding shoot out, or because the posse had long ago retired, or maybe even because the story moved to Northern Canada, it was largely forgotten.  Maybe the rescue efforts of a small town and reunion with Mother just aren’t the stuff of a good wild west tale.  But you can bet that was good enough for our hero.

If you would like to read the whole story, ask for Leavenworth Train: A Fugitive’s Search for Justice in the Vanishing West by Joe Jackson at the Spirit River Municipal Library.

To see Frank Grigware’s mugshot, click here.

For another article on Frank Grigware and the train robbery, click here.  There is also a picture of the house Jim Fahey built in Jasper and lived in with his family.

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4 Responses to Spirit River and the Wild West Saga

  1. Pingback: Answers to Spirit River Quiz VIII: Guts and Glory | Town Spirit

  2. Pingback: The Case of the Five Decade Fugitive | Town Spirit

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