Tarrant County, TXGenWeb

The Great Saginaw Train Robbery
(Published Jan. 9, 2002, NW Times-Record)

Contributed by Kenneth Klein
Staff Writer, NW Times-Record


Most of us have enjoyed laying back on a rainy Saturday afternoon and watching our favorite Westerns on TV. A few years back on Channel 39, you could watch the Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and Bonanza, just to name a few. Sooner or later, they would have to show a train robbery. But the good guys always won in the end. But if you go back in time, Saginaw was the scene of one of the most sensational train robberies of all time. And the good guys didn't always win.

It happened on July 21, 1898 at a time when train robberies were the means of a big score for outlaws. There is no one alive today who can provide us with a personal recollection of this train robbery, and all that is left are some newspaper clippings to relate the story.

The plan began to take shape a few days before-hand in the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma. Jim Garlington, a bank robber by profession, decided to try and "expand his career field" by getting into train robberies. He assembled his gang of thugs and tried to rob a train in Oklahoma, but they had to swim through a swollen river to get to the train. By the time they had reached the train tracks, the train had already passed. Oops.

So the gang decided to ride further south in search of better criminal opportunities. They headed for Fort Worth, where they had heard of a rich merchant that owned a fortune in diamonds. They took a local man, H.D. Grunnells into their confidence and discussed the plans for robbing this individual. Grunnells talked the gang out of the diamond caper, but recommended a train robbery. He told them of a good spot in Saginaw, where trains had to stop often at a switch to let other trains go by. What the Garlington Gang didn't know was that Grunnells was the Asst. Police Chief. Oops!

But Grunnells had a plan of his own. He was going to pull the old fashioned double cross - he would arrest them after the robbery and collect the big reward that the railroads were offering for train robbers.

At that point, Garlington and his gang armed themselves with pistols and dynamite and hid in the darkness. They waited for the train to roll in, and then planned to "blind bag" her by attacking between the coal tender and the first baggage car. Then it was a matter of commandeering the engine, uncoupling the baggage cars to take them away from the rest of train - and blast them with dynamite.

Sante Fe passenger train No. 7, enroute from Chicago to Galveston (via Fort Worth) was full of passengers. Just north of the Saginaw switch, it stopped to let a northbound train pass. After the train went by, No. 7 began to start up again slowly gaining speed. When it got 200 yards south of the switch, Garlington rode up in the dark of night, and quietly slipped onto the coal tender. When the time was right, Garlington would fire off a round from his pistol to alert the awaiting gang to spring into action.

Garlington scrambled onto the tender, gun in hand. But as he made his way across, he slipped and fired his pistol accidently before he was in position. Oops!

The other cutthroats thought the shot was meant for them to spring into action. But it was too early. They sprang from their horses onto each side of the tender, shooting as they scrambled to get a foothold. Fireman Watson Whitaker and Engineer Joe Williams were killed in the crossfire between them. When the train stopped, the brakeman got off to investigate what happened, and he got his answer very quickly. Three of the robbers began to fire at him, but he slipped out into the darkness. Running into Saginaw, he spread the alarm to the nearest house. A young man at the house rode horseback to alert the sheriff.

But Grunnells and other Fort Worth police, waiting for the trap, heard the report of gunfire and were fast approaching the scene of the crime. The entire Garlington gang escaped.

No one will ever know the reaction of the passengers, but apparently none were harmed during this incident. The train eventually made it to the depot in Fort Worth, and continued on uneventfully to Galveston. But the two railroad employees, Whittaker and Williams, were given a heroes burial. Special trains took the bodies back to their hometowns for burial.

Grunnells was fired by Police Chief William Rea, and he was brought up on charges and indicted before a grand jury. But the case never went to trial and he "disappeared" from public view.

All but one of the robbers were eventually captured. Charley Ellis turned up states evidence and escaped trial. George Moore received a 99 year sentence but only served 15. And the mastermind of them, "Butterfingers" Garlington was caught a few days later in Corsicana. He was brought back to Tarrant County, where he was duly sentenced and hung one year later.

It has never been determined if the reward money offered by the railroads were paid, and if so, to whom?

Nowadays, train robberies are thing of the past. But unlike the westerns we have seen on TV, some of the good guys got killed with the bad guys. And it happened right here in Saginaw, Texas.


This page was last modified 26 Feb 2003.

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