History: The Great Northern Flyer train robbery of 1905

Passenger car on the Great Northern Flyer circa 1905. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

It was a cloudy and drizzly day on October 2, 1905, when two hunters from Ballard headed northward to Edmonds in search of game. The two hunters, R. F. French and C. B. Martin, eventually became a little disoriented and looked for someone to help give them directions. At about 3 p.m., a mile north of Bitter Lake, they encountered three men. When French and Martin asked for directions, the men stated that they couldn’t help them.

The parties then went their separate ways. Two continued to travel north, hunting as they went. The other three moved forward with their plans to rob a train.

Preparations for the robbery

The three robbers had stolen a horse and buggy the night before, and had hidden in it in a secluded place 10 miles north of Seattle, a short distance from the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks.   During the day they had cut the wires to the Independent Telephone Company, which provided communications northward as well as telephone lines to Kirkland and southward toward Seattle.

With these deeds accomplished,two men traveled on foot south toward Ballard. The third man stayed with the horse and buggy.

The 1905 Great Northern Flyer. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

The robbery 

At 9 p.m., the Great Northern Railway No. 2 train left Seattle heading north. While the train was passing through the Ballard area at a moderate speed, one of the men — now wearing a mask — jumped aboard one of the landings of the passenger cars. He then climbed up onto the roof and crawled toward the locomotive.

Once he had scaled the tender, he jumped down onto the floor of the locomotive, startling both the engineer and the fireman.

Author’s note: A tender is a special railroad car hauled by a steam locomotive that contained its fuel (wood or coal) and water. Steam locomotives consumed large quantities of water compared to the quantity of fuel, so both were necessary to keep the train running over long distances.

At gunpoint, the robber ordered the engineer to keep going north until he saw a campfire along the side of the tracks. Approximately 10 miles later, the engineer saw the campfire and stopped the train.

As soon as the train was stopped, the second masked bandit jumped on the locomotive and ordered the two employees to take them back to the express car where the valuables were stored.   With the engineer and fireman in their possession, the robbers ordered the guard inside to open the door. The guard quickly followed orders and abandoned the car.

The robbers then ordered the fireman to blow open the safe with the dynamite they had brought along. The first safe was blown open, but there was nothing inside. Following orders, the fireman lit the fuse on the second safe. The initial charge was not sufficient enough to blow the door off, so a second charge was detonated, opening the safe.

The robbers quickly emptied the safe, and then fired shots along the side of the train as they disembarked, making sure that none of the train’s passengers or employees tried to stop or follow them.

Unbeknownst to the robbers, while they were executing their plan, a farmer who lived nearby heard the explosions and ran three miles to the nearest phone to call the railroad office.  Fortunately for the robbers, there was confusion as to what was happening, and the railroad office ignored the call.

It wasn’t until after the train reached Edmonds an hour or more later that the authorities realized there had been a train robbery. Railroad detectives and local police finally arrived on the actual scene of the robbery well after midnight.

When questioned in Edmonds, a few of the passengers believed they had seen lights out on Puget Sound, and thought the bandits might have made their escape by boat across the water.  Others believed they had escaped into the dense woods. The recounts of the incident and the descriptions of the thieves varied greatly. The authorities soon realized that the passengers had had little exposure to the robbers, as they had worn masks and had never entered the passenger car. Additionally, it was night time and the passengers had feared for their lives after the three explosions.

From the interviews with the engineer and fireman, the detectives found out that one man was quite a bit taller than the other. The shorter one also reportedly seemed much more experienced in how to rob a train and use explosives.

Back at the scene of the robbery, a nighttime search was conducted. The only discovery was a strap that had been cut, hanging from a tree, and signs of a horse and buggy leading up an old logging road.

An old logging road.  (Photo courtesy University of Washington digital archives)

Initial fact finding and tracking of the robbers

Early the next morning, Edmonds Marshall J.T. Harrison and a posse of seven men arrived on the scene. With their help, two of the railroad detectives followed the logging trail and found the abandoned horse and buggy two and a half miles north of Bitter Lake. The horse was obviously extremely tired, covered with mud and happy to be found. There was a strap around the horse’s neck that had been severed, so the detectives knew they had found the means by which the robbers had initially escaped.

Back at the scene of the robbery, authorities searched the area for further clues. One of the items found near the scene was an envelope addressed to Fred Alexander. But there were no other tell-tale clues to identify the robbers.

October 3, 1905 Seattle Times Page 10 articles regarding robbery. (Courtesy Seattle Times archives)

The Oct. 3 Seattle Times report spawns additional clues

The day after the robbery, The Seattle Times ran a full-page story on the robbery, including speculation as to who the robbers might be. They included profiles on well-known train robbers who were still on the lam, being able to avoid arrest by the Pinkerton agents and other authorities.

Rumors also began to run wild among the public. One rumor stated that the robbers had gotten away with over $36,000. But that was quickly dispelled by the authorities. A Northern Pacific representative stated that the exact amount taken was not known, but it was believed to be less than $1,000, and probably closer to $700.

But where had the bandits gone? Some experienced policemen thought that the robbers probably were not hiding in the dense woods, but instead had traveled to a nearby city where they would blend in amongst the population, while staying with friends and disposing of their loot.

When the newspaper account came out, the two hunters who had asked for directions the day before believed that the three men that they had encountered near the location of the holdup might have been the robbers. They contacted the authorities and described the three. One was a stocky man around 50 years of age, and the other two were younger, around 25 years old, with light complexions.

After hearing the descriptions, several men in Edmonds — including Marshall Harrison — believed he had seen the stockier man down near the waterfront the previous week.  Others stated that they had also seen two younger men fitting the descriptions in the Ballard area the week before.

Over the next two days, the authorities searched the area while interviewing ex-cons and other people who might have knowledge as to who the robbers were.

Marshall Harrison searched the Edmonds waterfront, around and beneath the wharves, inside the mills and various saloons in the lower part of the city. Others patrolled the Bothell, Lake Washington and Woodinville areas.

Three days after the robbery ,the authorities announced that they believed the two robbers were Bill Miner and Jake Terry, life-long criminals. They matched the descriptions of the robbers, and a number of people had stated that they had seen the two in the area the previous week. The third person who potentially helped them escape was unknown.

Bill Miner circa 1906. (Photo courtesy B.C. digital archives)

Bill Miner at the time was already wanted as a suspect for train robberies in British Columbia and near Portland, Oregon.

Jake Terry (Photo courtesy California state archives)

When the announcement was made that Jake Terry was a suspect in the robbery, he got word to the authorities that he had not been involved. He stated that he had been sick in a hotel room in Bellingham the night of the robbery and had witnesses to prove it.

But the authorities did not believe him, as several witnesses stated that they had seen in Seattle the day before.

As a result, the Northern Pacific Railroad put out a $5,000 reward for the capture of the two men. An additional reward of $1,000 was offered by Washington State Gov. Alfred E. Mead for information leading to the conviction of the two.

Follow-on investigations

Local authorities continued to search for clues as to who the two robbers and their possible accomplice were.  The sheriff’s office contacted Fred Alexander, the addressee found on the envelope near the scene. After investigating further, they realized that he had a partner, James Short, who matched the description of the third party.

Other collaborating evidence led to the arrest of James Short for stealing the horse and buggy, although he was never charged with aiding and abetting the escape of the two robbers.

Lawmen who worked the case were convinced that Bill Miner was the mastermind of the holdup, based upon his knowledge and previous suspected holdups in British Columbia and near Portland.

But the authorities could never prove who was involved, and the case went unsolved.

Bill Miner and Jake Terry – The rest of the story

Bill Miner reappeared in British Columbia shortly after the Great Northern Flyer train robbery. The following year, he was captured by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after executing another train robbery in Kamloops, B.C. He was sentenced to life in prison, but escaped four months later.

He disappeared for four years, but at the age of 63 he was captured after a train robbery in Georgia. He subsequently escaped prison twice, but died shortly after his second escape and capture on Sept. 2, 1913.

Jake Terry, previous to the Northern Pacific Flyer robbery, had been arrested and imprisoned on multiple occasions for transporting opium and Chinese immigrants across the Canadian border into the U.S.

In 1904, he came into contact with Bill Miner and his brother “Shorty” Dunn. When Bill Miner found out that Jake had once worked on a railroad as an engineer, he convinced Jake to join him and his brother in robbing the Canadian Pacific Railway train 40 miles east of Vancouver on Sept. 10, 1904.

“Shorty” Dunn (Photo courtesy of B.C. archives)

This was the first train robbery in Canada’s history, and the authorities did not know what to do. They asked the U.S. Pinkerton agents to help, but there was little follow-through. The authorities, however, did make the fact known that Bill Miner, his brother and Jake Terry were the likely culprits.

Realizing that he was one of the prime suspects, Jake Terry went back to smuggling. It is unclear whether he was involved in the Great Northern Flyer robbery in 1905. But one thing is certain, Jake Terry continued to smuggle opium across the border to Chinese immigrants for the remainder of his life, much to the disdain and frustration of the authorities.

On July 5, 1907, Terry — after drinking heavily at a Sumas B.C. saloon — got into an altercation with his ex-girlfriend’s husband. The two had had multiple run-ins before, but this time it ended with Jake dying of shotgun wounds. As evidence of Jake’s reputation and character, the husband was found innocent of all charges.

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes.  Thanks go to the Edmonds Historical Museum, the British Columbia Digital Archives, the University of Washington Digital Archives, California State Archives and Wikimedia for their research help.

  1. Thank you for an interesting story of this train robbery. Reading about Bill Miner reminded me of our friends in Kamloops, B.C. where Billy Miner Days are or were celebrated at a local winery, with a view of where the train robbery occurred. Our friends’ father was a Billy Miner look alike and played the part during their celebrations for several years. I had no idea Bill Miner was connected to our area until this story. https://anthonymartinarchive.wordpress.com/bill-miner/

  2. Thanks Byron for another great read. Miner looks a lot like one of the guys I drink beer with many Friday afternoons. Our group might need to take a look at his family tree to see if he is related. We wouldn’t want to keep associating with criminal Karma if we can avoid it. Peter, could you look into this important matter since I’m currently out of town?

    1. Thanks Clinton. Let me know what your group finds out. There be yet another story here.

      1. Our friend of today is a dead ringer for the guy in your picture right down to the mustache. He definitely is NOT any sort of a criminal though, but is a very interesting fellow in his own right. He never robbed a BNSF train called the Flyer but he was an airplane flyer and has some interesting stories about his time working at Boeing. I better shut up; before he sues me for invasion of his privacy.

        1. Clinton after reading your and Michael’s banter, I surmise that it might be a good idea to join your Friday evening beer outing at least once. I have the sneaking suspicion there may be one or two (factual or not) stories to be had there.

  3. Bill Miner was the featured character in the 1982 movie The Grey Fox, starring Richard Farnsworth. Thanks for a great article, Byron, and jogging my memory.

  4. Reads like an old-timey shoot-em-up movie! Thanks for this bit of PNW history. It features some of my favorite locations, e.g. Edmonds – and Sumas on the US Canadian border near Scholten and Heeringa family dairy farms.

    – Bruce Scholten

  5. Good grief… thieves abound don’t they. Sometimes the “good ol’ days” really weren’t that good. Interesting historical research for our area. Thank you.

  6. Steve I will have to look up that movie, as my research into Bill Miner did not turn up that fact.

  7. Clint, you have just provided another example of why eye-witness testimony is so questionable. Even in this historical account the author points out the unreliability of the descriptions given by the passengers on the train. Of the statements given by the two hunters, this event being pre-Miranda, who knows how the authorities came by the testimony of the two men. Now over 100 years later, a Friday drinking buddy, whose ancestors hail from Scotland and eastern Canada, is suspected of being genetically predisposed to thievery. I worry what your other drinking partners might be accused of!
    And yes, Stelle, I suspect the good ole days were less than that in many ways.

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