The strong box was reinforced steel and, according to its builders it could withstand any attempt to break it open for at least 24 hours. At Canyon Springs, in what is now Weston County, it failed the test on a warm afternoon in September, 1878.
The Cheyenne and Black Hills line was faced with recurring outlaw problems from almost its first run north on February 3, 1876. Just two months after that maiden trip to the gold fields of Dakota, a gold-laden coach was robbed and driver "Stuttering" Brown was killed. Other minor incidents occurred with increasing frequency and in April 1877 young Johnny Slaughter, the son of Wyoming's superintendent of Public Instruction was the victim of outlaws as he was driving a coach from the Black Hills.
The most brazen robbery, however, was committed on September 26, 1878, at Canyon Springs. An excellent account of the robbery was written by Wyoming historian Mabel Brown of Newcastle and published in her magazine, Bits and Pieces. Mrs. Brown points out law enforcement agencies gave more attention to the stage robbery problems after Canyon Springs.
The treasure coach, armed - with three shotgun messengers - had left Deadwood earlier in the day. Although passengers were forbidden from riding on treasure coaches, a telegrapher and the stage company's division superintendent were passengers in the coach as it pulled into Canyon Springs relay station.
Contrary to custom, the six fresh horses to be used for the next leg of the trip had not yet been readied by the stock tender. As one of the guards got off the coach to investigate, outlaws opened fire from the stage barn. The guard was wounded and the telegrapher in the coach was killed in the volley of gunfire. A second guard apparently was knocked unconscious by flying debris while the third, veteran stage employee Scott Davis, leaped to the opposite side of the coach, ran to a nearby tree and returned the fire.
Davis, who had been wounded in a similar attack near Cheyenne River almost exactly a year earlier, motioned to the driver to take the coach on out. An outlaw stopped the two lead horses, however, and the driver was taken prisoner. Davis shot and wounded the man holding the horses but another outlaw was taking aim at him from the barn. Quick action by the wounded guard who was barely able to lift his rifle and shoot at the second outlaw saved Davis' life.
Davis was unable to shoot the other outlaws for fear of hitting the captive driver. He walked seven miles to a ranch for help and, after leaving for the next stage relay station on horseback, he met three riders who were to be guards for the coach through the more treacherous section of the route from Jenney's Stockade to Hat Creek. The three had become concerned when the coach failed to arrive at the next station on schedule.
By the time Davis had returned to Canyon Springs station with the three men, the treasure box had been opened and emptied of over $25,000 in gold and valuables. The safe, guaranteed to withstand entry for 24 hours, failed to measure up to its warranty.
A short while later the four men were joined by the stock tender, a posse from Deadwood and a doctor to care for the wounded guard. The tender had escaped from a grain room where he had been held prisoner and had ridden to Deadwood for help.
The Cheyenne Daily Leader editorialized: "The frequency of stage robberies had dulled the mind from a proper appreciation of the enormity of such crimes." Despite the public outcry, pursuit of the robbers by a Dakota posse proved unsuccessful.
One outlaw was finally arrested in Grand Island, Nebraska, tried and sentenced to life for his part in the robbery. Another participant escaped imprisonment after an unusual coincidence led to his arrest.
The division superintendent followed the trail of the robbers to an Iowa town. When he strolled past the local bank he noticed an unusual item on display - a gold bar stolen in the robbery. The supervisor questioned the bank president who proudly told of his son's "good fortune" in the mining business in the Black Hills. He claimed the gold bar was the proceeds from his son's sale of an interest in a rich gold mine.
When the son was questioned the investigation revealed other stolen items in his possession. The proud father was dismayed to learn of his son's sordid Wyoming adventure. The young man never came to trial, however. He escaped while he was being brought back to Wyoming. A $2,000 reward offered by the stage company for his recapture was never claimed.
Most of the loot from the robbery was recovered except for one gold bar. Legend has it that it is still buried near the robbery site where robbers cached it the day the stage was robbed at Canyon Springs. The safe, which could not be repaired or reused is now at the Stage Coach Museum in Lusk.
by Phil Roberts