Where train robberies of the Wild West began

Did you know that Jesse James’ first bank robbery took place in Adair, Iowa?

Back in July of 1873, the Jesse James Gang heard that a shipment of $75,000 in gold would be passing through Iowa on its way from Cheyenne, Wyoming down the newest line of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad.

Location: 1156 Anita-Adair Road, Adair, Iowa

How did the train robbery happen in Adair, Iowa?

Contrary to what you see in the old movies, train heists were not done by jumping on a moving train while riding a horse. Most robberies were done by either boarding the train and waiting to overtake it – or by derailing the train. For the robbery in Adair, the James-Younger Gang chose to derail the trail.

Frank James and Cole Younger were sent to Omaha, Nebraska to find out when the train carrying $75,000 of gold would travel through central Iowa. The rest of the gang camped out near Adair, Iowa.

The gang sent two members to the nearby section house and ordered food. In the meantime, the rest of the gang broke into the section house, stealing tools that were needed to alter the rails. After taking the connecting plates apart, they tied a rope around one of the rails. They dug a hole under the tracks and ran the rope through it. When the track came by, they pulled the rope which disconnected the rails. The front cars of the trains fell over into the ditch, killing the engineer. Frank and Jesse James then boarded the train and held a gun to the guard’s head, forcing him to open the safe. And they found… no gold. Only $2000 in currency. The gang then boarded the train to steal property from male passengers. According to witnesses, they took nothing from women or children. Their total take on the day was approximately $3,000.

What can you see at the present-day site of the first train robbery?

Today it’s nothing more than a quick roadside stop, just a mile or so off the I-80 interstate. There’s a wheel from a train engine (not the train associated with the heist) and attached is a plaque that states “Site of the first train robbery in the West. Committed by the notorious Jesse James and his gang of outlaws July 21, 1873. ” The plaque itself was stolen and wasn’t found until years later when the person’s house burned down in a fire in Ohio – and then the plaque was returned to this location.

Behind the plaque is a short stretch of railroad tracks, and one of the tracks is slightly off. I’ve seen a few online resources stating that the tracks are original, they are the same railroad tracks that the James gang pulled apart to cause the train wreck. Although I see several websites that tell this story, I haven’t been able to find a few sources that validate that the tracks are original – but unable to verify if this short track was the section that was pulled apart to cause the derailment.

Is it true that during the 100th anniversary of the train robbery, thieves stole from the local store in Adair?

Yes, while the town was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the train robbery (July 21, 1973), a local equipment dealership was robbed. They made away with $20,000 of equipment – as compared to the $3,000 that the Jesse James gang took one hundred years before.

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