castle gate true west magazine
Castle Gate.

While many gang leaders boasted they were mean enough to eat off the same plate with a rattlesnake, Butch Cassidy is best-remembered as the smartest, most resourceful and likable of the outlaw chieftains. He loved horses and was a good judge of horse flesh.  He’s credited by some with being the first to use relays of well-bred horses to outrun pursuing posses. He was well-liked and respected, even admired by most of those who knew him including the lawmen who tried to catch him.

When it came to planning, executing and escaping a robbery no western outlaw was better at it than Cassidy. A good example is the Castle Gate payroll robbery.

Castle Gate, was nestled in a long narrow canyon. There was only road leading in and out of town. It was a company town, the home of the Pleasant Valley Coal Company and owned by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Every two weeks the payroll arrived from Salt Lake. In order to discourage robbery the company used an irregular schedule. A whistle would blow at the trainmaster’s office to alert the workers to come and collect their paychecks.

Butch was joined by Ellsworth “Elzy” Lay, Bub Meeks and Joe Walker.

castle gate formation rocks true west magazine
Castle Gate, the formation that inspired the name.

He scouted the camp and learned the sight of cowboys hanging around a horseless town would arouse suspicion but horse racing was a popular betting sport and it was common to see men training their race horses in the area.  Men could ride into town bareback and nobody would think anything was out of the ordinary. From making casual conversation with the miners Butch had a pretty good idea when the next payroll would arrive.

Butch and Elzy began making their daily bareback ride into town. If anyone was curious about the horses Butch would tell them they were being conditioned for the races in Salt Lake City.

Butch and Elzy began their watch on Monday, April 19th.  After their usual bareback race they hung around town waiting.  The payroll arrived on the noon train on two days later. The mine whistle blew echoing off the canyon walls.

As the train rolled in, Butch was idling in front of the company store around the corner from the stairs that led to the paymaster’s office.  He saw the paymaster come down the stairs with his assistant and walk over to the station to pick up the payroll from the express car messenger and a clerk. The money was in a leather satchel along with three bags of gold coins.

As they approached, Butch moved over by the stairs. Elzy was mounted and holding the reins of Butch’s horse.

When the paymaster reached the stairs Butch stuck his pistol in his face. “Drop the sacks,” he demanded. The messenger meekly obeyed but the clerk made a run for it with one of the bags.

Butch picked up the satchel and the two remaining sacks and tossed them to Elzy, who caught them but dropped the reins causing Butch’s horse to bolt. Elzy rode after the horse and turned him so Butch could grab the reins and mount up. In seconds they were riding hell-for-leather out of town. The take was almost $9,000.

The paymaster ran to the telegraph office to wire for help but Walker had climbed the telegraph pole and cut the line. Butch’s was very skillful at planning a job. He’d leave supplies along a well-scouted trail and a relay of horses. The boys would always have a fresh supply of mounts, leaving the pursuing posse either afoot or on tired horses. Other gang members were posted along the escape route to guard their backs. Butch always planned his escapes as well as his meticulous reconnaissance prior to and during the heist.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at

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