Canyon Springs Ambush The Lame Johnny Gang vs. The Quick Shot Davis Messengers

scott davis illustration bob boze bell true west magazine
Scott Davis.
— Illustration by Bob Boze Bell —

September 26, 1878

The Monitor stage rolls out of Deadwood at seven in the morning. On the box is “Big Gene” Barnett handling the ribbons and next to him is the shotgun messenger Gale Hill. Inside the coach are messenger Eugene Smith and his captain, Scott Davis. A telegraph operator, Hugh O. Campbell, is also aboard and has been given permission to ride along to his new station at Jenney Stockade, which is 57 miles south of Deadwood.

Up ahead, outlaw “Red Cloud” Gouch spurs a stolen horse, riding to tip off his comrades the stage is on the way.

At Canyon Springs, 37 miles southwest of Deadwood,  the lone station attendant, William Miner, is out front when a man on horseback approaches and asks for a drink of water. Dismounting, the rider pulls a pistol and orders Miner to “throw up his hands,” which he does. Miner is rudely shoved towards the grain room, tied up and locked inside.

As The Monitor rolls up to the stage station, Gale Hill calls out for Miner but receives no answer. Jumping down off the box, Hill goes to the back of the stage to block the back wheels. As he turns to walk towards the barn to look for Miner, shots ring out.

monitor holdup canyon springs reenactment true west magazine
In 1914, a re-enactment of The Monitor holdup at Canyon Springs in 1878 was held at the Wyoming State Fair. The coach does show an open side door, barely revealing a man seated inside. The open door prevents us from seeing the porthole. The coach looks to have no windows, though.
— Courtesy Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center —

Hill is hit in the left arm, but he jerks out his pistol and returns fire. Another bullet pierces his left lung, tearing a huge hole in his back. Hill staggers forward, firing into the dense smoke.

One of the robbers, believed to be Charley Carey, runs out from hiding and thrusts the muzzle of his pistol in Hill’s face and fires. Incredibly, the shot misses, although Hill later recalls, he “could feel the hot air on the the side of his neck as it came from the gun barrel.”

Another outlaw comes out from hiding, goes down on one knee and starts “pumping his Winchester for all he was worth.” Hill stumbles towards the corner of the stable and drops the bandit with one shot, before passing out.

The messengers inside the coach are returning fire, shooting from the door ports. A bullet grazes Smith’s head, stunning him and he slumps over with blood running down his face. Davis, also inside the coach, tells the telegraph operator they can’t hold the position and they need to find better cover. They both climb out on the side away from the station. Davis fires as he retreats, but Campbell has no weapon and he is hit and falls to his knees. More shots from the stable drop Campbell in the dust, killing him instantly.

Davis makes his way for a sturdy pine tree, and urges Big Gene to make a run for it on the stage, but as he yells this, one of the robbers runs out to grab the reins of the lead horses. Davis turns and fires, hitting the outlaw, who falls over backwards.

Gale Hill regains consciousness, crawls to the rear of the barn and pulls himself up to a window and puts another bullet in outlaw Frank McBride.

Another outlaw comes out and orders Big Gene off the coach, and then, using the stage driver as a shield, advances on Davis, yelling, “Surrender!”

“If you come an inch farther, I’ll kill you!” Davis replies.

“For God’s sake, Scott, don’t shoot,” the terrified Barnett yells.

Backing through the brush Davis makes his escape and starts running towards the nearest ranch, seven miles away.

The outlaws commandeer Smith and Barnett, put blindfolds on them and drive the stage towards a “copse of woods,” tieing their captives to the wheels as they begin attacking the safe with sledgehammers and a chisel. They are successful and remove the treasure, promise their two captives they will send help and disappear into the hills.

The fight is over, but the punishing ride of multiple posses sent out to avenge “the most heartless, as well as the bloodiest stage robbery ever perpetrated in the Black Hills,” has just begun.

The “Salamander” Safe

the monitor holdup map true west magazine

Luke Voorhees and his stage company contracted with A. D. Butler of Cheyenne to build two specially designed coaches with interiors lined with steel plates, five-sixteenths of an inch thick, capable of withstanding the heaviest charged rifle bullet. In spite of this precaution, the messenger guards inside were wounded while trying to shoot out the door windows.

The Treasure Coach (not the best name if you are worried about stage robbers) also called The Monitor (no doubt after the Civil War ironclad) made the run from Deadwood to Cheyenne with gold shipments and no passengers.

the gilmer stage true west magazine
The Gilmer stage was carrying close to $27,000 in valuables, including $9,500 in gold bullion, $14,500 in gold dust and some $3,000 in currency and jewelry.
— All images Courtesy Wyoming State Archives, Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources —

Normally, the driver blows a horn as the stage is approaching the station and the attendant has a fresh team ready to go.

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

boone may classic gunfights true west magazine
Boone May.

Three relief messengers, including gunfighter Boone May, Bill Sample and Jesse Brown, were awaiting the arrival of The Monitor at the Beaver Creek stage station. When the stage had not arrived within a reasonable time, the three men jumped on horses and rode north to find out what had happened. Along the road they met Davis riding hell-bent for leather for help —he had borrowed a horse from Eager’s ranch. The four men then rode on north to the Canyon Springs Station where they found The Monitor standing abandoned with the treasure box emptied. They found Miner locked in the granary and the other employees tied to trees in the woods. Hill (Boone May’s cousin) died several years later from complications arising from the wounds he received.

Multiple posses take to the trail of the bandits who were believed to be six men, including Charles Carey, “Duck” Goodale, Frank McBride and Andy “Red Cloud” Gouch. Some believe “Big Nose George” Parrott and Al Spears were also in the gang.

Jack Gilmer, the head of the stage line talked Seth Bullock into coming out of retirement to organize a posse, which he did.

In multiple manhunts, going after all the outlaws in the Black Hills,  five were hanged by vigilantes, including Cornelius Donahue, AKA “Lame Johnny.” Additionally, two died from their wounds, four were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms and at least five escaped the country never to be seen again.

Recommended:

Assault on the Deadwood Stage: Road Agents and Shotgun Messengers by Robert K. DeArment (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).

What do you think?

Bob Boze Bell

In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.