Big Jack Davis and the First Train Robbery West of the Rockies It was said Jack buried much of the gold and silver in Six-Mile Canyon because he didn’t want people to know how rich he’d become.

Smiling Jack Davis

Big Jack Davis First Train Robbery West Rockies True West Magazine
Great Train Robbery at Verdi by Neil Boyle.

Andrew Jackson Davis, better-known as “Big Jack” or “Smiling Jack,” was an imposing figure of a man. He was also charming and likable. He arrived in Virginia City in 1859 planning to hire out as a hard rock miner in the Comstock Lode. Jack was an intelligent man and quickly decided there were easier ways of making money than working in the mines. He opened a livery stable but he soon tired of shoveling horse manure so he bought a bullion mill in Six-Mile Canyon near Virginia City.

Under the guise of a local businessman he organized a gang of outlaws and began robbing the stagecoaches. Their victims were trains and wagons hauling bullion west of Virginia City on the narrow roads of the Sierra Nevada. He used his mill to melt down the gold taken in the robberies.

Smiling Jack was shipping more processed ore than he was buying. This, no doubt, aroused some suspicion among the locals but there was much resentment towards Wells Fargo for charging outrageous shipping fees and Jack was so well-liked that folks turned a blind eye.

It was said Jack buried much of the gold and silver in Six-Mile Canyon because he didn’t want people to know how rich he’d become. This conjured up tales of lost treasure after his demise. Some say it’s still out there……somewhere. Some even say his ghost protects his cache.

Big Jack’s luck almost ran out when a passenger recognized his voice during a holdup. He was arrested but his engaging personality and big smile won over the jury and they refused to convict.

Because of the many stagecoach holdups Wells Fargo began using shotgun messengers. Jack, not wanting to take a chance on facing the muzzle of a 10-gauge shotgun, decided to switch to robbing trains.

On November 4th, 1870 Big Jack and his boys held up the Central Pacific Railroad about five miles west of Reno. It was the first train robbery west of the Rockies.

The outlaws boarded the train just as it pulled out of the Verdi Station. Two of them climbed into the cab of the engine and covered the fireman and engineer. Another pulled the pin, separating the express car from the passenger cars. This was common practice in the West when robbing a train as it kept the passengers and the rest of the crew stranded while the engine, mail and express cars were moved ahead a short distance where the outlaws had placed an obstruction on the track.

The gang made off with some $40,000 in the heist. Afterwards, one of the outlaws made the mistake of spending too much his new-found wealth around town and attracted the attention of the law. They wrung a confession out of him and he fingered the rest of the gang.

Most of the loot was recovered but the robbery gave birth to a good lost treasure story. Apparently the outlaws cached several thousand of dollars in gold and silver. Like all lost treasure tales it grew with each telling.

The gold is buried “somewhere” on the north bank of the Truckee River between Reno and Laughton’s Hot Springs. Or, an even larger lost treasure might be in Six-Mile-Canyon where Smiling Jack is supposed to have hidden all that gold and silver from his mill.

All five outlaws were sent to Nevada State Prison. Big Jack, since he was the leader received a ten-year sentence while the others got five. The affable Smiling Jack was released in early 1875 for good behavior.

Prison didn’t reform Big Jack and soon he was back to robbing stagecoaches in the Sierra Nevada. A story is told that during a holdup Jack would spread out a linen table cloth and treat the passengers to champagne while the others in the gang took care of the strongbox.

Big Jack met his maker during an attempted holdup on September 3rd, 1877 when he was shot and killed by a shotgun-wielding messenger who emptied a heavy load of #10 buckshot into him at Warm Springs, some forty miles south of Eureka.


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