Bill Miner was a notorious outlaw of the late 1800’s who made a career of robbing stage coaches and trains; but according to my Grandfather, Minor G. Reynolds, he was also something of a “Robin Hood,” who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Since Granddad lived from 1866 to 1943 and Bill was around from 1845 to 1913, they can be considered contemporaries. It is likely that Granddad reached his conclusion after seeing stories in the newspapers of Bill’s purported generosity toward everyday people. There are accounts of Bill paying off mortgages and making shoes for poor children; and, he was known as “The Gentleman Bandit,” because he always apologized to those he robbed. By his own account, he never physically harmed a single victim. But, Bill did not consider stealing from large corporations or wealthy train travelers to be wrong, legally or morally, and never stopped trying.
After spending thirty years of his life in and out of California’s San Quentin Prison for robbing stagecoaches Bill was released in 1901. Finding the stagecoach trade to be a thing of the past, he decided to continue his chosen profession in a different manner, stealing from the railroad companies in British Columbia. After a bungled payroll train robbery about 1904, he and his gang were apprehended and sentenced to a provincial prison; but within a year, he had escaped and returned to the United States.
Bill then decided to try his hand at gold prospecting in Georgia making his way south to Dahlonega before moving on to Hall County, crossing Browning Bridge over the Chattahoochee River and stopping at a spot where there was ongoing gold mining alongside the very active Airline Railroad.
With tracks so close by the old pull exerted its influence, and in February 1911, Bill and two companions flagged down a northbound passenger train and proceeded to rob the express car. In the car, they found two safes. Possessing only enough dynamite to open one of the safes, they made their choice and lit the fuse. The resulting explosion not only opened the safe but blew the roof off the express car. Unfortunately, the safe they had picked held only an assortment of Mexican pesos. The other safe reportedly contained over $15,000.00 in gold coins! He and his companions were soon caught.
After a one-day trial in the county seat of Gainesville where he apologized to the judge and jury for causing so much trouble, Bill was sentenced to twenty years in the Georgia State Prison at Milledgeville. Despite repeated escape attempts, he became a beloved local figure with the local town folks. During his third escape attempt he was forced to hide out in a local swamp, and after drinking some of the brackish water he developed gastritis and died, shackled in the prison farm. The townspeople responded by raising enough money to pay for his tombstone and burial in the local cemetery.
Bill is far from forgotten today. A Canadian film entitled, “The Gray Ghost,” starring the noted actor, William Farnsworth premiered in 1983. A number of poems and at least two books have been written about “Old Bill”. There is a local watering hole in Fort Worth, Texas which bears his name, and in British Columbia, Miner is regarded as a celebrity.
It is a local legend among the people of East Hall County that Bill spent the night before his last robbery camped by a spring located near the front door of Head’s Mill. Around 1935, when the mill’s old wooden wheel was replaced by the present larger diameter iron wheel, the mill building was raised over three feet to accommodate the higher wheel hub. At that time a receiving porch was constructed over the spring thus preventing any access to its water.
With so much fascinating history at hand, during the recent restoration, it was decided to capture the spring water and pipe it below the mill’s lower earth floor to spill over into a specially designed stone basin, before allowing it to cascade down into the North Oconee River. Stone steps now lead down to the “ Bill Miner Spring,”; where, if you close your eyes and listen to the falling water, you may be able to reach back in time and imagine you are there with Old Bill Miner, listening to his bold plans to rob the nearby train and escape with untold riches. https://www.facebook.com/HealansHeadsMill/posts/1193036667484932:0
M GARLAND REYNOLDS, JR.
PS: DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT DRINKING THE SPRING WATER. REMEMBER WHAT DRINKING UNTESTED WATER DID FOR OLD BILL