Gainesville train held up 105 years ago
Newspaper clippings detail the story of Bill Miner, who robbed his last train at 69 years old.
Long before Hall County became known as the “Poultry Capital of the World,” it was known for much more sinister reasons.
On Feb. 18, 1911, a group of bandits robbed a Southern Railway passenger train destined for New York. The train was stopped at White Sulphur Springs, about seven miles outside of Gainesville.
According to Jim Kinney, a member of the Lumpkin County Historical Society, it is thought to be one of the first train robberies in Georgia history.
“They couldn’t get into the big safe, but they blew into the small one with dynamite and fired at least one shot at passengers,” said Kinney, a former FBI agent turned history enthusiast.
The masked robbers got away with nearly $1,000.
The local paper, The Gainesville News, called the robbery a “bold crime.”
“Guess the people of other sections of the country will be afraid of us here-after. They will think we are heathern, who need civilization and regeneration,” the paper said.
After securing their ill-gotten loot, the bandits fled and all but disappeared.
“The sheriff in Gainesville organized a search, but couldn’t find them, so he put out an all points bulletin,” Kinney said.
“The Dahlonega sheriff got a call from a dredge boat on the Chestatee River saying that there were three, mysterious strangers hanging out near an abandoned out-building. The men were gone when the sheriff arrived, but it was obvious that they had been there.”
“It took a great deal of tracking across mountains and into Dahlonega, but the sheriff and his crew tracked them on foot about 13 miles outside of town.”
“The sheriff queried some of the farms out there and one of the farmers said there was an old fella and his two sons sleeping in the loft room (of his barn).”
The three men in fact were not a family group of tired travelers, they were Hall’s very own, most wanted train robbers.
After being apprehended, the robbers identified themselves as George Anderson of Virginia, L.C. Hunter of Michigan and Jas Hanford of Nebraska. Anderson, who at the age of 69 was the oldest of the three, was the confirmed leader. He would also turn out to not be the man he presented himself as.
“He was arrested under the alias of George Anderson, but a (detective) would recognize him as Bill Miner, also known as California Train Billy Miner,” Kinney said.
Miner was born in 1842 and quickly became one of the least-successful stage coach and train robbers in history.
“He began robbing stage coaches in the mid 1860s in California and Colorado, but he wasn’t the most successful robber. He got caught numerous times and served about half of his adult life in prison,” Kinney said.
“In 1904, he and two other men pulled the first train robbery in Canada; they got about $6,000 worth of cash.”
Miner and his crew eluded punishment after that first Canadian robbery, but they were caught after their second run at it in 1906. He was sentenced to a 25-year prison term, but managed to escape from the New Westminster Penitentiary around three months after his trial.
Completely off the radar for a number of years, Miner returned to the attention of law enforcement with the Georgia robbery.
After being captured in Lumpkin County, Miner was transported to Hall for trial, which began — and ended — on March 3, 1911.
The trio was indicted in Hall Superior Court. The two accomplices each received 15-year sentences and Miner was given 20 years.
After thanking the judge, the purported ring-leader was said to offer a few words of wisdom to those nearby.
“When one breaks a law, one must expect to pay the penalty,” the Gainesville News reported Miner as saying.
“I am now old, but during all my life, I have found the golden rule the best guide to man in this world.”
Although that statement may make him seem like a bit of a philosopher, Kinney says Miner was nothing more than a con man.
“He was sent to (work on) a prison farm in Newton, Georgia. He started a campaign through the newspapers saying that he was too old for that kind of labor,” Kinney said.
“Everyone wanted an interview with him — even the New York Times. In due course, he got transferred to the penitentiary in Milledgeville. That was the summer of 1911. He escaped in October of that same year.”
“By now, he’s 70 years old. They find him near Augusta and when they get him back to Milledgeville, they put him in leg irons and handcuffs. That’s how they kept him in his cell.
“On the morning of June 29, 1912, the penitentiary guards find his leg irons and handcuffs bolted around his prison cot. Miner and two others had escaped again.”
He died shortly after being recaptured.
“The only thing he had going for himself was that he was the last of the stage coach and train robbers. He pulled one less train than Billy the Kid, but he lived 35 years longer than (Billy). The fact that he is so well remembered in other parts of the country, except locally, is fascinating,” Kinney said.
“There’s a hamburger named after him in Forth Worth, Texas, but there’s no indication that he’d ever been there. There’s a steak house out west that named a mocha-chocolate pie after him. The Canadian Pacific Railroad ran a special excursion for years recreating the Billy Miner train robbery.
“The ‘Pinkertons’ described him as the most dangerous man in the west, but his photo is hanging in the Smithsonian. There have been numerous books written about him and there’s even a movie — ‘The Gray Fox’ — based on his career.
“People all over the country have turned him into this phenomenal, folk hero. He has become a very memorable character.”