Hear Tracy Briggs narrate this story:
GLYNDON, Minn. — A new moon made it especially dark just after midnight, Sept. 26, 1897 when westward-bound Northern Pacific Railway train number one was chugging along to Moorhead, set to arrive at 12:45 a.m. All had been quiet with the journey until shortly after the train’s last stop in Glyndon, Minnesota where just passed the little town, history was about to be made at a stop known as Tenney (sometimes spelled “Tenny”) where Clay County 11 crossed U.S. Highway 10.
“When they got to Tenney, a guy crawled over what they called the 'coal tender car' that holds the coal right immediately behind the locomotive,” said Clay County Archivist Mark Peihl.“ He pulled a gun on the fireman and the locomotive engineer and told them to stop.”
Soon another man showed up — an accomplice with a job to do. But to understand what the accomplice’s job was, you need to understand the layout of the train.
“Behind the locomotive, there was a mail car and a baggage car, followed by an express car carrying all kinds of valuable commodities, dining cars, day coaches for passengers to sit and look out the windows and finally sleeper cars and a caboose,” Peihl said.
After the train had stopped, the accomplice unhooked some of the cars behind the locomotive, then told the engineer to take off again, leaving part of the train, where the passengers were, behind. When they stopped at what is now Dilworth, the robbers realized they messed up. They were supposed to unhook the train just after the express car, but realized they uncoupled the train too many cars ahead, so the express car sat miles back out of their reach. Why was that car so important?
“That was the real prize. That was what they were after because there was a safe in there,” Peihl said. “And because it was in the middle of harvest, there was probably thousands of dollars of cash in the safe from eastern banks that were sending money out to western banks or to grain elevators and places like that.”
With the real prize miles down the track, the robbers decided to make the best of it and steal what they could. So they grabbed crew members’ pocket watches and spare change and took off running, never to be heard from again.
Later on, investigators found 12 sticks of dynamite in the mail car that the robbers apparently were planning to use to blow up the safe and make off with the money.
Even though the robbery was a bust, it still caused quite a stir when the train eventually arrived in Moorhead and word spread about what happened — a first for the Fargo-Moorhead region.
“There were a lot of train robberies out west, but the paper said this was the first one in this immediate area, and there was a lot of reaction against it. People suggested putting armed guards on trains and shooting miscreants, but nothing ever came of it,” Peihl said.
Peihl says a few people were rounded up and arrested for the crime, but they were eventually released. No one was ever convicted. No one knows what became of the stolen pocket watches and the stolen spare change was probably quickly spent. So even after all of the uproar and fear, the not-so-great-train-robbery between Dilworth and Glyndon fizzled into the history books.
Don’t hold your breath for Robert Redford to star in this one.
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