On the trail of Butch Cassidy and history in Winnemucca, Nevada


John R. Beyer

As a child, I was often blamed for things that were wrong with the house. Sure, I often made these things go wrong, but sometimes I wasn’t the culprit; at least, I pleaded it.

“Johnny,” my grandmother used to say. “Did you put a snake in the washer?”

My beloved grandmother always said washing machine instead of washing machine. I’m not sure there is a difference, but it seems there should have been.

“Well,” I replied, tilting my head in deep thought before answering.

Nana was pure Irish and knew how to lie when robbed. The Irish know how to embellish stories and see when those stories are embellished.

Although I’m 65% Irish, I only use pure research when writing my articles – although it’s a remote chance that this writer will ever embellish a story.

I knew it was true when I came across a Leprechaun and a Sasquatch having lunch one beautiful afternoon in a valley in the soft green grasses near Dublin. They both finished their pints and said in tandem – “You’re the most truthful person we’ve ever met, lad.”

Site of the famous 1900 bank robbery by the Hole in the Wall Gang

Whatever story I concocted at the time, it didn’t hit home with my Nana. I had to pull a very wet snake out of the washer, and the snake was not in a good mood at the time.

“No more made-up stories from you,” she said.

I nodded, knowing it was in my blood to make a boring story just that little bit more interesting if I could.

The interest of these nearly 250 words?

Sometimes people claim that someone may have done something when they didn’t.

And that’s not a lot of jokes.

A perfect example, on September 19, 1900, three men walked into the First National Bank of Winnemucca, Nevada, at the corner of Fourth Street and Bridge Street and carried out a risky robbery at noon.

They were pointing guns at the bosses and the workers. They swore, spat, and then a knife was brandished as if the guns weren’t enough to carry out their daring raid.

After some hesitation and the threat of serious bodily harm, George S. Nixon, the cashier, opened the safe and handed over nearly $30,000 in gold coins. That would be well over a million dollars today.

Quite a ride for any group of fellows.

The theft was later blamed on notorious but well-liked thief Butch Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall gang.

This is where the truth is sometimes hidden in a bit of fiction.

Historic Downtown Winnemucca

The town of Winnemucca was named after Chief Winnemucca, who lived in the area in the 19th century. The Chief got his nickname when some early travelers passed through what would later be known as Humboldt County in Nevada and saw him wearing just one moccasin. He was a member of the Northern Paiutes.

Winnemucca is a loose translation meaning a moccasin – much like what probably happened to the Chief’s lost moccasin.

An interesting point in the story is that Sarah Winnemucca, the chief’s daughter, later became an influential advocate for Native Americans living in and around the county. She got the United States government to start treating the Paiute and Shoshone tribes with more respect, providing an education to anyone who wanted it.

Sarah was also the first Native American woman to publish her autobiography, detailing her life as the daughter of a chief, working as an interpreter, scout and courier for the US military.

The autobiography is “one of the most enduring ethnohistorical books written by an American Indian”, according to the 1983 Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology.

Gold was discovered not far from Winnemucca in the late 1860s, resulting in thousands of miners swarming the hills and mountains not far from what would become Humboldt County’s capital.

In September 1868 the Central Pacific Railroad arrived, and in October of the same year it became part of the transcontinental railroad system.

Soon immigrants from all over began arriving in this hilly landscape, perfect for sheep farming.

Photo of the hole in the wall gang

The Basques, immigrants who arrived from northern Spain and southern France, settled in Winnemucca in the mid-19th century and worked as shepherds. Many have succeeded and grown their businesses to the point that modern Winnemucca hosts one of the largest annual Basque festivals in the United States, known as Euskal Jaiak.

So, with the town of Winnemucca proliferating because of the gold finds, the railroad, and all the immigrants crossing the Great Basin, the bank robbers realized that the local bank would likely have tons of gold that wouldn’t just waiting to be stolen.

There was, and it was stolen on that summer day in 1900.

Shortly after, Butch Cassidy and his gang were blamed, but one important issue was missing. Butch wasn’t there the day of the robbery.

Although Cassidy is known for his bank robberies, his best-known antics lean more toward train robbery.

It is said that Butch once said, “I like banks, but blowing up postal cars on a train is a lot more fun.” I bet 60 or so years from now someone will do one of those moving picture shows about me jumping into one of those mail wagons.

When the First National Bank of Winnemucca was robbed, Cassidy was nearly 600 miles away in Tipton, Wyoming. He was planning a train robbery, which took place on August 29, 1900, and he got away with $50,000 in gold.

Looking Northwest from Winnemucca

Time travel hadn’t been invented in 1900, so unless Cassidy robbed a train and drove to Winnemucca, the odds that he was involved in the bank robbery are a little off to believe.

But Butch’s name is forever etched in Winnemucca history. Of course, maybe the three men who robbed the bank might have been part of the Hole in the Wall gang.

As the Sundance Kid may have said, “Yeah, we were a gang, but kind of a loosie-goosy gang. We did things together and sometimes we did things on our own.”

To this day, the identities of the three men are still a mystery and the gold has never been found or spent, according to research.

Winnemucca is a great destination, as Laureen and I discovered. Minus the bank robberies. The city center gives the impression that the visitor has stepped back in time and relived what life was like at the turn of the 20th century.

We walked the streets enjoying all the sights. The vast and magnificent Humboldt County Courthouse sits majestically on a high hill overlooking downtown Winnemucca.

Welcome to Winnemucca

A large convention center is within walking distance and hosts various events for locals and visitors each year.

Winnemucca is also home to the Buckaroo Hall of Fame and has a wonderful heritage museum.

Some of the biggest events held in this modern but slow-paced city, besides Euskal Jaiak, are the annual Ranch Hand Rodeo, Run-A-Mucca Motorcycle Rally, Tri-County Fair and Stampede and The I Am Going Run Hecka Out of the Way of the Stampede event.

For travelers looking for adult libations, a visit to Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Bar on Bridge Street is a must.

And for the more adventurous souls, dozens of Humboldt County’s old mining-era ghost towns are waiting to be visited.

There’s Camp McGarry, Camp Winfield Scott, Jumbo and Willow Point, to name a few, and the best part is that they’re all an easy drive from Winnemucca.

What better day than visiting historic sites then returning for the evening and perhaps enjoying a great Basque meal while sipping a glass of Txakoli.

Of course, when visiting a ghost town or any other historic site, be careful where you walk and leave the place as you found it so others can enjoy it in the future.

Some real dodo-heads don’t take this advice and screw it up – don’t be one of them.

As we drove away from Winnemucca, I turned to Laureen and said, “I liked Winnemucca. Did you like Winnemucca ?

She nodded. “Yeah, but you just like to say Winnemucca.”

It was true, but I really enjoyed our first ride through Winnemucca.

For more information: http://www.winnemucca.com/


Comments are closed.