The 1891 Cotopaxi train robbery typified a new era of crime in the American West—robbing trains carrying railroad and federal property—and set off one of the highest-profile manhunts of the era. The robbers, Peg Leg Watson and Bert Curtis, took thousands of dollars in cash and gold bars from a Denver & Rio Grande train and evaded authorities for weeks before being caught by famed Pinkerton detective Tom Horn and legendary lawman Cyrus W. “Doc” Shores. Today, the robbery is remembered as one of the signature crimes of Colorado’s Wild West era.
Train Robbery in Colorado
As railroads reached farther into the remote western frontier in the late nineteenth century, highwaymen began to target these wealthy empires of steel. Colorado was notorious for such highwaymen. By the 1880s, most states and territories west of the Mississippi River were victims of one or more such holdups. In an effort to curb this crime wave, legislatures passed laws imposing harsh penalties against train robbers, including the death penalty in some places.
Rail lines played an essential role in the development of early Colorado by supplying the many mining camps strewn across isolated mountain valleys and hauling precious metals to market. As early as 1881, robbers hijacked a Denver & Rio Grande Railroad train between Colorado Springs and Denver, taking a reported $100,000. As other robberies took place in Colorado and throughout the West, railroad and express companies employed detective agencies such as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to combat them.
In an atmosphere of growing alarm, holdup artists struck a Denver & Rio Grande train near Cotopaxi on the evening of August 31, 1891. The bandits selected a remote whistle-stop near the west entrance to the Arkansas River’s Royal Gorge, about twenty-five miles west of Cañon City. While some of the robbers fired shots into the air to intimidate passengers, others made their way to the treasure car. Not realizing that the mail and the express were hauled in the same car, they mistakenly broke into the postal compartment. They quickly retreated, not wanting to run the risk of federal charges. When the bandit leader ordered express messenger A. C. Angell to open his door, Angell fired into the darkness without success. Angell finally admitted the bandits, who took $3,600 in cash and gold bars and then rode southward into the rugged vastness of the Wet Mountain Valley along the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
To many lawmen, there was little doubt as to who had committed the robbery. A loose aggregation of thugs and petty thieves, sometimes called the Wet Mountain Gang, had plagued the region for many years. Their leader was Richard McCoy, who had a ranch on the south bank of the Arkansas River, within eyesight of the Cotopaxi station. “Old Dick,” as he was called, was a former member of William Quantrill’s guerillas in the Civil War and was considered a hard man. Local residents feared that McCoy’s sons—Joseph, Charles, Thomas, and Streeter—were following in his footsteps. On December 18, 1888, Dick and Joseph shot and killed Wilbur Arnold, a cattle detective investigating rustling in the Arkansas Valley. Both men were arrested and indicted, but Dick was out on bail and awaiting trial when the Cotopaxi robbery took place. Joseph had recently escaped from the Cañon City jail.
While investigators assumed that the McCoy band committed the Cotopaxi robbery, it was not clear how many robbers were involved. Initial reports said seven persons were present. One robber was said to have been a woman, but this report was never verified. Subsequently, law officers concluded that Peg Leg Watson, Bert Curtis, William Parry, and George Boyd were the principals in the holdup, but that the McCoys and their friends had aided and abetted in the crime. While the amount of money taken was not large, the daring and recklessness of the robbers provoked an outcry. The public demanded that the offenders be hunted down. The Denver Republican expressed the fear that the Cotopaxi robbery might persuade people elsewhere in the nation to place Colorado in the same unfortunate category as Missouri, where the James Gang went on a robbery spree a few years earlier.
The Manhunt Begins
The quick response of Colorado authorities gratified these concerned journalists. Since the robbery took place in Fremont County, Sheriff James Stewart had immediate jurisdiction in the case. While Stewart was away from his office at the time of the holdup, a deputy led a posse to Cotopaxi early on the morning of September 1, 1891. As the US government had a standing $500 reward for capturing any mail robber, citizens as far away as Denver turned out to lend a hand. Within twenty-four hours of the robbery, posses were converging on the Sangre de Cristos from all directions. As many as 100 men scoured the region. Sheriff Stewart, who had borrowed a pack of bloodhounds from Trinidad, was confident that the bandits would not escape, as the area’s mountain passes were blocked as far south as Fort Garland and Alamosa. One reporter wrote confidently from Fort Garland that “a general round-up” of the thieves was expected on the following day, September 3.
The pursuit of the Cotopaxi bandits was very disorganized, and many locals repeatedly mistook members of the various posses for the bandits themselves, spreading confusion and false reports all over the region. Thomas Horn, one of the posse members, was a veteran fresh from the Geronimo campaign in Arizona. Horn had been hired by the Pinkerton Agency in April 1890 on the recommendation of Doc Shores, the lawman famous for capturing Alferd Packer. Although Horn believed that he had stumbled across the tracks of the Cotopaxi robbers, the various posses in the hunt were constantly disrupting his efforts. In fact, Horn had been placed under arrest twice in as many days and had to be taken to Salida to be identified as a detective. A few days later, Horn and Shore followed a fruitless lead into northern New Mexico, where they tracked a heavily armed group of four suspects into the vicinity of Taos only to discover that they were cattlemen on legitimate business.
As the search for the Cotopaxi bandits floundered, tempers flared among the posses. The railroad detectives resented Horn and Shores, who they viewed as outsiders. Shores also clashed with Sheriff Stewart. After a week of frenetic activity, a sudden lull appeared to have occurred in the chase. On September 7, the Republican reported that “the last clue had been lost.”
These reports proved to be part of a plan to catch the elusive highwaymen. The authorities deliberately called off the manhunt, according to one newspaperman, in order to lull the robbers into a false sense of security. Engaged in what was called a “still hunt,” investigators hoped that sooner or later the bandits would become impatient and venture forth from their mountain hideaway. As the Pinkerton contingent pulled out, Horn stood trial for his robbery charge in Reno, and the jury found him not guilty. While many Nevadans believed Horn was guilty as charged, he was thus free to resume the hunt for the Cotopaxi bandits.
The Manhunt Intensifies
In late September, “Black Bill” Kelly, a Huerfano County deputy sheriff, reported overhearing a conversation between two men dressed as hobos in a night camp near Trinidad. Their talk led him to believe they were in on the train robbery. Kelly even produced a false mustache that he picked up after the two mysterious men broke camp. He believed that one of the highwaymen wore the disguise at Cotopaxi but, unfortunately, he was unable to relocate the campsite when prompted by Shores, Horn, and Deputy Frank Owenby. Shores was livid and Horn and Owenby showed a disposition to kill Kelly on the spot, but Shores stepped in and cooler heads prevailed.
Kelly’s tip did prove accurate after all. When Shores and Horn returned to Denver, they received a corroborating report that Watson and Curtis, dressed as hobos, had been spotted near Trinidad. Since the August 31 robbery, they had been holed up in a camp near the McCoy ranch. The McCoys and the Price brothers supplied them with food and kept them informed about posse movements. Acting on this latest report, a Huerfano County posse, including Kelly, picked up the outlaws’ trail. When the posse overtook the pair southeast of Trinidad, Watson and Curtis laid in ambush and caught their pursuers by surprise, robbing the officers and forcing them to return to Trinidad in disgrace. The bandits fled to New Mexico, where they engaged in a shootout at a Clayton saloon. Although Curtis sustained a gunshot wound to his side, the pair managed to escape into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
Confrontation in Indian Territory
After riding over 500 miles in pursuit of the pair, Shores and Horn learned of two men matching Curtis and Watson’s description were staying with a farmer named Polk near Washita in Indian Territory. When Shores and Horn approached the Polk residence, Curtis leapt up from his bed on the outside porch and surrendered to the lawmen immediately. After binding Curtis’s hands with the only available material—Mrs. Polk’s apron strings—Shore and Horn learned that Watson had gone to Texas to visit his brother and would return in a few days. Horn remained at the Polk residence as Shore escorted Curtis back to Colorado by train. When Watson returned several days later, Horn waylaid and captured him without resistance, and the pair returned to Colorado by rail. In the following weeks, Horn and Shore would manage to chase down and capture other members of the McCoy gang.
Years after the Cotopaxi robbery and the McCoy gang saga, Horn continued to serve in various law enforcement and detective capacities until his career went awry. As a livestock detective in Wyoming, he was suspected of murdering alleged rustlers for the big cattle companies. After honorably serving as a civilian packer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Horn returned to his old job on the Wyoming ranges. Five years later, he was hanged in Cheyenne for the murder of a fourteen-year-old boy.
Adapted from Larry D. Ball, “Audacious and Best Executed: Tom Horn and Colorado’s Cotopaxi Train Robbery,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 20, no. 4 (2000).