One of Utah’s most famous sons was
a thief. For stealing a $5 horse, Butch Cassidy spent two years in the Wyoming
State Prison. He learned his lesson, though. He never got caught stealing
horses again. Instead he turned to robbing trains. Butch figured they’d pay
better. He was right.
Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Wild Bunch robbed banks and trains all over
the West, but one of their favorite hideouts along the Outlaw Trail was Robbers
Roost in southern Utah. Here Butch could relax knowing that he was a long way
from the arms of the law and no deputy or sheriff would eagerly ride into the
Roost looking for him.
in Beaver, Utah on April 13, 1866, Robert Leroy Parker was the oldest of 14
children. His idol was local cowboy and
occasional horse and cattle thief Mike Cassidy who rode the Henry Mountains
near Hanksville. Butch learned from Mike and took his name as part of an alias.
Parker also worked as a butcher in Rock Springs, Wyoming, hence the nickname
square-jawed, stocky, tow-headed cowboy with gray eyes and a winning smile,
Butch had a way with women. When he had the money he spent lavishly and he was
known in every whore house from Miles City, Montana to Fort Worth. Paperback dollars, bank certificates, and
silver and gold coins slipped through his grasp, yet Butch and the Wild Bunch
never robbed railroad passengers. He was quick with a gun, but he never killed
anyone, at least not in the United States, and just as railroads began to reach
their pinnacle of power across the American West in the 1890s and early 1900s,
Butch developed a fondness for railway express cars. And he knew how to open
safes. With dynamite.
would become a wanted man in four states and his loose band of outlaws, nicknamed
the Wild Bunch, terrified bank presidents and railroad executives. Pinkerton
detectives trailed Butch and came close to catching him, but they were always a
step too late at the livery stable, the scene of the crime, his campsite, or a
knew how to dodge sheriffs and lose posses, but he never learned to save his
ill-gotten gains. He either gambled it away, or shared it with friends, or
spent it on lawyers both for himself and his compadres. And when he was out of
money, why Butch and the boys from their hideouts along the Outlaw Trail in
Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, Brown’s Park, Colorado or Robbers Roost, Utah, knew
just what to do. They’d rob another train. Or bank.
between robberies Butch and the boys drifted across the West working at ranches.
They never robbed from their employers and the big cattlemen were astonished
that when Butch hired on as a ranch hand all theft of cattle ceased.
Consequently, he was promoted to ranch manager. Though quite a few dusty
cowboys appeared at the bunkhouse when Butch ran a ranch, the ranch owners
never minded setting extra dinner plates. Robert LeRoy Parker, alias Butch
Cassidy, seemed to have a lot of friends.
he was from Utah and knew the canyon country, one of Butch’s favorite hideouts
was the elevated Robbers Roost plateau on the summit of the San Rafael Swell at
the extreme east end of Wayne County. The Roost became known as “the most
isolated hideout in the West,” and the last 45 miles of trail into it required
a thorough knowledge of the terrain because water for horses could only be
found in one place—The Tanks. A trail from the east came through White Canyon
and what is now Natural Bridges National Monument.
in the roost would round up stray cattle, fatten them through the winter on
rich, natural grasses, and then point them east in the spring towards Colorado
mining camps. First used as an outlaw den in 1883, the deep, dry canyons of
Robbers Roost, and Sandstone Canyon in particular with its valuable water seep,
proved a perfect play to lie low and avoid posses. That’s what Butch did.
Utah’s canyon country Butch Cassidy is associated with a variety of places
besides Robbers Roost including Beef Basin, Horsethief Canyon, Spanish Bottoms,
Tuxedo Bottom, and Butch Cassidy Draw in Garfield County where a cowboy
reminisced, “It is said that Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang was once boxed in
here by a posse from nearby Panguitch, but that their ringleader bluffed out
the lawmen with a rather eloquent speech about the sadness of posse horses
having to plod home with empty saddles to wives and children who needed their
menfolk alive, not dead.”
was cool and calculating with guns—he preferred a Colt. 45 and a Winchester 44-40
Saddle Ring carbine rifle, and he knew how to use them. Butch spent time in
Vernal, Escalante, and Green River. He and his buddies formed a loose band
until April 21, 1897 when Butch robbed a coal camp in Price Canyon. The Castle
Gate payroll robbery would make him famous. With accomplice Elza Lay they took
$700 in gold, $100 in silver, and another $8,000 in cash, made their getaway
down Buckhorn Wash, and then with “borrowed” horses in relays brought the money
to Robbers Roost through Black Dragon Canyon on the San Rafael Swell.
But Butch’s horse stealing days
were over. Those “borrowed” horses would be returned to their owner in a month with
a tobacco can tied to the saddle and five $20 gold pieces in the can.
& the Boys spent the winter in Robbers Roost in a deluxe tent camp in
Horsehoe Canyon, now part of Canyonlands National Park. There they ate, drank,
raced horses, and gambled Golden Eagles, or the $20 gold pieces that came from
the robbery. As for the law, Butch wasn’t worried about a posse in Robbers
Roost. The April 1897 Utonian
newspaper from Beaver, Utah, opined, “No officers have ever gone there. Death
would be as certain and swift as if they plunged into the mouth of a volcano.”
wild parties in the Roost, the money ran out and the boys needed cash. Also,
they found a new accomplice. Near Humboldt, Nevada on July 14, 1898 Harry
Longabaugh, alias The Sundance Kid, robbed a Wells Fargo express car on the
Southern Pacific Line stealing over $20,000. Inspired, the Wild Bunch struck again
on June 2, 1899 at Wilcox, Wyoming where with dynamite they relieved the Union
Pacific of $30,000 in unsigned banknotes from the express company’s safe. Messenger
C. E. Woodcock was knocked unconscious by the blast. Though he appeared to be
covered in blood it was actually residue from an exploded shipment of
were all gentlemanly,” said the trainmen of the robbers. Railroad president
E.H. Harriman was not amused. He invented a special posse car complete with
armed marshals, deputies, plenty of weapons, and fast horses that could ride
hard for a hundred miles.
carefully planned each robbery. He would spend weeks getting to know the
landscape, deciding where to leave extra horses, and deliberating on the best
place to separate the railroad engine from the express car, which usually
carried two safes. The Wild Bunch preferred to rob trains at night or just
before dawn with one outlaw on the train as a paying passenger who would crawl
over the tender and sneak up on the engineer.
started robbing trains because his earlier career of stealing horses and busting
banks had become uncomfortable. Too many posses too close on his trail. Now as railroad
owners devised steel express cars and posses on wheels, it looked like Butch’s
train robbing days were over. In fact, sometime in 1900, at 32-years-old, Butch
tried to go straight, to give up his life of crime and to “ride on the right
side of the law.”
went to see Salt Lake City attorney Orlando Powers to give himself up. He promised
to end his crime spree if he could be pardoned. Powers didn’t think it was
possible. In confidentiality the lawyer said, “No use. You’ve robbed too many
big corporations in your time. . . . No, you’ll have to keep on the run, I’m
afraid.” But Butch had another idea. He appealed directly to the Utah governor.
Powers reconsidered Butch’s plight and suggested that instead of robbing
trains, perhaps Butch could become an express guard and protect them. Butch’s personal
attorney Douglas Preston was to meet the outlaw and bring two representatives
of the Union Pacific but a storm delayed the rendezvous. Butch became
suspicious. No one met him at the agreed upon time. Angrily, he left.
tried again with one of Butch’s outlaw buddies as the courier. Matt Warner had
recently been released from prison and he was on a train headed to one of
Butch’s hideouts, but he never made it. Near Evanston, Wyoming the railroad conductor
handed Warner a telegram which read: “All agreements off. Cassidy just held up
a train at Tipton.” Rather than work for the Union Pacific, Butch continued
the 20th century dawned railroads became less complacent about
robberies. Valuable express shipments carried extra guards with repeating
shotguns and rumors abounded of the potential use of Gatling guns, searchlights,
and electrically charged door steps to express cars. Butch had second thoughts,
too. Posses were getting closer but he wanted one last heist before moving to
Butch’s leadership the final exploit of the Wild Bunch occurred near Wagner,
Montana where on July 3, 1901 the boys held up the Great Northern. After
uncoupling the express car and using their trademark dynamite to open the safe,
they took $40,000 in unsigned banknotes. The funds would help Butch and
Sundance start a ranch in Argentina, but Butch never got proficient speaking Spanish
and he disliked South American saddles. He missed the soiled doves in Fort
Worth and there were few female companions on the Argentine pampas.
1908, Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh robbed their last train near
Eucalyptus, Bolivia. The robbers made off with $90,000 in cash. Perhaps they
needed the money or maybe they did it for oldtime’s sake. Whatever their
motivation, the days of the cowboy outlaw were numbered. Some historians claim
that Butch and Sundance died in a shootout with the Bolivian cavalry, but
rumors persist that Butch made it out alive.
cowboy outlaw era ended with Butch. Robbing trains became a thing of the past,
but at the turn of the century, railroad executives did their own thieving by
conspiring to fix high freight rates which forced small farmers and ranchers
into bankruptcy. Charles Kelly wrote of the Wild Bunch, “These wild, free souls
saw great fortunes being made all around them by cattle kings, railroad
magnates and mining nabobs who got there first. . . Cowboy-outlaws resented
this attitude and felt no twinges of conscience whatever in robbing railroads,
mines, and banks.”
for Butch’s remote hideout in Robbers Roost, adventurers still arrive, but now
they come for the superb slot canyons, the desert hiking, the camping, the canyoneering.
In that vast desert landscape did Butch leave some of those Gold Eagle coins?
Yes, there are rumors, but to find the gold you’d have to know the Roost and
its water holes as well as he did.