As the Central Pacific’s Overland Express slowed during the climb up a steep grade east of Sacramento in 1894, Jack Brady stationed himself in the middle of the tracks and waved the train to a halt. When the engineer, a man named Scott, leaned out of the cab to see what the problem was, Sam Browning bounded out from behind a clump of trees on the opposite side of the tracks, climbed into the cab and leveled a shotgun at the engineer and Bo Lincoln,the fireman. At gunpoint they were led to the express car and told to order the messenger inside to open the door.
Brady and Browning forced the engineer and fireman into the express car and commanded them to carry four canvas Wells Fargo sacks filled with gold and silver coin back to the engine. The engine was uncoupled from the rest of the train and proceeded northeastward until it was a few miles outside of the town of Washington. (Washington, California, is a small community of 200 located in a picturesque setting in the Tahoe National Forrest, half way between Nevada City and Emigrant Gap off Hwy 20 on Washington Road). The outlaws told the engineer to reduce the engine speed to a crawl, and threw the sacks of coins onto the ground and instructingthe engineer to continue on to Washington. As soonas the engine disappeared from view the outlaws dragged the sacks to a previously dug hole and buried them. They then rode off on horses that they had hobbled there the day before, intending to return at a later date and retrieve the money.
Brady and Browning believed they had carried out a fool proof robbery but overlooked one important element. About forty yards from where they buried the money was a small clearing used as a hobo camp. A hobo named Jack Harmon was curled up behind a fallen log, sleeping off a severe headache acquired from the previous night’s drinking. Peering over the top of the log the tramp observed the two men cover the bags.
When the train robbers rode away, Harmon crept out from his hiding place and scooped away the loose dirt over one of the sacks. He unhooked the latches that held the bags closed and poured out several coins. Harmon sat next to the hole for some time considering his good fortune and formulating plans for his new found wealth.
He returned to the hobo camp a short distance back in the trees and waited for a couple of hours as his fellow hobos packed their gear and walked to the tracks where they climbed into an open box car pulled by a passing train. When everyone was gone Harmon dug a hole near the edge of the camp. For an hour and a half Harmon laboriously dragged the weighty sacks one by one from their original hiding place to their new one. Harmon removed$10,000 in gold and silver coins from the last sack and covered the remaining $40,000. Harmon then hoisted his pack and walked to the train tracks to await a train to Sacramento and on to San Francisco.
After arriving in the city by the Golden Gate, Harmon rented a room, purchased new clothes, and treated himself to the first bath, shave and haircut that he’d had in months. The next day he opened a bank account in which he deposited most of his money.
Claiming that he had inherited a fortune from a wealthy relative, he began making the rounds of San Francisco and was soon seen betting on the horses, gambling at the best night spots and dining at the finest restaurants.
Harmon also spent a large amount of money on women and soon had a constant companion by the name of Annabelle Vaughn. After returning from a short business trip, Harmon arrived at his hotel only to discover that Vaughn had fled with a large amount of his cash. After checking with his bank account he discovered he was running short on funds and decided to return to the hobo camp and retrieve another $10,000.
In the meantime, Jack Brady and Sam Browning had been identified as the robbers of the Overland Express near Washington and Law enforcement officers and Wells Fargo Agents were searching the northern part of California for the two. Browning was killed in a hail of bullets as he attempted to rob another trainin early 1895. Brady was captured in July of the same year and confessed to the train robbery. After negotiating a light prison sentence, Brady agreed to lead the lawmen to the cache. No one was more surprised than Brady on discovering the $50,000 was missing. He was tried for his crime and sentenced to life in prison.
Several months later in February of 1896 a man sought an appointment with agents at the Wells Fargo office in San Francisco. During the meeting the man stated he could offer some insight into the missing gold and silver if he were granted a reward. After a deal was struck, the informer claimed that a friend of his spent a recent evening drinking with a man named John Harmon, who bragged about digging up some train robbery loot near the railroad tracks not far from Washington, California. The next day Wells Fargo detectives apprehended Harmon in a posh social club in downtown San Francisco.
Offering no resistance, Harmon went with the detectives and explained his role in digging up and reburying the train loot. He did not believe he had done anything wrong and told the agents that $40,000 was stilled buried near the hobo camp.
Within the week, Harmon was taken by the agents to the camp to retrieve the remainder of the loot. However, once they arrived the former tramp became disoriented and could not find the money. With the help of the agents, several holes were dug with negative results.
Harmon was subsequently charged with theft and sentenced to prison. When he was released he returned to riding the freights until his death twenty years later.
Not far from the small town of Washington, California, towards the southwest was once a popular spot where hobos would gather, pool their food and set by the campfire telling their stories of riding the rails. The campground near Washington has long ago been reclaimed by the Tahoe National Forrest. The old site, which no one today can remember the exact location , still contains four sacks of Wells Fargo gold and silver coins, that today would be worth well over a million dollars.
Brother Fred "Mr Magoo" Willcox