The Great Grand Gorge Train Robbery
The Great Grand Gorge Train Robbery
by Kelli Huggins
Railway mail clerk F.A. Peck watched two strangers enter his car just outside of Grand Gorge.
Unusual? Perhaps, but the clerk found no cause for alarm. “Got a letter for me?” Peck called out, as he continued to sort and bundle mail.
“Yes,” lied the short man.
And so began the great Grand Gorge train robbery.
It was a Thursday — July 23, 1908 — and the Ulster Express (train No. 37 of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad) rumbled west from Kingston to Oneonta. The train was on schedule when it departed Roxbury, the stop before Grand Gorge, at 9:04pm.
Peck instantly recognized what was happening.
Mail cars were a prime target for thieves who knew that money and other valuables were often sent relatively unprotected.
Peck, a slim young man who hailed from Port Jervis, would have known the precise time and location of the train, as it was vital to his job. He was tasked with sorting the mail and tossing it from the train in mail bags to each passing town as well as collecting the mail that was hanging in wait. Any failure to make this exchange would result in professional demerits.
He surely would have felt the click of the clock as the train neared Grand Gorge. With a mere 12 minutes between the Roxbury and Grand Gorge departures, the floor jostled with every bump of the tracks below, but on his “train legs,” Peck nimbly moved through the cramped car with no time to dawdle.
The Ulster Express left Grand Gorge at 9:16pm and he thought he heard the door open, but didn’t see anyone and with less than 20 minutes before the next stop in Stamford, Peck didn’t investigate.
As the train barreled past South Gilboa, Peck saw the two men standing in his car, one short, stout and perhaps 25 years old. The companion was taller, slimmer, and younger. Based on their attire, Peck guessed them to be local farmers. He asked if they had a letter and the men approached as if they did. Peck looked up to receive the letter and the stout man grabbed him.
Peck instantly recognized what was happening. Mail cars were a prime target for thieves who knew that money and other valuables were often sent relatively unprotected. As a mail clerk, Peck would have known he was at risk of violence and robbery; easy pickings. Five years before Peck found himself in the hands of criminals, a 12-minute silent film The Great Train Robbery told the tale of a violent, elaborate fictionalized heist. In fact, this was such a common trope that the press compared the Grand Gorge incident to the train robberies of the Wild West. Was Peck thinking about those real and fictional robberies-turned-murders in the split second while deciding what to do next?
Peck fought back. The short man took the clerk by the throat, but he retaliated. “He was so much shorter than I was that I was able to get my left arm around his neck, and I thought that if I could get a good hold under his chin I could yank his head back and throw him on the floor,” Peck remembered.
The men fought against one another and the movement of the train. The other robber held the door of the moving train closed. Peck, internal clock always ticking, estimated the struggle lasted maybe 30 seconds before “with the lurch of the train and a sudden shove, he managed to throw me against the sorting table.”
Peck fell backwards over the table, hit his head on a box on his way down, and lost consciousness.
He came to a few minutes later with an empty mail bag around his head. By the time he removed it and had a look around, the men were gone. The whole ordeal had lasted less than 20 minutes. Despite his trauma and head wound, Peck, ever the professional, delivered the mail when the train arrived at the Stamford station.
In Stamford, the alert went out and a posse was assembled to look for the robbers who had hightailed it off into the woods. Peck examined the mail to see what was missing and determined that the robbers gained nothing of real value short of some his cash and his watch.
The robbers were never caught and Peck took the events in stride. Based on their haphazard looting of the car, he didn’t think that these were hardened, professional criminals. “They looked like respectable young summer boarders or young farmers from that section,” he said, “and I believe they are young fellows who have been reading dime novels.”
The details and quotations about the Grand Gorge train robbery I have shared here come from two main newspaper articles:
“Mail Robbers Rifle Pouches,” Raleigh Times, July 24, 1908, 1; and “Train Robbery at Grand Gorge,” Catskill Mountain News, July 31, 1908, 1.
The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Porto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Central America, 1908.
Railway Mail Service, online exhibit from the National Postal Museum: https://postalmuseum.si.edu/rms/index.html