Before the advent of the railroad, the west depended on stage and freight lines for shipping goods, including gold, and providing transportation throughout the region.
The Overland Stage to California was created during the California Gold Rush of 1849 by Benjamin Holladay, a native Kentuckian who became known as the Stagecoach King. The Overland Stage Route was established in 1861, following the Overland Trail in an effort to avoid conflict with the Indians.
Eventually Holladay was running stage lines in excess of 2,670 miles, and in 1862 he became the owner of Pony Express. The venture proved lucrative, earning Holladay almost $6 million in government subsidies. In 1866, Wells Fargo Express purchased Holladay’s stage routes for $1.5 million.
Ben Holladay extended his line through Idaho in 1864, even though this proved to be a particularly dangerous route. The Portneuf Road shipped gold to Pocatello, Idaho from mines in Virginia City, Montana. Knowing about lucrative gold shipments, robbers soon began hiding out in the forest, waiting for the stage to pass by.
Planning a Stage Robbery
In May of 1865, a group of four outlaws got together in a Boise, Idaho saloon. Brockie Jack, the leader of the group, had recently escaped from an Oregon jail, and had been lying low in a ranch near Boise. A man by name of Big Dave Updyke, the Ada County sheriff, was the second member of the gang. Bad Guy No. 3 was a hot tempered man by name of Willy Whittmore, who was reputed to be good with a gun. The last fellow was Fred Williams, about whom very little is known.
The gang of four departed Boise on May 31, 1865. Near Fort Hall at Ross Fork Creek, they made camp and began to flesh out their plan to hold up the stagecoach from Virginia City. Williams traveled to Virginia City, Montana in order to find out details of the gold shipments. The plan was for him to buy a ticket and travel as a passenger on the coach traveling the Portneuf Stage Route, when he had determined that it would in fact be carrying a gold shipment.
Meanwhile, Brockie Jack, Updyke, and Whittmore spent the time scouting for a good place to hold up the stage. Upon finding a canyon a little to the south of Pocatello, Idaho, the three determined that it provided them perfect cover. They decided to block the stage road with large rocks. If the roadblock failed to stop the stage, Whittmore’s task was to shoot the horses, since he owned a Henry repeating rifle.
With the plan in place, they returned to wait for Fred Williams at Ross Fork Creek, where they waited for two weeks before hearing from him.
A Violent Robbery in Portneuf Canyon
The stagecoach departed Virginia City on July 21, 1854, driven by Charlie Parks, an experienced stage driver. The seven passengers included the bandit Fred Williams.
Corral Station, located near to Dillon, Montana, was the site of the first stop. The stage traveled for the next three days without incident, following the route that would subsequently become the route of the Union Pacific Railroad. Sodhouse Station was the site of the fourth stop, and after supper, Williams slipped away and met up with the other three at Ross Fork Camp, informing them that the stage was carrying two strongboxes filled with gold. Nobody appeared to have noticed his departure or his return to Sodhouse Station.
The stagecoach resumed its journey the morning of July 26, 1865, and around noon neared the spot where the ambush was planned. After crossing a stream and climbing the bank, the roadblock appeared, and the stage came to a stop. At that point, the three armed bandits came out of hiding. One of the passengers, a professional gambler by name of Sam Martin, drew his revolver and took aim at Whittmore, shooting off a finger of his left hand.
Being known for his quick temper, Whittmore began shooting at the stagecoach. The stage driver made a valiant attempt to circumvent the roadblock, but at that point the horses were shot by Brockie Jack. Charlie Parks, who had been injured, made a run for the cover of the woods. A passenger named James B. Brown also escaped into the nearby trees, along with accomplice Fred Williams, whom Whittmore had managed to shoot in the arm.
At this point Brockie Jack took the rifle from Whittmore, and, with Updyke and Whittmore covering him, called for the passengers to come out of the stagecoach. Upon opening the door, he discovered all five of the passengers left in the coach were dead, with the exception of L.F. Carpenter, who had pretended to be dead in an effort to save his life. It’s questionable whether or not Brockie Jack had expected the level of violence that Whittmore had perpetrated.
The Spoils: Gold Bars, Nuggets and Dust
The two strongboxes yielded 15 gold bars, as well as two bags of nuggets and gold dust. The inside of the stage contained two additional pounds of nuggets and dust. The four bandits loaded up their haul and rode away. After their departure, Charlie Parks and James B. Brown came out from the cover of the trees, and checked for survivors. At this point they found Carpenter still alive, buried under the dead bodies. After making him as comfortable as they could, they then detached the stage from the dead horses and drove on to the Miller Ranch Station.
Reward and Capture
Unfortunately for the bandits. James Brown had recognized Willy Whittmore and Fred Williams. Charlie Parks identified David Updyke and Brockie Jack. A $10,000 reward was offered by the insurance company, and the vigilance committee ordered the criminals to be hung immediately upon capture.
The first to be apprehended was Willy Whittmore. Upon resisting arrest in Arizona, he was shot and killed by law enforcement. Fred Williams was hanged a week later when he was taken in Colorado. Both men were broke at the time of their capture.
The vigilantes were more careful in their attempt to deal with David Updyke, since he was an elected Ada County Sheriff. The Payette River Vigilance Committee arrested Updyke on September 28, 1965, and charged him with fraud. After making bail, and fearing for his life, Updyke traveled first to Boise, and them teaming up with another bandit named John Dixon, left Boise toward the mining camps of Rocky Bar and Atlanta. They were not aware that they were being tracked by the vigilantes, and decided to stop thirty miles out of Boise in an abandoned cabin.
Vigilantes Hang the Outlaws
Before morning the two were taken into custody by the vigilantes and taken to Syrup Creek. As they prepared for the hanging, they asked Updyke where they could find the stolen gold. He refused to to say a word, and both men were then hung. Neither man had a significant amount of money on them at the time of their death. Two days later their bodies were discovered.
Brockie Jack appears to have dropped off the face of the earth, as there is no record of anyone ever seeing him again. Given the fact that the three executed men had no significant amount of money on them, and the fact that the gold bars were never recorded as having been sold, it is speculated that there is a cache of gold not far from the robbery site. The gold, which had a value of $86,000 in 1865, is estimated to have a worth over a million dollars now.
Is it still out there?