Today in Iowa History: Jesse James Pulls a Train Heist in Adair
So much has been romanticized about the days of the wild, wild west, American outlaws and, insane heists the likes of which feel like they should only exist in books and movies. But alas, crazy train robberies happened, and outlaws ran wild. Today is a significant day in the history of those crazy train robberies.
This day in history: Jesse James commits the first train robbery in the west
The date was July 21, 1873. The sun was setting on a hot Iowa day. A 26-year old Jesse James was poised to commit his very first train robbery just outside of Adair, Iowa. Why here, and why the train they ultimately chose? Jesse and his gang, "the James Gang" were led to believe a train traveling through the Adair area would be carrying $75,000 of gold. According to his sources, the train would belong to the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad.
James was correct about the train company, but not at all about the loot the train contained. The heist was a success in terms of the James Gang snagging money and getting away with it, but it was hardly the heist they'd hoped for. Atlas Obscura claims the robbers only found the trains safe to contain $2,000 (which is actually equivalent to $65,000 in 2021). Frustrated, the gang robbed passengers for about another $1,000. So, 3-grand versus 75K in gold... not a massive success, but the beginning of a series of robberies that would make Jesse James the stuff of legends.
To this day, you can still visit the robbery site in Adair:
Jesse James didn't always hold up passengers
While much has been made about Jesse James being an 1800's Robin Hood, it's unlikely he gave any stolen loot to the poor or less fortunate. However, he and his gang did ease up on stealing directly from rail passengers, instead choosing to stick to safes.
So there you have it, this day in history, Jesse James began to craft what would be a legendary run as an American outlaw, and it happened right here in Iowa. The REAL wild, wild west.