The Great (Little) Train Robbery

The last train robbery to occur in Texas happened in 1970. But it wasn’t quite what you may think it was.


Not the place where you’d expect a train robbery

In 1956, the city of San Antonio TX decided to add a new attraction to Brackenridge Park, a grassy expanse that ran along the San Antonio River. The new “choo-choo train ride” featured a one-fifth-scale copy of a General Motors diesel passenger train engine that was running on the Missouri-Pacific railroad. Officially known as the “Brackenridge Eagle” but popularly known as “Old No. 99”, the train carried park visitors on a three-mile loop of 12-inch track, and was at the time the longest miniature train ride in the world. It made stops at locations around the park, including the San Antonio Zoo, the Train Depot Café, the Witte Museum, and the Japanese Tea Garden, and soon became a popular attraction for kids and weekend visitors.

Shortly past noon on Saturday, July 17, 1970, “Old No. 99” was chugging around the park with about 75 weekend passengers. As the miniature locomotive approached a bend in the tracks and slowed down, however, two men sprang out from behind some bushes and ran to the driver, waving guns. As the train stopped, most of the passengers assumed it was a prank or a staged performance—until one of the men leveled his pistol at one of them and shouted, “Lady, this is no joke.” While one of the gunmen held the engineer at bay, the other went down the entire train with a couple of pillow cases, systematically collecting wallets, purses, cameras, watches, and jewelry. Once the thieves had robbed everyone, they ran off.

The startled engineer proceeded to the nearest stop and notified the cops. Listening to the police scanner in his office was John Polich, a reporter for the San Antonio Express and News. He could not believe his ears: not only had there not been an actual train robbery in the Wild West since the 1920s, but the city park’s choo-choo train ride was just about the strangest target for a robbery that he could think of. Polich went to the scene and interviewed many of the robbery victims, and his front page story ran the next day and was picked up all over the state. It was dubbed the “Great (Little) Train Robbery.”

After a time, the two thieves were caught (they turned out to be US Army soldiers from nearby Fort Sam Houston) and were sentenced to ten and twenty years in jail. It was, so far, the last train robbery to occur in the state of Texas.

The city continued to operate the choo-choo ride until 2001, when it was turned over to the San Antonio Zoo. “Old No. 99” was retired. The track was expanded to 24 inches to allow more passengers (though the loop shrank to two miles), and three new miniature locomotives appeared. These were copies of an 1863 Huntington steam locomotive.

The “San Antonio Zoo Eagle” continues to make its daily runs (weather permitting) around Brackenridge Park.




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