October 25, 2012


David Ellis

PASSENGERS aboard Canada's Rocky Mountaineer train from Vancouver to Banff have two days to marvel at the spectacular scenery of the Rockies, indulge fine cuisine and ponder the extraordinary engineering effort that brought it all about, including tunnels that spiral upwards through mountains, bridges that cross ruggedly beautiful canyons, and tracks that cling impossibly to cliffs that descend into electric blue lakes.

And few realise that in the early days of railroading through these mountains, they were home to one of the West's more hapless hold-up men, who with his gang got life-terms in prison after running down a steam train on horseback on these very tracks, for a haul of just $15.50.

Ezra Allen "Billy" Miner spent as much time behind bars as he did enjoying the lifestyle he coveted from his stick-ups. And along the way wrote himself into history as a well-mannered, gentlemanly bandit who never fired a shot in all his crimes, and who always apologized to his victims.

He also earned a popularity akin to that of Robin Hood and Billy the Kid as Canada's first train-robber, and went into the record books as the first person to use the expression "Hands Up!"

And a century after his death, a melodrama of his life was played out six nights a week for more than a half decade to several hundred thousand tourists at Kamloops high in the Rockies – the scene of his last great disaster.

Billy Miner was born in Kentucky in 1846, and spent half of his 70 years in jails in the United States and Canada – a poor return for what he sought of the good life.

The bundles of cash he carried as a teenage Pony Express rider, and the gold aboard the stages he often accompanied as an out-rider, led Billy to reckon there was more in bailing-up the stages than to working for them.

At just 17 years of age he launched his hold-up career on a Wells Fargo stage near his hometown. He and a couple of mates escaped with US$75,000, but a local recognised Billy; he got 20-years and Wells Fargo got its money back.

After being released, and with railways replacing stages, Billy decided to try his luck at train robbery.

His gang's first effort in America saw them flee empty-handed in panic after a guard took a pot-shot at Billy – but shot the train driver instead.

Then in September 1904 the Miner gang galloped their horses beside a train moving slowly in fog at Silverdale 40km east of Vancouver, clambered aboard the guard's van and stole $6000 in gold dust, $1000 in cash and 50,000 one-dollar US bonds.

It was Canada's first train robbery, and for this notoriety the Silverdale hold-up site is now National Heritage Listed.

Billy Miner took himself to Europe to celebrate the robbery, and on his return, with two new accomplices held up another train near Kamloops in the Rockies. But the $100,000 in cash they thought was on board for victims of San Francisco's recent earthquake, had been moved the day before.

Billy's gang got just the crew's $15.50 wages, plus a grumpy guard's liver pills.

A reward of $11,500 was posted for their capture Dead or Alive; a few days later their camp was surrounded by a posse and on June 1 1906 Billy Miner was sentenced to life imprisonment for the $15.50 hold-up.

He boasted that no jail would hold him, and escaped a year later – only to be caught after yet another hold-up in the USA. A judge added 25 years to his life-term, but he escaped again – it was his fifth prison-break – and after being re-captured yet again, died two years later in jail aged 70.

During its journey from Vancouver to Banff (and on the return leg as well,) the Rocky Mountaineer train stops overnight in Kamloops, near the scene of that last ill-fated train robbery that got the kindly-looking and by-then grandfatherly-like Billy his life sentence.

Guests spend the night in Kamloops hotels with a dinner-show as part of their package, so  they have two full days aboard the train to absorb the spectacular Rockies.

For information about Rocky Mountaineer and Canadian holidays, phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 or visit www.canada-alaska.com.au  


[] A modern-day Rocky Mountaineer train crosses Ottertail Creek near Kamloops, one of Billy Miner's favourite train hold-up spots.

[] WANTED poster for hapless hold-up man, Billy Miner.
[] POSSE that ambushed Billy and his gang and earned themselves an $11,500 reward.

[] THE Billy Miner Pub at Maple Ridge just east of Vancouver: originally a branch of the Bank of Montreal it was once robbed by Billy Miner and is now Heritage Listed.

Originally issued: FOR WEEK BEGINNING JUNE 14 2010

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