When I got to the Pioneer Museum on Friday for my afternoon of volunteer work, Associate Director Ann Butterfield told me, “I found something that might interest you.” After a few minutes of her muttering “now where did I see that thing,” she pulled out a file folder entitled “QK Club.” QK stands for “quest for knowledge.” The club began in Bozeman in the 1920s and still meets monthly.
At its meetings, members present learned papers and other members offer critiques on topics ranging from the death of Montana pioneer John Bozeman to the future of nuclear power. The paper Ann handed me contained a marvelous descriptions of stagecoach robberies in Yellowstone National Park.
It was written by Jefferson Jones, long time publisher of The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, who was critiquing a paper entitled “Road Agents of Early Yellowstone National Park” by the famous Yellowstone photographer, Jack E. Haynes. In it, Jones quoted an interview with Lester Piersdorff, a Bozeman pioneer who claimed to be a witness to “the holdup of the park stages on October 14, 1897.” Piersdorff, who was in his 80s at the time of the interview, also said he knew about a stagecoach robbery in the 1880s, a that Haynes apparently hadn’t heard of.
The first thing I did was dig through the collection of QK Club papers held at the Pioneer Museum to look for the Haynes paper. Supposedly, it was presented on October 21, 1952, and the Museum’s collection begins with 1956, so I decided to look for it later in the more extensive collection at Montana State University.
The Museum has an index of QK Club papers that runs back to 1923, so I decided to look there. Not only did the index fail to list a paper by Jack E. Haynes, it didn’t even show a meeting on October 21, 1952.
Next, I decided to check the Museum’s vertical files to see if there was a folder on Piersdorff, who sounded like a very colorful character. I went through the file drawers asking myself “was that ‘I’ before ‘E’ or ‘E’ before ‘I.'”I checked both spellings and was getting ready to give up when I saw a file labeled “Pierstorff,” with a “T.” I pulled it out and there was a photo of “Lester Pierstorf” peering out from under a hat with a pipe protruding from his walrus mustache. It was a great picture, so I checked the Museum’s photo archive for it—no luck!
Another clipping in the folder had a headline “Masked Bandits Loot 19 Stages; Lester Piersdorff Driver of One.” This time the spelling went back to “Piersdorff” with a “d,” but said he was a driver in robberies in 1897, but didn’t mention the robbery in the 1880s that he described to Jones. Also, the clipping (from an unnamed source) had a different date for the robbery. Jones said it happened on August 14, but the clipping said August 7.
Tired of the contradictory evidence, I decided to look up stagecoach robberies in Aubrey Haines definitive history of Yellowstone Park, The Yellowstone Story. (That’s Haines, the historian, not to be confused with Haynes, the photographer.) Sure enough, historian Haines reports the story that Jones attributes to Piersdorff, but he introduces it this way, “The holdup incident spawned a legend. Jefferson Jones told it this way.” Then Haines offers the story in the identical words that Jones attributed to Piersdorff.
After repeating the story, Haines says: “It is a beautiful little story, but there is no truth in it.” In a footnote he says, “Told to J.E. Haynes during a discussion of his article “Yellowstone’s Stage Holdups,” [probably by Jones].
So for what it’s worth, here’s Piersdorff’s account of stagecoach holdup in the 1880s.
The circumstances of the holdup, as I recall them, were somewhat as follows:
Major McDougle, paymaster of the army in the park, traveling in an ambulance with a bodyguard of six soldiers rounded a turn in the road at Eagles Nest on the Gardner River to find himself confronted by nine mounted road agents, dressed in military uniform, carrying army carbines and their horses bore regulation army saddles and saddle bags.
Until the command “Hands Up” was issued, Major McDougle though he was looking at a cavalry patrol out on a morning maneuver. With the McDougle party covered by rifles, one road agent dismounted and searched the group for rifles and revolvers, which he took from the men and heaved into the nearby Gardner River.
He then went to work breaking open the army chest containing $40,000 in gold, all sacked. As the road agent lifted out a sack, he would place it in the saddlebag of one of his confederates. When the robbery was completed, the men saluted the Major and rode down the road toward Gardiner.
The robbery created much talk at the time, but the men were never apprehended nor the money recovered.
[Piersdorff then continue with corrections to things Jack Haynes had reported about the 1897 robberies.]
Jack is in error in stating that only six stagecoaches of the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company were involved in the August 14, 1897, holdup. There were 15 stages in all. [Various accounts put the number of coaches robbed at 6, 15 and 19.] Jack mentions loot taken in that robbery was $400. Not counting the jewelry taken there was approximately $8,000 cash split by the two road agents from that holdup, as I shall tell you about.
Passengers in the last stagecoach were never robbed and only half of the passengers in Steele’s stage were robbed because at that moment the two road agents spied a Corporal and soldier riding on the old freight road near Spring Creek not far distant and the road agents evidently decided to pull out.
As Jack states in his paper, I happened to eat opposite Gus Smitzer and George Heeb at the employees’ mess at Canyon the night before the holdup. It was then that I first noted Heeb had a bad scar on his right hand between the thumb and first finger. I little realized at the time how important that scar was to loom in just 14 hours.
When the following morning the holdup occurred on the Canyon-Norris road, I turned to my passenger in my stage and said: “There’s a holdup going on here and if you have any valuables you better pass them to me.” Purses, billfolds, watches and the like, were all handed to me and I shoved them under the driver’s seat in a water bucket.
Shortly afterwards when a road agent, who proved to be Heeb, stood opposite us on a bank and shouted, “This is a holdup. Give me your valuables,” only some $15 in loose cash from the pockets of my passengers was handed down. The valuables in the water bucket were never touched.
The bandit, who had sewed together flour sacks over his head, that extended down to his waist, though which his arms protruded and which had holes for the eyes, pointed his revolver at me with his announcement, “This is a holdup.”
Being in a higher position on the driver’s seat of the stage than he was, I looked down at the gun. As Jack in his account states, the men had covered their hands with charcoal. I noticed that the right hand of the road agent, which held the revolver, had a scar between the thumb and first finger to which the charcoal had not adhered. I noticed, too, as the road agent held his gun up toward me that the trigger guard had a peculiar “S” mark inscribed on it. When Heeb was captured later, he was carrying a gun with an “S” on the trigger guard. Testimony regarding the scar on Heeb’s right hand and his revolver with the “S” marking I gave in court at the Cheyenne trial was part of the evidence that convicted him.
— Story from the Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.
— Image, Coppermine Photo Gallery.
— You might also enjoy
- Sidford Hamp’s story about a stagecoach robbery near Yellowstone Park in 1872.
- The official description of the robbery of 17 stagecoaches.