By J. K. Gurner
On the morning of July 4, 1913, engineer Harry Norton and fireman George Warf, left Memphis with fast passenger train #1 headed south for Canton. Engineer Norton stopped the train at Sardis to take on water. When that was done and fireman Warf was back in the cab, Norton signaled the conductor and headed for Grenada.
When the engineer turned to check on the fireman, he saw a man standing behind Warf holding a pistol to his head. Then a second man with a gun appeared in the engine cab. The second man told Norton to keep running and he would tell him when to stop. When the train approached the Tallahatchie River, about 5 miles south of Sardis, the second gunman told Norton to stop the train on the river bridge.
As the train came to a halt, one of the men dropped off the engine and picked up two rifles and a sack of other equipment. The fireman was ordered off the engine and told to go back to the passenger cars and uncouple them. The fireman was to signal the engineer to move ahead about three car lengths. This left the passenger cars on the bridge with the express, mail, and the baggage cars coupled to the engine. The engine and those cars were moved about 300 feet down the track and a torch was placed so no one could leave the passenger cars without being seen.
Engineer Norton was ordered off and only the fireman and baggage man were taken on the engine, which was then moved about two miles south of Batesville. That was where the safe was blown open. The robbers disregarded the silver coins that were blown all over the place and fell like rain. The bandits were only interested in the paper money.
When they had gathered all of it they could find, they uncoupled the three cars from the engine. They moved a short distance down the track, left the engine and took to the woods. The next day the local law was called out, and followed the robbers to Water Valley, where they lost the trail. It was believed that the outlaws caught a freight train going north. They were eventually caught and put in jail.
But, that was not the end of this story. Around 2010, a black man I took to be in his 50s came into the museum. He introduced himself, and told me that he lived in California now, but he grew up in Panola County. He asked if I had any information on a train robbery that took place around 1915. I told him about the robbery of train #1 early in 1913. He allowed that this must be the event he was asking about and went on to tell me this story.
It seemed that an old aunt had told his sister about what happened and cautioned that this event was an old secret and was not to be talked about outside the family. On the morning of July 5, 1913, his great-grandfather had hitched his old mule to a plow and went to the field alongside the railroad to do some cultivating. The old man knew nothing about the train robbery so when he found a silver dollar on the ground, he did what any one would have done, he picked it up and put it in his pocket. The old man instinctively looked around and found another silver dollar, then another. When he had his pockets full he went to the house to think about what to do. He decided to put the coins in a sack, go to Batesville and give the money to the sheriff. But, he said nothing about where he found it. The sheriff took the money, thanked the old man, and said he was doing the right thing.
That fall, all of great-grandfather’s children came to school wearing nice new store-bought cloths for the first time ever. The next spring, the old man bought 100 acres of land to add to his 80. All his neighbors marveled at how well the old man was doing with his little farm. It was several years later, after great-granddad had died, the children realized what kind of crops he was growing…cotton, corn and silver dollars.