The Great B&O Train Robbery

Posted by | July 18, 2013

“The Great Train Robbery” of the B&O railroad made headlines worldwide on March 10, 1949. The event was reminiscent of Wild West days, and it seized the imagination of reporters on newspapers across the US.

B&O employee Bill Taylor was working at the Martinsburg, WV train station the night of the robbery. He was on the evening shift.

Photo caption from 1979 Martinsburg Journal article reads: "This World Wide Photo of Mr. and Mrs. O. William Clohan demonstrating for reporters how they ducked under the table to avoid the robbers appeared in newspapers across the nation the day following the incident. These photos and clippings were in a scrapbook kept by the late Mrs. Clohan and lent to the Martinsburg Evening Journal by her husband."

Photo caption from 1979 Martinsburg Journal article reads: “This World Wide Photo of Mr. and Mrs. O. William Clohan demonstrating for reporters how they ducked under the table to avoid the robbers appeared in newspapers across the nation the day following the incident. These photos and clippings were in a scrapbook kept by the late Mrs. Clohan and lent to the Martinsburg Evening Journal by her husband.”

“…four to twelve I worked. The train arrived in Martinsburg was train number 19, the Ambassador, going to Detroit, Michigan. Another gentleman and I worked the baggage car that night putting luggage on and taking it off.

“The train departed going to Detroit and 5 or 6 miles west of Martinsburg the robbery occurred. People in the dining car, they couldn’t get into it. Finally the door was unlocked and people got in it. They locked the doors back up. Two men with guns was robbing people. Going through the train, they shot a porter in the leg, and proceeded to go to the engineer.

“Going through the diesel part, they ran across a diesel mechanic, who back in them days rode the diesels. And the one boy put the diesel mechanic down on the floor and told him to lay there. He proceeded to the engineer and fireman and demanded that they stop, back up and block a highway crossing. They got off the train there and went into a beer joint, robbed the cashier there and shot through the ceiling. People was scared, going under tables and things. Clover Rail Club, that was the name of it.

“They come out of there, and a foreman that worked B&O shops, him and his girlfriend were there. He had a brand new Buick. They pistol whipped him and stoled his car. They proceeded somewhere — we’re not sure but we think they was on the Hedgesville Pike. They abandoned that car and hijacked another one. And later abandoned that too. And they believe that they caught a coal train and hid in the end of one of the cars going through Martinsburg, going east towards Washington.”

The Martinsburg Journal reported that the two bandits ran down the tracks, rather than hid in a coal car. Taylor doesn’t believe this version of the story, though.

“Well, they’s so filthy dirty when the man picked them up in Kearneysville the next morning. Coal dirt on ‘em. If they were just walking the tracks they wouldn’t have had a lot of coal dirt on ‘em. We figure that they was in the end of a coal car, and when they went through the passenger station, through Martinsburg, going back to Washington, we had us men there at the passenger station watching all the trains for them.

“But somehow, they did proceed to Kearneysville. And Bill Lopp, he was a bus driver for Emory Bus Company that went from Martinsburg to Washington every morning. He picked the two men up, and observed how filthy dirty they were from coal dust and things. He’d heard about the train robbery.

Photo caption from 1979 Martinsburg Journal article reads: “Bill Lopp shows the comic book he has prized since the story was picked up and published in November-December, 1949, crediting him as a bus driver with a major part in the capture of the gunmen.”

Photo caption from 1979 Martinsburg Journal article reads: “Bill Lopp shows the comic book he has prized since the story was picked up and published in November-December, 1949, crediting him as a bus driver with a major part in the capture of the gunmen.”

“He proceeded to Leesburg where he made more or less the excuse that he had to go to the bathroom. He went into the terminal there and calld the police in DC that he thought he the two train robbers on his bus.  And according to stories, arriving in DC, they got off a couple of blocks before they arrived at the DC terminal.

“And they went in a pawn shop there, and that’s where the police cornered them.

Luman Ramsdell, 23, and George Ashton, 21, both of Youngstown, OH, served 7 years in federal penitentiaries, then while on parole were brought back to Martinsburg for sentencing in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

Judge D.H. Rodgers sentenced each to 10 years in the state penitentiary, but taking note of their record of good behavior and general rehabilitation, placed them on probation for three years.

 

Sources: Martinsburg Evening Journal, Vol. 72, No. 254, March 10, 1979, “Robbery: Train Bandits Struck 30 Years Ago Today,”  by Ethel Bovey

2013 interview with Bill Taylor of Martinsburg, WV conducted by Dave Tabler

 

 

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