By Tom Marshall
The old “Wild West” had long been tamed and settled before Ole Hanson rode into the area to establish San Clemente in the 1920s. What had been an Old West-style cattle ranch was being plowed under to form this modern Spanish Village by the Sea.
It was assumed that all vestiges of the wild and sometimes deadly past had also been bulldozed away. However, one iconic scene, often featured in movies of the day, had not yet fully played out.
Here, then, is the story of the last “Great Train Robbery” in Orange County.
According to news accounts of the day and research by the Orange County Historical Society, it happened right here on Aug. 24, 1925. San Clemente hadn’t even been incorporated—just a few buildings waiting for a city to be built around them.
It was a dark night (aren’t they all?) when Sante Fe Railway passenger train No. 75 departed Oceanside at 7:40 (no Daylight Savings Time) and headed to its next stop an hour later in Santa Ana.
As the train rattled north, one or more men climbed on top of the rolling baggage car, pried open a ventilator and promptly shot the startled express agent, 62-year-old Elmer Campbell, in the head. The intruder then climbed down a rope and into the express car as Campbell lay unconscious and bleeding.
Reconstructing the timeline of the events, the incident appeared to happen about the time the train was rolling through what’s now San Clemente. Detectives later determined the robber was looking for a gold shipment from San Diego to the U.S. Mint in San Francisco.
After ransacking the mail and unable to open the safe with a hatchet, the robber made off with only $27 from a strong box. Then, breaking a door window, the robber jumped off the train.
Railroad employees at the Santa Ana depot noticed the broken side door and the rope hanging from the baggage car roof. They called police, who swarmed the area, according to reports in the Santa Ana Register. Campbell was found still breathing and rushed to a Santa Ana hospital. No suspects were found.
The railroad and express companies offered a $1,000 reward for “information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the party or parties” responsible. That led to tips from all over Orange County, some reporting a large, dark-colored car racing through their towns that night.
Newspapers and “Wanted” posters spread throughout the Southwest, often exaggerating the amount of the robbery and the award offered.
Police arrested two known Los Angeles criminals and a Santa Ana hairdresser, but they were all released. A Monterey Presidio commanding officer was then arrested after being accused by his supply sergeant of being the mastermind of the robbery.
That story fell apart immediately when the sergeant was arrested for attempting to rob a theater safe in Monterey County.
Days after being taken to the hospital, baggageman Campbell died without regaining consciousness. The robber, or robbers, were never caught—an unhappy ending to the story of the last “Great Train Robbery” in Orange County.Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.
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