The Great Rising Sun Train Robbery

RISING SUN, Jan 2, 1885 — A passenger train that was making its way through the gloom of a winter night was robbed outside Rising Sun 131 years ago. Admittedly, it was not a great holdup, for it only involved a watch or two and small sums of money. Nevertheless, a raid on the rails in Cecil County, one causing fear as highwaymen cleaned passengers out of valuables, was a singular occurrence in this area.
The scene could have been straight out of the Wild, Wild West. Two young crooks, guns hidden away, quietly boarded a local train. Once the cars rumbled away from the station, however, they drew their revolvers and one of them began racing down the aisle, robbing terrified passengers. Within a couple of minutes, as quickly as it had begun, it was over, with the holdup men jumping off the train.
Newspapers throughout the region covered the crime. City papers “brought out their big type” to dish it up in the “liveliest style,” the Cecil Democrat, an Elkton newspaper, observed. Locally, journalists said they would try not to present a sensational story, but the most correct version possible.
Here are the details drawn from the local press. As the shade of winter darkness began settling on the Chesapeake, the evening accommodation out of Baltimore started its Jan. 2, 1885, run on time at 5:10 p.m. Scheduled to terminate in Oxford, Pa., the trip rolled uneventfully along until the locomotive shrieked to a stop in Rising Sun, where two young men with tickets for Sylmar boarded.

The Sylmar Train Station,, courtesy of the West Nottingham Historical Commission.

As the cars shook and rumbled, rolling slowly up the dark tracks toward the Mason-Dixon Line, the men handed their tickets to Capt. Ed Gilligan, the conductor. Just outside town, the two abruptly jumped from their seats. One of them pointed a derringer at head of a brakeman E.H. Tarring. The other robber started down the aisle, threatening passengers and demanding their money, watches and jewelry. One man handed over a dollar. The editor of the North East Star, G.A. Garey, “bought the desperadoes off with a watch.” An “old Quaker, named Passmore, slid his gold watch and chain worth $150 and $500 in money into the top of one of his boots. ‘I haven’t anything for thee,’” was his quiet remark, the Star reported. Passengers were holding up their hands in terror, but upon their declaring that they had nothing, they were left unmolested.
As soon as the robber had gone through the car to the rear, where his comrade was holding the brakeman, the two opened the door and disappeared into the darkness. The whole affair had lasted but a moment or two.The brakeman notified the conductor, who ran back as the robbers jumped from the train. The cars continued to Oxford, where news of the offense was telegraphed to Philadelphia.
Officials there speedily dispatched a special train with a posse of Philadelphia detectives. It reached the crime scene about 2 a.m. Saturday and pursuit was begun at once. The detectives scoured the neighborhood. There was a rumor that this was the work of a notorious bunch that terrorized Lancaster County, Pa., the Abe Buzzard gang. But the trail lead them to Calvert, and there the two suspects, Bud Griffith and William Trainor, were captured, the Wilmington Morning News reported.
On Saturday evening, they were put on a special train to Elkton, where they were lodged in jail. One of the city papers reported that at stations along the route crowds collected to get a glimpse of them and they were greeted everywhere with howls and shouts of “How are you, Abe Buzzard?” and “Hello, Jesse James.”
With the desperadoes secured away in the county jail, Cecil’s association with a great wave of train robberies that reached its height in the 1870s had passed. But county scribes had a little more to say about the subject. Philadelphia newspapermen set up a howl about the holdup as if there “was danger that Jesse James and all the western highwaymen … were advancing on the City of Brotherly Love,” the Cecil Democrat reported.
These highwaymen were wanting in every essential trait requisite to make successful train robbers was the reality, observed the editor. That “two callow youths” had no better sense than to rob passengers on the Oxford train out of Rising Sun and that they chose to commit the robbery in a thickly settled part of the country within four miles of where they lived was the proof. The final evidence, having no better sense than to rob an editor and a printer: “Printers and editors rarely have any money, and never have any about them when riding on railroad trains. Jesse James knew this and he would not have tackled one of them under any circumstances,” the Democrat noted.
As for the cause of the startling crime, it was reading “the abominable trash with which the country was flooded, yellow back literature, which was doing so much to demoralize our youth,” the Elkton Appeal observed.

The Cecil County History Conversation Continues on Facebook

Since we published our first Cecil County blog post on April 13, 2007, we have kept up with evolving social media platforms, maintaining multiple channels of communications.  As the digital publishing transformation continued, some outlets became more media rich, interactive, and extremely simple to use.   Thus over time we found that we were publishing most of our original content on our Delmarva History’s Facebook page, an open group, which allows anyone to read posts and comments.

There are many reasons for this.  The interactivity of a large networked community interested in Cecil’s past, generates an enormous array of material.  This transition allows us to be part of the larger conversation that is taking place daily as publishers share the region’s narratives.  With many contributors on lots of focused pages adding knowledge and insights, we are able to easily curate and share with the larger community, adding our own voice to this crowd.  This enriches the experience as heritage content reaches a larger audience and is often crowdsourced to help with understanding and interpretation.  .

The Facebook platform allows for more convenient sharing of digital media since photos and videos are an important aspect these days.  And, Facebook has provided an environment for more long form writing on a section it calls notes.  This is an enhanced modern, blog feature, which allows for full-length posts with attractive formatting, tagging, and pictures.

Thus the Cecil County history conversation continues on Facebook.  Be sure to check it out.  You don’t have to be a Facebook member to access the open page.  The back material already on the weblog will be maintained.

Click here to go to

Cecil County History on Facebook.

Cecil County History on Facebook.

History Lecture – “What Does Archaeology Tell Us About the Lenape?” by Dr. Jay Custer

What:  History Lecture – “What Does Archaeology Tell Us About the Lenape?” by Dr. Jay Custer, Dept. of Anthropology, U of DE

Where: Historical Society of Cecil County, 135 E. Main Street., Elkton, MD.
Date: Wednesday, March 9, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.
Sponsored by: Archeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake

“Recent archaeological studies of Woodland Period Native American sites in the central Middle Atlantic excavated very large areas of up to 30 acres. More than 2000 pit features were excavated. Detailed floatation studies of plant food remains produced data sets at a scale not previously available.

New data contradicting previous reconstructions of pre-Contact Lenape culture include: 1) community patterns indicative of small residential groups of fewer than 3-4 families, not villages; 2) absence of agricultural plant remains even though remains of wild plant foods were present; 3) a relatively continuous distribution of residential sites with no empty “buffer zones”; 4) very complicated and often ambiguous relationships among material culture markers of varied Algonkian-speaking social groupings, suggesting a series of sophisticated web-like peaceful social interaction networks that also included the Iroquoian Susquehannocks. Traditional reconstructions of Lenape culture at odds with new data may best be viewed as persisting triumphalist colonialist ideologies.”

When Ice and Water Overflowed the Susquehanna River, the Media Descended on Port Deposit

There are floods and there are cold snaps in Cecil County.  But in Port Deposit there were “ice gorges” and there were floods.  So frequent before the building of the Conowingo Dam, the ice jams periodically brought destruction to the old river town and other communities on the lower Susquehanna River.  They occurred when a spring thaw began breaking up ice in the middle and upper reaches of the river..

Towns people knew when to start bracing for it.  And just like today, when the Susquehanna River threatens to go on a rampage, reporters and photographers rushed to the paralyzed town, hoping to be able to supply the city editors with headline grabbing copy and pictures.

From the time the first publications appeared in the county, stories occupied the columns of the local papers when the “ice king” threatened Port Deposit.  Shenandoah (the pen name used the Cecil Democrat’s local correspondent) concluded his report this way in 1857: “But I can write no more.  I am at this moment where I used to live, but I am only staying here a few moments just now.  The house is surrounded with ice and water, and I am here, without fire, at 10 o’clock at night and alone, my feet sticking to the ice and frozen, my fingers almost frozen, and my candle almost gone! . . . Though almost frost bitten, I am yours, SHENANDOAH.”. 

A group of enthusiastic city correspondents covered the ice jam of 1876 and the Cecil Whig’s editor had something to say about this bunch: “These Bohemians generally love their todd and are excellent patrons of the drinking salons.  Every fresh drink they take they see the ice move and the water commence to rise in the streets and they go forth with flash news to their papers . . . and about every other morning the town suffers a submerge and the people, especially the women and children, fly to the hill side and narrowly escape a water grave in the city papers.”

When the ice king had a solid grip on the Susquehanna in 1893, residents of Roberts Island were completely surrounded by the gorge.  Perhaps passing too many idle moments in the taprooms, The Baltimore Sun and News American reporters conceived the idea of crossing the ice to the Island.  They got a resident, Lawrence Paxton, to guide them and armed with ice hooks and ropes they started.  With Paxton taking the lead, the two representatives “faint hearted and timidly picked their way, but anxious to immortalize themselves, gained courage as they followed in the wake of Paxton,” the Perryville Record reported.

On nearing the island, the Sun man was determined to be the first to arrive.  And as soon as he reached the land, “he proclaimed that in the name of the Baltimore Sun he took possession of Roberts’ Island.”  There they talked to Roberts whose home and farm occupied the tiny piece of land in the middle of the river, and tried to persuade the family to go back with them.  But the safety of his livestock troubled him so having their story they headed back to the comfort of Port’s saloons.

In time newspaper photographs added to the capabilities of daily newspapers to cover the story and when the city was in ruins photojournalists descended, documenting the scene of suffering, smashed buildings and huge icebergs on Main Street.  By the top of the 20th century picture postcards were available and these images were extremely popular. 

So media has always rushed to the lower Susquehanna whenever the area was threatened.  Of course, our methods for providing the news has changed since the time when ice jams were an all too frequent image.  Nonetheless, the general scene is familiar to residents of Port Deposit in the 21st century.  On a slow news day in the summer when a persistent thunderstorm gives the Susquehanna River drainage area a good soaking, satellite trucks are likely to descend on the narrow Main Street in Port Deposit to wait for the coming flood.  Beaming signals back to the Baltimore television stations, the broadcast journalists search for interesting footage and people to interview. 

When Ice Jammed the Susquehanna River and Threatened Port Deposit Photographers Were Quick to Respond.

Port Deposit, Havre de Grace, and other communities on the lower Susquehanna River have a long record of damaging ice floes and floods. When the towns were paralyzed by the ice jams, photographers rushed to the area to capture the scene. And when picture postcards arrived at the top of the 20th century, these regular disasters became some of the best selling cards.

Here are a few pictures from the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of these are from a private collection, but the historical society’s online archives has a long collection of images, which they have shared online.

Click here to see a collection of pictures of the ice gorges.

When Ice Gorges Terrorized Port Deposit and the Susquehanna.

A century ago, whenever the Susquehanna River Basin suffered through a particularly tough winter—for weeks, the wind would howl, the snow would blow, and the temperatures would hover below freezing—the powerful waterway would ice over from New York down to Havre de Grace. But as those long blustery nights showed tentative signs of easing, people living along the Susquehanna started keeping a close eye on the river, for they worried about a sudden spell of warm weather or the arrival of heavy rain.
Under such conditions, winter’s thick white blanket of snow would melt quickly, the runoff inundating the river and breaking up the frozen surface, causing it to tumble violently downstream toward Port Deposit, Havre de Grace, Conowingo, Lapidum, and other places.

–On Labor Day: Remembering Those Who Died While Building the Conowingo Dam

Workers at the Conowingo Dam. source: Conowingo Visitors Center

Workers at the Conowingo Dam.
source: Conowingo Visitor’s Center

On this Labor Day, a holiday that honors American Workers and remembers the struggle to acquire better employment conditions, it’s a good time to share some research I have been doing on men who paid a high price erecting the Conowingo Dam.  An untold number were killed, injured or disabled while toiling away at the dangerous construction job in the late 1920s.

Some 5,000 people flocked to the rural northeastern Maryland area, seeking to earn good pay as the construction got underway.  About 3,500 personnel erected the hydroelectric plant for Stone & Webster and the Arundel Corporation, and the project generated associated employment opportunities.  There were laborers relocating tracks and building new stations for the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, contractors paving new highways, and crews erecting 1,000 steel towers to stretch mighty transmission lines toward Philadelphia for Day & Zimmerman.

It was nearly fifty years before Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which guaranteed the right to a safe job.   Regulations adopted in the early 1970s, made safety practices, such as fall protection, machine guarding, and personal protective equipment a standard part of the job.  But this engineering feat took place long before there was much concern for occupational safety.

While these men struggled to earn a living wage to support the family, many of them suffered disabling injuries handing high voltage electric lines, tumbling from high elevations, managing explosives, and much more.  A number died while performing their duties.  Construction work is a dangerous business today, but in that era workplace safety wasn’t a high priority and broken bones, fractured skulls, amputations and other trauma was common.

While people often talk about worker fatalities at the Dam, a census or registry has never been compiled to give us some idea of the magnitude of the risk and to remember those who fell on the job.  So I have done some data-mining, making  an initial survey to identify those who lost their lives at Conowingo.  It was a dangerous work, and newspaper accounts of men in the hard-driving industry suffering serious occupational mishaps are frequent, once work on the project starts.

The first shovelful of earth was turned on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna River and the first nail driven on the Harford County side on March 8, 1926, newspapers observed.  “Twenty carloads of lumber passed Port Deposit on the way to Conowingo, and carpenters and mechanis were rushed on the job on Monday by the early train.”  The clearing of dense woodland had already began, and steam shovels were starting to operate.

Sometimes a man unsecured by a safety harness or net fell into swirling flood waters or rocks a distance or there was an automobile accident.  For example, thirty workmen suffered trauma when a bus operated by the United Railroads between Baltimore and Conowingo skidded on an icy hill at the Dam and was upset.  The injured were rushed to the company hospital.

Other accounts involved single casualties.  Irvin McDowell was confined to his home near Calvert in serious condition, the results of running a nail in his foot, the Baltimore Sun reported March 25, 1927.  Alvan Prather, 25, of Inwood WV. was crushed while firing the engine drawing cars on the Stone & Webster Company’s railroad, running from Havre de Grace to Shure’s Landing.  In critical condition, he was rushed to the company hospital where physicians determined he had a double fracture of the left leg.  The right one was smashed so it was amputated, the Havre de Grace Republican wrote on October 15, 1927.

For this article, I focused on identifying occupational fatalites.  Here is the registry as it stands on Labor Day, 2015.  I will add names to it as others are identified.


March 20, 1926  — Alphonso Fortier, 21, Philadelphia; killed at Port Deposit three-hours after accepting employment with contractor building the hydroelectric plant;  helping to unload a derrick and other machinery from freight car; a heavy piece struck him, causing an internal hemorrhage from which he died an hour later.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, March 21, 1926.

August 8, 1926 — John G. Shelor, 21, Calvert, Cecil County; tractor used in pulling stumps turned over backwards; broken neck at the dam; Remains shipped to Christiansburg, VA for burial.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, Aug. 12, 1926.

August 11, 1926 – George D. Whiteside, 22, pipefitter’s helper; run over by a train at the plant; remains shipped to his home in Champlain, NY.  He was a college student employed at the dam for the summer.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, Aug 12, 1926

August 3, 1926 (date is estimated).  An unidentified African-American laborer was bitten by a copperhead snake while clearing ground for the new dam.  Source:  Cecil Whig, August 7, 1926

December 21, 1926 — William J. Elliott, 46; killed at Conowingo Dam when he fell from a stone conveyor.  Funeral was held at Havre de Grace and services were in charge of Harford Klan.  Source:  Cecil Democrat, December 25, 1926

February 18  1927 —  Soon after reporting to work, George Graybeal, 35, became sick and went to the office of Dr. Mohr, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s physician at Conowingo.  where he died.  He and his father and a brother came from North Carolina to Cecil County to work on the project.

March 8, 1927 — Adam Gelensky, 42, an employee of the Arundel Corporation was found on the Octoraro Creek Railroad Bridge with both legs severed after begun run over by a train.  He died about four hours later in Richards’ Hospital.  The body was turned over to undertaker Patterson of Aikin.  An effort was being made to locate relatives at Brockville, PA.

April 18, 1927 — William Tuance was instantly killed while work for Stone and Webster at the Dam, when he was struck by a heavy piece of timeber.  His remains were taken to the undertaking establishment of Pennington & Son at Havre de Grace.  Internment was made at Angel Hill Cemetery.

April 25, 1927.  Chief George R. Chapman of the Conowingo Fire Department was killed when the fire engine overturned near the Dam in Harford County.  He was buried at Loudon Park Cemetery.

June 29, 1927 — Frank McCann, 27, sustained injured by falling a distance of nearly a hundred feet while at work on the Dam died.  He was from Detroit, MI and his body was shipped home.

July 18, 1927 — Stephen Collins, 28, Baltimore; killed instantly when he fell from the crest of the dam to rocks beneath.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, July 18, 1927

July 18, 1927 — O. P. Shelton, 32, Florida; killed instantly when he fell 140-feet from the crest of the dam to rocks below.  Source:  Baltimore Sun:  July 18, 1927

November 14, 1926 — Joseph Damfamete; employed by the Arundel Corporation; died of a fracture skull at Havre de Grace Hospital; struck on head by falling plank.  Source:  Cecil Whig, November 20, 1926

November 21, 1927 — Hunter H. Bettis, 17, son of Lonnie Bettis, Havre de Grace; employed by Stone & Webster; drowned while walking along the edge of coffer dam, carrying a heavy bay of rivets.  He lost his balance and fell into thirty-five feet of water.  Source:  Nov. 26, 1927, Cecil Democrat


This is the census I have developed thus far.  However, Corner William B. Selse of Darlington, commented that more than twenty men had lost their lives on the project, while investigating the death of Hunter H. Bettis.  He added, “the number is low considering the fact that on average of 3,500 employees have been employed there for nearly two years,” he informed the Baltimore Sun.

Curtis S. Poist of Port Deposit once wrote a Baltimore Sun article called “Helping Build Conowingo Dam.”  “There was no way telling how many men were killed on the job,” he wrote.  “Often the word would go around that a man had been killed, but I never saw a fatal accident.”   The workmen spoke so many languages, came from so many parts of the world, nobody knew much about anybody else.  Usually a man was known only by the number on his badge.   So if he fell into an excavation along with several tons of wet concrete who was to miss him let along mourn his passing?”

The registry probably represents a significant undercount as the primary sources for this preliminary registry are newspapers.  I’m planning a visit to the Maryland Archives soon for another investigation and will pull death certificates for these men and others I am able to locate.

Still on this Labor Day it is appropriate to remember the fallen workers thus far identified.  I will update this registry as more workers are identified.