The Night the Lights Went Out in Lovewell

In 1891, after experiencing a recent slump, the profession of robbing trains was starting to make a comeback.  It had been nine years since a dirty little coward had laid poor Jesse in his grave, leading Jesse James's older brother Frank to hand over his six-gun to the Governor of Missouri.  Even if he had to serve a stretch in a Missouri jail, his deal with Governor Crittenden would put an end to a life that had been one "long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil.”  There was now a new gang led by three brothers, Bob, Emmett, and Grat Dalton, who were determined to make a name for themselves with a daring string of railroad stick-ups and bank heists.  The Daltons dreamed of a career that would eclipse the memory of the James brothers.  A year later in Coffeyville, Kansas, they would win a place in the history books, but at a steep price.

Railroad bandits of the late 1800’s were an experimentative bunch.  They flagged down trains by waving fake signal lanterns, scrambled aboard moving cars from horseback to get the drop on the engineer, smuggled themselves on board baggage cars in coffins, and  derailed trains with dynamite.  One gang used up their entire store of explosives just getting into the express car, leaving none for blowing the safe inside it.  Every early job was a learning experience, and those who didn’t get caught immediately, tended to hone their craft.    

So, as Santa Fe No. 7 pulled out of Lovewell Station on a night's final run between Concordia, Kansas, and the end of the line at Superior, Nebraska, when the engineer saw the lights on his locomotive and on the passenger car behind him blinking out one by one as rifle bullets zipped past, he had to assume that someone was pulling a holdup.  He poured on the coal, drove right past the next scheduled stop at Webber, and did not slow down until hitting the approach into Superior.  From the Superior depot, the telegrapher sent out an alert to railroad detectives:  There was funny business going on between Lovewell and Webber on the Santa Fe Railway.

What happened that night in 1891 remained a puzzle for sixty-eight years, or would have, if the railroad hadn't filed away its report and forgotten all about the incident.  However, three men who had been boys at the time, would never forget.

Twelve-year-old Frank Lovewell and his buddy Louis Larson had made a wager with Frank’s older brother Stephen.  The two boys bragged that they could shoot out the lights on No. 7 as it headed north out of town that evening, past the Lovewell farm.  Probably doubting the boys’ nerve as much as their shooting skill, Stephen Lovewell took the bet, then stood nearby and watched those lights go out one after another until the train, gaining speed on the straightaway stretch, plunged ahead in semi-darkness, dragging carloads of screaming passengers on a wild ride.

Frank and Louis may have walked with a swagger the next day, until posters went up offering a reward for information about the incident.  Investigators soon arrived in Lovewell and started asking everyone if they had seen strangers in town the past few days, perhaps a rough-looking bunch with questions about the Santa Fe schedule.  The three boys quickly made a pact, the sort of oath we might expect frightened young boys to devise, that as long as they lived none of them would give away the secret of what they had done.

While the shooting spree caused little harm except for broken lanterns and frayed nerves, there may have been renewed interest in the case over the next few years.  Between 1890 and 1895, railway detectives investigated a dozen robberies, attempted robberies, or plans to rob a Santa Fe train.  When a new gang formed, their first job was often a botched attempt, like the one that seemed to have occurred near Lovewell.  Every time someone struck the railroad, the old story was probably dusted off and examined once more for clues.  Were there similarities between that one and the latest crime committed in Indian Territory?  Could this new one be the work of those same culprits who had shot up the train at Lovewell?  When the subject came up, three guilt-ridden boys could only gulp, duck their heads, and hope it would all blow over soon.  The marksmen were not eager to follow the lead of Frank James, to hand over their rifles and take their medicine.  All three maintained their silence to the end - or almost the end.

In 1959, a few years after her father’s death, Mrs. Mary Jane Hurd, one of Stephen Lovewell’s daughters, sent the Santa Fe Railway a letter she had promised him she would write one day, giving her father’s version of what had really happened that night back in 1891.  He had mentioned the incident in passing once before, when he was in a reflective mood.  As he approached the end of his life, he disclosed the full story, dictating what details the letter must include.  It was greeted with a chuckle and an amusing write-up in Mary Jane’s hometown paper, the Wichita Beacon.  Her father’s confession contained the solution to a mystery that had lain dormant for so many decades that Stephen Lovewell and his co-conspirators may have been the last people who remembered or cared.

As for those actual train robbers mentioned earlier, Emmett Dalton, sole survivor of the Dalton Gang, served fourteen years of a life sentence.  He headed west after being paroled, where his infamy earned him a brief stint as a screenwriter and actor.  He published a book about his crimes and redemption, and settled into a career as a real estate agent and building contractor (Feel free to make up your own joke here).  Frank James served no sentence at all, only the time spent awaiting justice.  Tried for his role in two robberies, he was found not guilty, became an investor in a Wild West Show and worked at various jobs, including ticket-taker for a Burlesque theater in St. Louis.  Employing him allowed the theater to lure patrons with the slogan, "Come get your ticket punched by the legendary Frank James.”

All the Lovewell boys and Louis Larson got for their shenanigans in 1891 was a lifetime of guilt and constant fear of discovery.  Who knows?  If they had actually robbed the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe No. 7, they might have parlayed their crime into a career in show business, or at the very least, a book deal. 

Thanks to Dave Lovewell for his clippings from the Wichita Beacon   


© Dale Switzer 2023