Canada’s only train robber, Bill Miner

The Ashcroft Connection.

Way back in 1981, when my weekly, The Pioneer, was  being produced in Cache Creek, I received a phone call one summer afternoon from a resident of Clinton.

“Did you know they are filming a movie about Bill Miner up near Kelly Lake?” I was asked.

“No, I did not.”

I thanked the caller for this tip and hastened to the location. I found Richard Farnsworth, the lead who played Miner, and Frank Tidy, the camera man, and the cast and crew resting from shooting a scene. In a sea of sun-dappled greenery, surrounded by rolling meadows, a steam engine on a track nearby, I was introduced to the star of the movie.

Richard Farnsworth was gracious, and maybe a little bemused that a journalist would find him in a location that was so far off the beaten track. Soft spoken, in his 60s perhaps, I thought he looked just right for the role of Canada’s first (and only) train robber.  Frank Tidy was civil, but not particularly interested in being interviewed. He later received an Oscar for another film some years later.

Anyway, Farnsworth told me he had been a stunt man in Hollywood for years.  When he was offered the role of “The Grey Fox”, he didn’t hesitate to accept it. Farnsworth’s acting experience up to that point in his life, had been relatively negligible. But the director probably realized the lean muscled man with a longish face, strong featured, teetering on the brink of being handsome, but not quite making that category, was just right for the role. A sort of gentle, diamond in the rough.

I wonder what the genuine Bill Miner would have thought if he had seen the movie depiction of himself? Would he have been flattered? Maybe. Would he have been astounded? Probably.

The reason Miner was nicknamed The Grey Fox, was because of his uncanny genius for escaping prisons. Miner was well known to the authorities in the U.S. In fact, he was one of the most wanted criminals in the U.S. His specialty was robbing trains, a common enough crime in that country, but unknown in Canada.

In 1904, Miner appeared in Ashcroft. Yes, Ashcroft, the horse drawn transportation hub, with its two rail lines on either side of the Thompson River, and its express office right down on Railway St. The building, in fact, still stands there the corner of 6th St., across from the park. Miner entered the BX Express office bold as brass, and started a conversation with the clerk. The young man was told Miner was a prospector and travelling through the area. He was supplied with train and stagecoach arrivals and departures, and the two spent some time talking about placer mining.

The clerk remained utterly blind to the prominent display of a Pinkerton Detective Agency poster on a nearby tongue and groove wall. Wanted. With Bill Miner’s not inconspicuous mug taking up a good portion of the poster.

Confident, maybe, cheekily so, after getting the information he wanted, Bill Miner remained in Ashcroft. He sauntered down Railway St. to the Ashcroft Hotel, a large two storey building with two red brick chimneys, booked a room for the night, and after dinner, engaged in a game of poker.

The next day, Sept. 7, 1904, a southbound CPR train was boarded at Mission and relieved of its gold shipment. The gold was valued at a mere $6,000. Authorities later reported that, if Miner had waited for the next stage shipment from Barkerville, he would have netted $60,000. A small fortune in those days.

Canadian police were baffled; The case remained unresolved for two years.

Then, the Grey Fox struck again. This time he boarded the train with two accomplices at Monte Creek, near Kamloops. But this was Miner’s last caper in Canada. His luck ran out when he and his buddies were apprehended. They were jailed in the penitentiary in New Westminster (Oakalla). You would have thought the concrete bastion that was Oakalla would have been too formidable a challenge for even The Grey Fox. But no. Once again, Miner wheedled a way out of prison and quickly disappeared in the fog. He fled to the States. It was just a matter of time that Miner would connect with the Law again, and sure enough, he was apprehended and jailed yet again. He died in prison not too many years later.

There’s an interesting footnote to this true tale. It came as a testimony from a witness who had played poker with Miner in the old Ashcroft Hotel. He remembered Miner well, because the robber had lost $200 in the game that night. This testimony linked Miner with the unsolved Mission train robbery. But there was insufficient evidence to lay a charge.