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A black and white portrait shows the headshot of Aaron Ross looking ahead, with a beard and a coat on. Below his portrait it says: 'Hold-the-Fort' Ross on a tan colored ribbon. To the right is a black and white image of a train.
Aaron Y. Ross; Wells Fargo’s express car typically followed the engine on fast express trains. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

‘Hold-the-Fort’ Ross stops a train robbery

Wells Fargo Express Messenger Aaron Y. Ross showed a deep commitment to protecting customers’ assets during a train robbery attempt in 1883.

January 25, 2019
Marianne Babal
Marianne Babal

Marianne Babal is a Wells Fargo historian.

Protecting customers’ assets has always been a top priority for Wells Fargo. While today’s security measures include cybersecurity, some of the earliest examples included physically warding off robbers.

As his train crossed the Nevada desert east of Elko just after midnight on Jan. 22, 1883, Wells Fargo Express Messenger Aaron Y. Ross held off an outlaw gang attempting to rob Wells Fargo’s express shipment of gold and valuable packages. Ross, a tough Maine native who stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall, refused the robbers’ demands to open up the doors of his express car. The robbers shot several volleys into the car before trying to bash their way in with pickaxes.

An illustration shows a man in a blue suit kneeling beside three boxes with several bags of money resting on them. The man's blue hat is beside him on the floor, and he has a gun in his left hand as he looks off to the right.
Aaron Ross was featured in a 1970s advertisement for Wells Fargo Bank. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Ross returned fire from inside. The robbers detached the express car from the passenger and mail cars, then rammed it with the locomotive. The doors popped open. Ross managed to resecure the latches. He took a defensive position behind a barricade of wooden crates. After a four-hour standoff, the criminals gave up trying to access the express car, stole $10 from the train’s conductor, and fled. Forty bullets riddled Ross’s express car, three of which slightly wounded him.

A handwritten telegram to S.D. Brastow with the date Jan. 22, 1883, says: Train No. 1 one stopped by five road agents at Montello Station between Toano and Tecoma. All is right except I am shot in the hand.
The telegram Ross sent hours after the robbery attempt at Montello. He wrote, “All is right except I am shot in the hand.” (Click or tap the image to enlarge.)  Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

News of the attempted robbery reached Elko’s sheriff within an hour, and a pursuit posse was soon organized. Wells Fargo and the Central Pacific Railroad each offered a reward of $500 for each robber, and the State of Nevada added an additional reward of $250. After hearing details of Ross’s stand, Wells Fargo Manager John Valentine ordered the company’s reward be doubled to $1,000. Wells Fargo Special Agent and expert tracker John Thacker rushed from Los Angeles to join the pursuit.

A black and white image shows four men in suits, with three standing and one sitting in a chair, inside of a railroad express car. In front of them are two metal boxes with the words: Wells Fargo & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.'s Express on them.
The interior of a railroad express car, Ross’s “fort.” The Montello robbers were after Wells Fargo’s treasure box and safe, like the one seen here. 
A black and white photo shows an older man with white facial hair in a suit and cat sitting on a stool as he holds a gun across his lap. In front of him is a box with a lock on it that says: Wells Fargo.
“Hold-the-Fort” Aaron Ross, who retired from Wells Fargo at age 87, is pictured in The Express Messenger in June 1922. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

After reaching safety, Ross telegraphed his superintendent, S.D. Brastow: “Train No. 1 one stopped by five road agents at Montello Station between Toano and Tecoma. All is right except I am shot in the hand.” The laconic Ross earned a day off and a new nickname of “Hold-the-Fort” Ross. The robbers earned jail time after all were caught in Utah.

The valiant Wells Fargo messenger received a $1,000 check and an engraved gold watch from Valentine. Ross continued guarding Wells Fargo’s express shipments until retirement in 1916, after a 48-year career with the company as a stage driver, shotgun guard, and express messenger. He died peacefully in Ogden, Utah, at the age of 93 in 1922. His youngest child, a daughter born shortly after the holdup, was named Montello.

Wells Fargo detective James B. Hume’s mug book of known robbers included photos of all five Montello bandits

An aged photo shows the mugshot of a man who is looking down and to the left. He wears a scarf tied in a bow and a jacket.
A black and white image shows the mugshot of a man with dark hair and dark facial hair who is looking straight ahead.
An aged photo shows the mugshot of a man wearing a coat and shirt and with a beard. He is looking down and to the left.
An aged image shows a man wearing a jacket over another jacket or shirt with buttons as he looks off to the left.
An aged image shows a man with facial hair looking down. He has what appears to be a blanket or scarf draped over his head.

Erastus Anderson

He was sentenced to 12 years in Nevada State Prison. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Orin Nay

He received a 14-year sentence for assault to commit robbery. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Frank Francis

He received a prison sentence of 14 years. He had committed three stage robberies previously. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Sylvester Earl

He was 19 at time of crime and was sentenced to 12 years. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Frank Hawley

He was wounded in capture and sentenced to 14 years. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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