In the late 1870’s, Eureka was equal in importance to any other major mining towns, including its sire, Austin, and what some authors say was “pompous” Virginia City.
Historian and author James Ashbaugh notes, “It boasted a population of over 8,000, 135 saloons, 25 gambling houses, 15 tent shows, an assortment of other adult entertainment establishments…and three newspapers to report on all the activities.”
Such a town was most certainly a target for attempted, and sometimes successful, stagecoach robberies of the Wells Fargo bullion shipments, and Eureka had its share.
One of the most notorious was attempted by A.J. “Big Jack” Davis.
Ashbaugh writes Davis had been one of the gang that took part in the first train robbery at Verdi in 1870. After being captured, he spent a reasonable length of time in jail for that robbery.
After his release, seems he couldn’t resist the urge to do better the next time. And he did. Ashbaugh says “his stage holdups were as well organized as some of today’s master-minded criminal exploits.”
On a given day, the Eureka stage was bound for Tybo. A rich load of gold and silver coin for the mine payroll was on board.
Davis had showed himself to be good at planning his stage heists, but he also earned a reputation of being a very gentlemanly stagecoach robber. One day he robbed the Eureka stage heading to Belmont.
Western author Fred Cook writes, he and his associates were ready to blow the strong box when he decided to provide for the comfort for one of the young lady passengers. He found some blankets and pillows and made a spot in the shade of a nearby tree for her to sit under.
Then, Davis provided free champagne for all the passengers to drink. Might take the sting out of being robbed at gunpoint. It didn’t matter the champagne was a shipment bound for a saloon in Belmont. Everyone was offered a drink if they wanted. Big Jack was just a nice guy.
Not limited to daytime robberies, Davis and his compatriots could work at night, too. They had a system worked out for such events.
Key to the whole operation though was to know how many guards might be riding on a stage they were targeting.
Davis had lookouts in his gang to advise him and the others waiting nearby how many guards were on board.
A simple, but effective method. He had the lookouts light fires on the hilltops. One fire for one guard, two fires for two guards. One or two guards was the usual number unless for some reason there might be an armed Army escort.
On this particular day Davis was all set to put his latest plan into action. However, also on this particular day, a man named Eugene Blair was riding as a messenger. Blair had a tough reputation of not being robbed. Also on board was Jonny Brown, riding shotgun.
The stage was soon to come to a regular stop that Davis had decided would be the place for the robbery. This time it was Willow Springs. He had sent two associates on ahead to Willow Springs where Ashbaugh notes, “they surprised and tied up the station tender and a visiting rancher.”
Lookout man Tom Laurie was given the assignment this day for building however many fires were needed to alert Big Jack and the others.
Cook writes that Laurie was a man none-too- known for his energy. So rather than walk too far between fires when he noticed the stage had two guards on board, he built the fires somewhat closer to each other.
But being as close together as they were, at his vantage point Davis thought there was just one fire, not two.
When the stage pulled into Willow Springs that evening, Davis and his friends made their move, stopped the stage and yelled for Blair to surrender.
But Blair jumped from the stage on the other side and headed for the barn. Davis fired two shot after him, but missed.
Brown jumped off the stage, too, and although being wounded in the leg was still capable of being in the fight.
Blair stumbled on his run to the barn and Davis jumped on him in hot pursuit.
Ashbaugh writes that as the two men got up, Brown was able to distinguish who was who and blasted Davis with both barrels of his shotgun.
With their leader dead, Laurie and the other two bandits took to their horses in escape.
A local posse was soon able to track them down and capture each one, including Laurie, the man who had spoiled the whole thing by building fires too close.