The Great Lewistown Train Robbery

A foggy morning on the Juniata River

Fog lingered on the Juniata River as I pulled into the parking area at the Lewistown Narrows Boat Access. Here the Juniata meanders between the Blue and Shade Mountains on its journey towards Amity Hall and its confluence with the Susquehanna River.

Getting out of the vehicle, I walked down to the water’s edge to see how far up and down the river I could see and, not seeing any opportunities for decent photographs, I turned to start back to the vehicle. I only took a couple steps before I heard it – the distant rumble told me a train was quickly approaching. Mere seconds later, it appeared on the opposite side of the river headed towards Lewistown.

While this train disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, my thoughts drifted back to a train that made an unscheduled stop here in the narrows due to a daring train robbery that happened near Hawstone on the Mifflin and Juniata County line.

When most think of train robberies, thoughts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose real name was Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (born in Monte Claire, Pennsylvania) instantly come to mind. Yet in 1909 there was a train robbery in the Juniata Narrows between Lewistown and Mifflintown that could have come straight out of a “wild west” novel.

It was here that the Old No. 39 of the Pennsylvania Railroad, known to carry valuables, was robbed. The train’s reputation had caught the attention of robbers, but none had successfully gained access to the riches within. The robbery of 1909 was planned with great care and the place was perfectly selected. On the south side of the tracks was the Blue Mountain and northern side was bordered by the Juniata River. This was an ideal place for a robbery; it was halfway between the two towns and it would take time for any sort of help to arrive.

The most intriguing part of the robbery was that it was not carried out by a gang of robbers – it was one man who held up Old No. 39.

At 1:30 am on August 31, 1909. a loud explosion rocked the engine as it made its way through the Lewistown Narrows. Believing something was wrong with the engine, the engineers brought the train to a halt. The explosions that had rocked the engine had been caused by sticks of dynamite the lone robber had placed on the tracks. The explosions managed to knock off the cowcatcher and the train’s headlight.

Note: I’ve always been curious about these explosions and found myself asking “why wasn’t the train derailed?” The explosives that rocked the train that night were smaller explosives and not full sticks of dynamite, like the newspapers reported. A full stick of dynamite would have seriously damaged or destroyed the engine. These explosives were placed on the track and exploded as the train passed over them.

As the railroad men got down from the engine, they discovered a lone man standing on the train tracks. The figure wore a large black hat and a baggy burlap bag with holes cut into it for his eyes. The robber held a pistol in each hand and still carried sticks of dynamite in his pockets.

The masked man ordered the railroad men to fill burlap bags with money and after they stalled for a couple minutes, the bandit fired a number of warning shots at them. One of those shots hit the conductor, Isaac Poffenberger, in the hand. Once a number of the burlap bags were filled, the robber ordered the conductor and two others to carry the bags up the side of Blue Mountain. After the last trip up the steep mountainside, the railroad men were sent back down to the train. Somewhere along the way, the robber disappeared. Realizing they were free to continue, the train continued to Lewistown where the train robbery was reported.

Once word got out that there had been a robbery, local police and Pinkerton detectives were at the scene to track down the robber. Near the top of the mountain, the majority of the loot was recovered. The robber took with him bags that had been filled with pennies – roughly $65.00 worth of pennies were not recovered at the time.

About forty-five years later a group of hunters found 3,700 pennies in a rotting stump. Of the loot taken from the train robbery, there is close to 2,800 pennies still missing somewhere on Blue Mountain.

The robber was never captured, though it is believed that James Lawler, a local bandit and troublemaker, was responsible for the hold-up. Lawler had been in the area for the three days before the robbery talking with people from the railroad and he disappeared after the robbery occurred. It is believed that he died in the mountains west of Lewistown without ever reclaiming any of his loot. Local legend claims that a black figure, believed to be Lawler, has been spotted roaming the mountainside in search of the missing treasure.

Note: I’m not sure how Lawler became connected to the robbery, but in most accounts, he was considered the prime suspect from the start. In all the articles I’ve read, it is stated that he was believed responsible, but none of the articles go as far as to explain why it was believed he was the one responsible for the robbery.

A few years back, I joined a friend, who lived in the area, in an attempt to locate the lost treasure. Granted Blue Mountain is so large and vast, with much of it still being as wild as it had been in 1909, that finding any treasure on the mountainside is a one in a billion chance. Even with the search area being narrowed down greatly to where my friend thought the treasure may be buried, we found ourselves on a steep mountainside with thousands of places a person might have hidden the treasure. We roamed the mountainside between the railroad tracks and Route 333 for an hour or so, spooking a handful of deer. Needless to say, we didn’t find anything that morning.

As I prepared to leave the lot, I took one last glance up and down the river and knew that somewhere in the Juniata Narrows, hidden along Blue Mountain, is a sack full of pennies waiting to be recovered that is worth a small fortune today. And it is waiting to be recovered by the lucky person who stumbles upon the rotted burlap bag.

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