Remembering Roy Gardner’s heist in Roseville

The last of the western train robbers
By: J'amie Rubio, Press Tribune correspondent
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Not since the infamous “gentleman bandit” Black Bart had the west coast seen anyone quite like Roy Gardner; and the city of Roseville would face off with him before his run ended.

Although most people may not recognize his name today, in the early 1920s, Gardner was a household sensation, and one of the most sought after fugitives of his time. Known for robbing mail trucks and mail trains all over the southwest — and his crafty escapes from the law on every turn — Gardner’s nefarious adventures made headlines across the country and entertained millions along the way.

In 1910, after serving time in San Quentin for a jewelry store robbery, Gardner was released early on account of saving the life of a correctional officer during a riot. After his release, he became a welder, working in a shipyard in South San Francisco.  Not long after moving his family down to Southern California to look for work, Gardner lost all his money gambling in Tijuana, Mexico. He needed to make a quick buck. After an ill-conceived robbery of a San Diego mail truck for $78,000, Gardner was soon arrested.  Convicted and sentenced to 25 years, he was put on a northbound train headed for Washington to serve his sentence at McNeil Island Corrections Center.

Swearing that he would never serve a day of that sentence, Gardner managed to steal one of the Marshall’s guns right from under his nose.  After forcing them to remove his chains, Gardner handcuffed the Marshalls together and robbed them. He then jumped the train and ran off into the night, heading for Canada. After being on the lam for almost a year Gardner made his way back to California.

“Roy Gardner’s story has all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie,” said Roseville Historical Society’s Vice-President, Ken Fisher. “It’s just a disappointment that his story has faded with time.”

As someone who has been dedicated to documenting this unique tale in Roseville’s past, Fisher was kind enough to offer the details of Roy’s infamous encounter with the city in 1921.

Although Gardner’s criminal history did not start or end in Roseville, the city did set the stage for his biggest heist, on May 21, 1921. For days Gardner had scoped out the train that headed up to New Castle, even riding the top of its railcars to gauge twists and turns on the tracks. He noticed that in the sharper bends the hard rubber connections between boxcars would pull apart on a curve, which would allow him to slip in and then make his way to the mail cart. After casing the train, he hopped off and made his way back to Roseville. The next night, at 10:15 p.m. Gardner snuck onto the Pacific Limited train, No.20, that was again heading for New Castle.  By the time the train had reached Rocklin, Gardner had managed to get into the mail cart, startling Ralph Decker, the mail clerk. Although Gardner pointed a .45-caliber pistol at Decker, he never harmed him. Instead he stole mail from about 50 different bags. He then threw his bag off the train and pulled the emergency brake cord, allowing him to jump off.

Unfortunately for Gardner, searching the tracks all night didn’t result in him finding the bag of loot he’d just stolen. Eventually the authorities retrieved the snatched mail, along with all the money in it.

By the next morning, Gardner had made it back to Roseville, stopping at the Peerless Café to eat breakfast. It was there the robber believed that a waitress might have recognized him from wanted posters. Gardner finished his meal and went back to his room at the Porterhouse Hotel, which was located on the corner of Atlantic and Lincoln streets. It wasn’t until two days later during a poker game inside the cigar store near the Porterhouse that authorities surrounded Gardner. He was taken to Sacramento to face a Judge. 

After being sentenced to an additional 25 years for escaping custody to commit another robbery, Gardner was sent on his way back to McNeil Island.

Gardner’s story doesn’t end there: He made many more infamous escapes from the law before he was finally caught. After being incarcerated at various prisons, including Leavenworth, Atlanta and Alcatraz, he was eventually released at the age of 54.

Having been imprisoned for so many years, the transition back to a normal life seemed to be too hard for Gardner. On Jan. 10, 1940, the “last of the western train robbers,” as he was dubbed, used cyanide gas to take his own life in his San Francisco hotel room. A man who lived his existence on the edge and suffered the consequences of a lifetime of his own choices, made the last choice he had left — escaping the world one last time.

With a story that reads like a dime novel from the days of the Old West, many who learn of Gardner find his tale unforgettable. As Ken Fisher put it, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid certainly have nothing on Mr. Gardner. A man who thought it would be a marvelous idea to come to the little railroad town of Roseville in 1921, and rob a train.”