Marianne Babal is a Corporate Historian for Wells Fargo.
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.
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.
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 0fficer and expert tracker John Thacker rushed from Los Angeles to join the pursuit.
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