Mike Brooks, Arts and Culture Editor
On April 3, 1882 a search of the clothing worn by the deceased corpse of the man known locally as “Mr. Howard”, by the sheriff at St. Joseph, Missouri, uncovered a gold pocket watch with the name Burbank etched on the back.
Burbank, the one time Governor of the Dakota Territory, lost the watch, along with $850 cash and a diamond pin, during an old fashioned stage coach robbery just outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas on January 15, 1874 in which a half dozen or so passengers were relieved of what was reported to have been over $4,000. The passengers were traveling to Hot Springs to take advantage of the “curative thermal waters”.
Most visitors traveled to Malvern by train then caught the El Paso Concord stage which took them the remaining distance to Hot Springs. The trip was long and uncomfortable for the passengers as the route carried them over and around mountains as they followed the terrain of the Ouachita River. The road was reported to have been muddy during the rainy season and dreadfully dusty otherwise. This long and arduous trip required travelers to carry large sums of money, not only for the trip, but for the required extended stay in Hot Springs, if one was to take full advantage of the thermal waters and their healing properties.
Following a three hour ride, in which the driver averaged nearly five miles an hour, the stage made a scheduled brief stop to water the horses eight miles east of Hot Springs. The journey soon continued west. The robbery occurred just west of the crossing at Gulpha Creek (just south of the present day Hwy 270E bridge over the creek). After fording the creek, the stage, and its occupants began the ascent up the road and out of the creek bed when they were accosted by five men, all on horseback and reportedly wearing “long blue army coats“. Passengers were ordered out of the coach and relieved of any and all valuables in their possession.
“Mr. Howard”, who, at the time of his death possessed the stolen watch taken during the robbery, was more commonly known as Jesse Woodson James. The other four members of the hold up gang were Jesse’s brother Frank, and their cousins the Younger’s – Cole, Jim, and Bob. Better known as the James – Younger Gang!
The discovery of the watch on the body of Jesse James after his assassination by Bob Ford, and then later confirmed by comments made by Cole Younger, confirmed for historians that it was the James-Younger Gang that robbed the stage east of town as reported by the passengers.
Younger spoke to residents of the Spa City in an appearance at the Hot Springs City Auditorium in November 1909. In his talk, he told of sights, sounds and happenings in Hot Springs that could have only occurred during the 1870’s. He further added that the gang spent the night prior to the hold up in Hot Springs, but did not go into details about their brief stay.
Describing the gangs’ visit to Hot Springs the night before the robbery, Orval Allbritton writes in his book Dangerous Visitors – The Lawless Era, “At the junction of (Central Avenue – then known as Valley Street) what later became Fountain Street, the leader, a large man with a red beard, (a close description of Cole Younger) turned his horse. Crossing the creek running through the valley, with the others following, he headed up that draw, passing several Negro shanties and a small Black church. A quarter of a mile up the gully, the men dismounted in an area near a cold water spring surrounded by smoke blackened stones where previous campers had built campfires while visiting the spa.” Allbritton also noted that Younger “only spoke of the stagecoach robbery off stage.”
Frank James also returned to Hot Spring in 1911 and 1912. He lived in a house located at 319 Fifth Street. The property is owned by the Gospel Light Baptist Church, but the house is no longer there. While a resident here, he worked at the Happy Hollow Amusement Park located on Fountain Street near the base of Tower Mountain. After tourism numbers began to wane, he took a job as a salesman of tack in (Hamp) William’s Hardware store. Frank James returned to Missouri where he died in 1915. Younger died the following year