The Pacific Northwest was a much different place in 1914. The woods were dense, the roads were scarce and best suited for horse and buggy, but times were changing. The railway construction was well underway and automobiles were becoming more common.
1914 was also a year of some spectacularly daring bank heists around the area. In January, the Bank of Granite Falls in Snohomish lost $1,500 ($40,000 in 2019 dollars) in a daring raid. In March, the Royal Bank in Abbotsford was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight of $2,000. Nearly a dozen bank robberies on both sides of the border had everyone on edge.
All of these paled in comparison to the robbery in the sleepy haven of Sedro-Woolley in October. On Saturday evening, October 17, just before the 9 p.m. closing, four heavily-armed masked men entered the First National Bank of Sedro-Woolley. Two men were stationed outside as lookouts and began shooting up and down the street. Inside, the four robbers shot out the lights of the bank and attempted to shoot through the bottom of the cashier’s cage in a failed effort to cripple the cashier, John Guddall.
The robbers rifled through the cash drawers pilfering 320 gold pieces as well as silver and cash. Saturday night was when the mill owners, ranchers, and loggers came into town to bank their earnings. The bandits were clearly well aware and picked the best time to make their move. By the time they made their exit, they had stolen $11,649 (approximately $300,000 in today’s dollars).
More than 200 bullets were fired. Three citizens had been shot, including 13-year-old Melvin Wilson who would die the following day. It was also believed one robber was also shot, as several witnesses overheard one of them exclaim, “Oh God, I’m hit!” He was not seen again.
The hunt for culprits was on. Sheriff Ed Wells of Mount Vernon initiated a ground search, deputizing the local men and putting out word to the Canadian and American revenue officers guarding the international boundary line. Although roughly 80 kilometers away, it was not unreasonable to believe they would be headed north. The descriptions given matched the similar bank robberies earlier in the year bringing the belief this was a well-established gang of Russian or Austrian descent.
Over the next few days, very little trace was found of the robbers short of their forest hideout, which contained a few personal items and maps of the area. In that time, every able bodied man readied themselves on both sides of the border including the New Westminster Police Department, the White Rock Home Guard, and the Imperial Guard, which had mobilized for the war effort, were waiting for any sign of the thieves.
Shortly after midnight on Oct. 22, U.S. customs inspector William Schaffner was on duty at the Douglas border crossing when he saw five men approaching matching the bandit’s description. Instead of engaging them, he withdrew to call Canadian immigration officer Robert Collishaw, who owned one of the few automobiles in the area.
Shortly, a fearsome body of peace officers were on the trail of the sighting. U.S. inspector A.E. Burke was the first to spot them on North Bluff Road in Hazelmere (known today as 176th and 16th Avenue). He called out “Halt”, to which the leader of the gang drew his pistol but was shot dead before he could fire.
More than 50 men were involved in the furious gunfight. After the gunfire, Canadian customs officer Clifford Adams, just 23 years old, lay dead as well as one of the bandits. Another bandit had been hit and injured. Inspector Burke had a bullet hole through his hat which had singed his hair. Another officer had also been shot in the hand.
The injured robber had been hit in the hip and dragged himself into the bush. When the lawmen caught up with him, they found him gravely injured with a bullet to the head. It was initially believed he tried to commit suicide, but later they realized his comrades likely attempted to end his life in some sort of pact.
The injured and deceased robbers were brought into Cloverdale. They were left in a makeshift jail at the blacksmith’s shop—owned by police chief Alexander Matheson—where the Cloverdale Reporter’s office can be found today.
The injured robber died not long after. Approximately one-third of the stolen loot was recovered from the men. They were laid to rest in unmarked graves in the cemetery in New Westminster.
Over the next few days, the countryside was alight with the search for the remaining outlaws. Everywhere one looked, men would be walking with shotguns at the ready. But, it seemed, the bandits made their way back across the porous border.
Two days later in Ferndale, Washington, working on a hunch, detective Stewart rigged up the headlights from his automobile to the railway bridge and connected it to batteries. When he heard footsteps on the railway track, the lights were switched on in the pitch black forest jungle and three of the bandits were caught in the rays. Two were shot dead immediately, but the third managed to escape down a footpath. Another third of the bank’s money was recovered from the deceased desperados.
Although attempts were made to find the final bank robber, he was never found. Nor was the final third of the gold coins ever recovered, making one wonder if they are still hidden somewhere in the forested areas of our local region.