Great Saugus Train Robbery
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Nov. 11, 1929: Police and Southern Pacific officials inspect the wreckage of Engine No. 59,
which rests on its side after being derailed and robbed the night before near today's Santa Clarita Metrolink
station on Soledad Canyon Road, southeast of Bouquet Junction. The Baker Ranch rodeo grounds (later
known as the Saugus Speedway) are visible in the background.
Photo by Ray Ayers, then age 18 (father of the contributor, Paul R. Ayers).
According to Santa Clarita Valley historian Jerry Reynolds, Tom Averill, alias Tom Vernon, served time for committing several crimes. He worked on a Saugus ranch and, after failing to land a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad, decided to derail one of the company's trains and rob its passengers.
Reynolds wrote that Vernon was sentenced Dec. 18, 1929, to life in Folsom Prison and that he was "released 35 years later" 1964 "a small, nervous, aged, gray-haired man, who died shortly thereafter of a 'social disease.'" However, this information is in dispute.
Carolena Rezendes of Citrus Heights, Calif., writes (Aug. 31, 2004): "I know for a fact that he was Not in prison in 1957/1958 because he was living with my family in Sacramento, California, in 1957 & 1958. As to how he died, it was TB. Our family buried him."
The most spectacular local robbery occurred during the early evening of Nov. 10, 1929. After pulling into the Saugus Station for water, a massive three-barreled steam locomotive of the 5000 series left at 7:40 p.m., rounding the bend at Bouquet Junction, then starting to gather speed as she headed out Soledad Canyon. Suddenly Engine No. 59 began to lurch violently back and forth. Then, after chewing up 600 yards of track, it crashed over on its side as a torrent of flaming red sparks flew from spinning drivers. The engineer barely escaped being scalded to death as his steamer slid to a halt behind the Saugus Speedway [then the Baker Ranch Stadium].
Somehow the passenger cars remained upright, although there was total panic aboard. Into this bedlam, from out of the clear night, stepped a 5-foot-6-inch man with an air of authority. Quickly he calmed the hysterical women and nervous men, got them back on the Pullmans, and, as soon as everyone settled down, robbed them of all their valuables at the point of a .38-caliber revolver. He then vanished into the inky darkness.
Next on the scene was Deputy Sheriff Jack Pember, who identified the gunman as Thomas E. Vernon, an itinerant cowboy who liked to call himself "Buffalo" Tom [in honor of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody]. Pember found that Vernon had broken into the Saugus Yard tool shed, lifting a wrench and spike puller. He then yanked the bolts that held the rails together, settling down in the bushes to see what would develop.
After the robbery, which only netted $300, "Buffalo" Tom walked over the low ridge to Wood's Garage, where he hitched a ride down to L.A. with one Thomas Firth of Burbank. Vernon claimed that his nonexistent daughter was injured in a train wreck and paid Firth five dollars for a lift to the Children's Hospital.
Two weeks later he derailed another train near Cheyenne, Wyoming, and was plotting a third when he was captured at Pawnee, Oklahoma.