By Bob McCracken – “Nye County History”
The Nye County frontier town of Tybo, located about 60 miles east of present-day Tonopah at the south end of the Hot Creek Range, was a gem of the real West. It was founded in the mid-1860s, fewer than 20 years after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort in California in 1848. Also, this was less than a decade following the discovery of silver at the Comstock in 1859 at what became Virginia City, which led to the founding of the state of Nevada. Not long after the Comstock, silver was found at what became Austin in 1862, and 1866 saw the beginnings of Tybo.
The discovery of a huge deposit of silver, lead, and zinc created a prosperous community starting in 1870. Tybo never had a population much greater than 1,000, but it was a jumping place in its day, at the time one of the two or three most important communities in Nye County. Tybo had bars, fancy restaurants, rooming houses, prostitutes, gambling, knifings, and shootouts on the streets. All in all, it seems likely the people in Tybo enjoyed a more complex social life than most present-day residents of Las Vegas or Reno. One of the things I’ve learned in my research on Tybo is that the best of our western movies — films by masters like John Ford and George Stevens — do a pretty good job of portraying the frontier West.
One Monday afternoon in the late summer of 1877, a Wells Fargo & Company stage left Eureka for Tybo. The stage’s driver was Jack Perry. He was accompanied by two other employees of Wells Fargo and Company riding shotgun, known as “messengers,” Eugene Blair and James Brown. The stage carried two passengers, Professor T. Price, a mining expert, and another gentleman named J. M. Haskell.
At around 9 p.m., just as the stage pulled up at Willows Station, located about 40 miles south of Eureka, it was accosted by three men. One called to Blair, saying, “Eugene Blair, get off that stage and surrender.”
The dark of night made it impossible to see exactly who was speaking. Thinking someone in the station had gotten drunk and was playing some kind of joke, Blair did not immediately comply with the order, which was forcefully repeated. Leaving the driver and Jimmy Brown on the seat, Blair began to dismount, holding his Wells Fargo “short” sawed-off shotgun.
Blair’s feet had barely touched the ground when “he was greeted by double discharge of shotguns, one from the rear of the stage and the other from the corner of the stable.” Both shots missed him, but one came so close to his head that the powder of the discharge warmed his face. Blair returned fire “almost simultaneously,” but his vision was clouded by the smoke of the shots and the darkness of the night and he missed the assailant.
The report of Blair’s shotgun had still not died away when he felt the cold muzzle of a gun “placed against his breast by one of the robbers, with the intention, no doubt, of making short work of the brave messenger.”
Instantly, Blair caught the muzzle with one hand and pushed it aside. The robber attempted to fire but pulled the wrong trigger. Brown, still sitting on his seat on the stage, saw his opportunity, raised his gun, and “quick as a flash gave the road agent the full contents of one barrel squarely in the back.” The road agent fell to the ground, mortally wounded with eight buckshot wounds in him. Almost simultaneously with Brown’s deadly shot, Blair had placed his shotgun directly against the road agent’s breast and, as one account reported, “would have blown a hole through him as big as the moon had not his brave companion performed the service.” Brown, after firing his shot, then jumped to the ground. His boots had barely touched the earth when another shot from a road agent rang out and hit Brown in the calf of his left leg, shattering the bone.
The remaining two robbers then fired more shots with shotguns and revolvers at the Wells Fargo men from close range. Fortunately, none of the shots hit their mark, though “they came uncomfortably close.” Then the road agents disappeared into the darkness.
With the shooting over, the passengers got out of the stage and looked at the wounded thief on the ground, who was writhing in mortal agony, imploring, begging, and praying to be put out of his misery.
The noise of the gunfire attracted the attention of those in the station. Upon inspection, it was found that the blacksmith and rancher who were in charge of the place had been bound and threatened with instant death if they gave any kind of alarm as the stage approached.
The robbers had come about an hour prior to the arrival of the stage and forced the attendants’ surrender. They then had cooked a meal, eaten it, and unharnessed the horses that had been readied for a change of teams when the stage arrived. In preparing for the stage’s arrival, they had built a small fort with boards at the corner of the stable and placed an old axe there for opening the “treasure box” the stage was carrying.
The wounded robber was carried into the station, and all remained there during the night. The robber suffered “excruciating tortures through the night” and was in a low condition the next morning when Jack Perry, Eugene Blair, Jimmy Brown, and the wounded thief started their return to Eureka. The passengers, Price and Haskell, continued on their journey to Tybo. Every effort was made to induce the robber to reveal the names of his associates, but to no avail. A few miles from Eureka, he expired. Before doing so, he gave his name as Jack Davis.
The stage arrived in Eureka that evening about 7 p.m. and stopped at the Wells Fargo office. News of what had happened spread quickly throughout town. It caused quite the excitement. Davis’s body was taken to Schwab’s Undertaking establishment and the coroner was called. Crowds gathered to get a glimpse of the “stiff highwayman.” A dozen men soon yelled out, ‘It’s Jack Davis!’ Indeed, the desperado had given his proper name just before he died. One man in the crowd remarked, “He was the most notorious road agent living.”
The Eureka Republican wrote, “The two messengers, James Brown and Eugene Blair, deserve the gratitude of the people of this state for their matchless heroism. They have fought one of the greatest battles that is recorded of the highway, and their miraculous escape against such long odds, covered with double-barreled shotguns and a dark of night, can only be attributed to their unflinching bravery! Mr. Brown, the wounded hero, has the sympathy of the community.”
In early December 1877, it was reported that Jimmy Brown was in Sacramento, Calif., undergoing surgical treatment for the leg fracture received in the shootout at Willows Station. “He will undoubtedly get well,” said the report, “but it is thought the leg will be a little short.”
Eugene Blair’s reputation for bravery became known nationally. In 1884, the Reno Evening Gazette reported, “He has the reputation among Wells Fargo’s men of being absolutely destitute of personal fear.” He had experienced several hard fights with robbers in his career.
About that time, Blair’s health began to fail and he spent the winter of 1883 in San Diego in an attempt to get it back, to no avail. Early the summer of 1884 found him in Auburn, Calif. Eugene Blair, the Wells Fargo & Company “shotgun messenger,” died in Auburn June 27, 1884. It was consumption that “finally carried him off.”