By Lee Roberts
If direct deposit had existed 130 years ago today, history could have been changed. That’s when famed outlaw Jesse James robbed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers payroll being delivered by horseback just two-miles shy of reaching employees at Blue Water Camp in Alabama.
It was a rainy and windy Friday on March 11, 1881 when Alexander G. Smith, receiver of materials, returned from Florence, Ala., with $5,240.18. He never made good on the cash delivery bound for laborers working on the Muscle Shoals Canal Project on the Tennessee River.
When Smith stopped between Shoal Creek and the camp to open a gate, James, a man believed to be Wood Hite, and William “Whiskey Head” Ryan brandished their weapons and quickly unarmed Smith. They took the payroll out of the inner pocket of his coat, along with gold and silver coinage in a bag hanging from the pommel of his horse.
The Jesse James gang forced Smith to ride nearly 20 miles in a rainstorm before releasing him and generously allowing him to keep his horse, own money, and gold watch.
According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District Librarian Jim Siburt, Smith returned to Blue Water Camp the following morning. Col. William R. King, district engineer, dispatched posses that pursued Jesse James northward, but lost his tracks near the Cumberland River because of torrential downpours.
Whiskey Head Ryan soon split up from James and Hite, although they all were headed to Nashville, Tenn. James returned to his family and monitored local news reports. His brother Frank even came to visit to inquire how the job turned out.
On March 26, Whiskey Head Ryan traveled up White’s Creek Pike, a thoroughfare on the western edge of Nashville. When freezing rain fell, he decided to stop at a local saloon.
“The saloon, like many, was a multipurpose establishment that put on meals and sold groceries as well. A sign at the bar advertised oysters,” Siburt said. “Ryan ordered a dozen and a bottle of what proved to be extremely potent Tennessee whiskey.”
After being involved in a drunken brawl, the local lawman discovered the large amount of gold he carried. Whiskey Head Ryan found himself in a jail cell and became the lead suspect of the robbery.
News of the arrest traveled fast. Jesse and Frank departed Nashville immediately with their families. Frank hid out in Virginia while Jesse went to Kansas City and onward to St. Joseph, where he lived under the name Thomas Howard.
In the spring of 1882, fellow gang member Robert Ford shot James in the back of the head in St. Joseph. He died instantly.
Frank surrendered six months later. In April 1884, he stood trial in Huntsville, Ala., for the payroll robbery. Although accused of the crime, he claimed he did not participate. Represented by a team of outstanding lawyers, the court acquitted him. He then lived a respectable life until his death in 1915.
Whiskey Head Ryan, sentenced to 25 years for a train robbery in Missouri, earned an early release in 1889. He died soon after when he rode his horse at full gallop and hit his head on a tree branch.
When the robbery took place in 1881, the Corps’ laborers were still in the early phases of the Muscle Shoals Canal Project, which involved placing polished, cut stone into nine locks along the canal. Covering 14.5 miles, it would bypass the great shoals and allow steamboats from Florence, Ala., to carry cargo upriver to Chattanooga, Tenn.
“During the project, workers excavated 50,000 cubic yards of rock and earth per year, while quarrying, cutting and laying thousands more yards of stone,” Siburt said. “Camp compounds containing barracks, mess halls, laundries and various other administration buildings existed near the work sites.”
Capt. George W. Goethais, district engineer at the end of 15 years of construction, opened the Muscle Shoals Canal to traffic Nov. 10, 1890. He later designed the highest-lift lock in the world at Riverton in the Colbert Shoals Canal, and believed that was a bigger accomplishment than another large project he would someday lead — the Panama Canal. He eventually achieved the rank of major general.
As for the Jesse James robbery of the Muscle Shoals payroll, Siburt said it is presumed the workers all received their pay.