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Something was fishy about Sabine River campers (January 2014)

Something was fishy about Sabine River campers
By Van Craddock

May 1894. For several days folks in Gregg County had seen four men camped on the banks of the Sabine River, just a few miles west of Longview.

Mostly, the men had been fishing. No one paid them much attention, but they should have.

The leader of the little group was Bill Dalton, of the infamous outlaw Dalton brothers, and the men on the Sabine have been plotting a bank robbery. The May 23, 1894, shootout would be one of the biggest in the history of the Old West.

Several weeks earlier, Dalton wrote a Longview businessman about the impending bank heist. The note said: "We take this method of informing you that on or about the 24th day of May, A.D. 1894, we will rob the First National Bank of Longview. So take notice accordingly and withdraw your deposits, and this is a straight tip." The note was signed "Yours for business, B. and F."

The local gent thought the letter a joke and apparently didn't mention the unusual note to anyone at the bank, located on Tyler Street in downtown Longview.

Locals knew three of the four Sabine River campers. Brothers Jim and Big Asa Nite had been working at a Gregg County sawmill. James "Jim" Wallace had married a Longview girl back in December 1893, using the alias George Bennett. Not long after getting hitched, "Bennett" left his bride on "cattle business" and hadn't been back.

The only face unknown to Gregg Countians was Bill Dalton, who in May 1894 was the nation's best-known bandit. Dalton, age 29, had been in a bad mood ever since his brothers got shot up in their 1892 bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kan.

At that point, Bill Dalton turned to a fulltime profession of bank and train robbing, hooking up with Oklahoma outlaw Bill Doolin and his gang.

On Sept. 1, 1893, Dalton's brief outlaw career almost came to an end when the Dalton-Doolin gang had a gun battle with U.S. marshals in Ingalls, Okla. Three lawmen died in the fight and Dalton made his escape. It wasn't long before Dalton left Bill Doolin and formed his own gang with Wallace and the Nite brothers.

On May 23, 1894, Bill Dalton and his gang robbed the Longview bank. It didn't go well. Heroic bank teller Tom Clemmons fought with Dalton when he presented a note demanding money. A customer saw what was happening and fled, yelling "bank robbery!" at the top of his lungs. Contemporary newspaper accounts tell us more than 200 shots were fired in the battle as townspeople grabbed weapons from downtown stores and blasted away at the bandits. It was a bloody battle. Two residents died, mill hand Charles Learned and barkeeper George Buckingham. Two others, J.W. McQueen (described as an "old and well-known citizen and a Knight of Pythias") and popular City Marshal Matt Muckleroy were grievously wounded. McQueen and Muckleroy were expected to die but eventually recovered. At least two other residents received minor injuries in the gunfight.

Outlaw Jim Wallace was the only outlaw casualty, blasted by hardware store owner Claude Lacy and deputy sheriff Will Stevens.

Dalton and the Nite brothers hightailed it out of town on horseback as bullets sailed past them. The robbery netted the gang $2,001.58.

Sheriff Jack Howard quickly organized a posse to pursue the three remaining bandits.

Two weeks after the Longview robbery, someone in Ardmore, Okla., used a "First National Bank - Longview" bank note to purchase supplies. On June 8, 1894, a posse surrounded a cabin in the nearby Arbuckle Mountains and killed Bill Dalton, America's No. 1 desperado.

The law eventually caught up with Jim and Big Asa Nite, but that's another column.