French Lick’s century-old train station once served as a stop for as many as 13 trains a day — often carrying high rollers and big spenders like Al Capone for a dip in the area’s mineral springs and a stay at the French Lick — West Baden Hotel.
Today, that station is the centerpiece of the Indiana Railway Museum, and the cars pulling up to the platform carry a much different kind of clientele.
But it’s not just the trains that have riders excited today—Riders like sisters-in-law Hunter Smith and Denise Swartz who said they were robbed on the train today.
Sometimes the trip is a pleasant one, rocking through the hills of the Hoosier National Forest. But today, and on many summer weekend days, something is amiss.
Halfway through the trip, conductors have plans to meet up with a stage coach to pick up more passengers and hand over some cash, but McKnights Rangers, a group of volunteer bandits and horsemen who play on both sides of the law launch an attack.
Terry McKnight is the captain of the crew as well as today’s stage coach driver.
“After the hold-up they get the stage coach out and we usually have a passenger or two in the coach and the marshalls come chargin’ in and a shootin’ and a ridin’ and demanding them to throw their guns down. Of course, you know, you know how outlaws are. They usually don’t. They usually want to fight back and they do,” McKnight said.
“So it turns into a gun battle which ends up initially down at Cuzco ‘cause they run off with the moneybag and the whole thing so they end up chasing them down that far, before we have the final shoot out.”
And despite the criminal nature of the trip, Indiana Railway Museum President and General Manager Alan Barnett doesn’t seem worried.
“They’ll be happy to hold a gun to your head, Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, they’re equal opportunity robbers,” Barnett said.
And the thieves do take money from passengers – but they’re more like Robin Hood than like train robbers.
“What we’re trying to reproduce here is a typical 1920s to 1930s Branch Line railroad,” Barnett said.
“Diesels didn’t come into existence until the 1940s and 50s so it’s a little out of place with the cars that we have. Steam locomotives also add a great deal of characters to tourist railroads. Young people come and they want to see something that goes chug, chug, and diesels certainly don’t go chug, chug.”
In fact, Barnett said train robberies have a long standing tradition in Indiana.
“What we’re doing is recreating the very first railroad Hold up which occurred in Seymour IN of all places, back in the 1860s,” Barnett said.
“The Reno gang robbed what was then the O and M, the Ohio, Mississippi railroad, robbed the Adams Express company car and made off with about 10-thousand dollars. Most people think of the Wild West as Kansas, Texas. It happened to be Indiana back in the 1860s.”
Volunteers at the railway museum have been recreating the scene for more than 25 years as a means of supporting the institution. Funding comes mostly from ticket sales, although Barnett said the organization has also received about $2.5 million in Indiana Transportation Enhancement grants — federal dollars administered by the Indiana Department of Transportation for historic preservation in transportation.