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Red Lodge - The Outlaw Trail Part VIII

Open Trail Main
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted December 20, 2007

The Red Lodge Robbery And The Road To Lewistown

On September 18, 1897, the Sundance Kid, Kid Curry, and Walt Putney rode into Red Lodge, Montana, with the intent of making a withdrawal from the bank. Of course neither of them had an account at the bank, so their plans would not have been too popular with anyone who resided in the booming mining town.

Red Lodge had already been a town for 15 years and existed long before that as a place of worship for the Crow Indians. When coal was discovered in huge quantities, the Rocky Fork Coal Company moved in. The once quiet valley came to life with hundreds of people who kept 20 saloons buzzing during off-duty hours.

In an attempt to establish some sort of control, a man known as "Liver-Eating" Johnston was hired as deputy sheriff. Although Johnston was a vicious man, he did not actually eat the livers of his enemies. On the other hand, he had been known to strangle law breakers with his bare hands to save the time it would take to hang them with a rope. Fortunately for the Sundance Kid, Kid Curry, and Walt Putney, Johnston was retired before their visit to Red Lodge.

Red Lodge coal mining flourished until strip mining in southeastern Montana became popular. Coal could be produced in greater quantities and at reduced costs. By the 1930s, only a few mines still operated. The final blow to the mining industry was the deaths of 74 men as a result of an underground explosion in 1943. The mine was never repaired.

Red Lodge was not condemned to die simply because the coal mines closed, however. After the depression, the town's primary product became cough syrup. Some say it was nothing more than a legal version of bootleg liquor, but regardless of what it was called, the cough syrup helped keep Red Lodge thriving with shipments to nearly every state west of the Mississippi.

The sands of time continue to bring change to Red Lodge. The mining and cough syrup export have been replaced by tourism, recreation, and agricultural activities. Even so, much of the past still remains, including the bank building where the outlaws intended to make their withdrawal.

As with every escapade that involved the Wild Bunch, there are numerous versions as to what happened. All versions have certain details in common but vary widely after that. The common threads holding the attempted Red Lodge bank robbery together are scarce. First of all, there were three outlaws who were arrested. Secondly, their getaway route took them north toward the town of Columbus. From there, they crossed the Yellowstone River and headed north to the Little Snowy Mountains. They were captured somewhere near Flatwillow Creek in the eastern foothills of those mountains. Since no robbery had actually taken place in Red Lodge, the Sundance Kid, Kid Curry, and Walt Putney were shipped back to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, to stand trial for a bank robbery there.

Some stories claim the outlaws sent a message to the sheriff of Red Lodge before they arrived, telling him they were on the way and he should go fishing. It seems unlikely that any outlaw would announce his plans to rob a bank, especially to any member of the law. A more likely story is that Sheriff St. Clair saw them ride in and recognized Kid Curry from having seen him in Wyoming years earlier. So before the Wild Bunch members were even able to execute the bank heist, St. Clair began rounding up a posse to arrest them, and word got back to the outlaws that it would be a good time to leave town.

The bank building in Red Lodge is still standing, and the word "bank" is etched into its side, but it is no longer used for that purpose. The hotel across the street was also there at that time but was not yet owned by the Pollard family.

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