Site of the First Train Robbery in the West – Adair, Iowa - Atlas Obscura

Adair, Iowa

Site of the First Train Robbery in the West

Lured here by the promise of tens of thousands in gold, Jesse James started a quintessentially American trend of robbing trains in-motion. 

Travelers between Des Moines and Omaha who prefer to avoid Interstate 80 will find themselves traveling along a quieter, more historic stretch of road. Unbeknownst to modern travelers, this part of Old US Highway 6 was once the sight of a type of heist heretofore unheard of in the American West.

Telling the story of this history-altering event is a modest marker just over a mile west of Adair, Iowa, located off County Road G30. Here, an upright train car wheel marks the spot where, on the dusky summer evening of July 21, 1873, Jesse James and his gang executed the world’s first robbery from aboard a moving train.

Led to believe $75,000 of gold was aboard a certain set of cars running this stretch of rails belonging to the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, the James gang devised a plan to stop the train by dismantling its track. Much to the dismay of the James gang, a delayed shipment of gold meant a paltry $2,000 was found in the train’s safe, rather than the handsome reward the outlaws had believed lay in wait. In order to compensate for this unexpected loss, the gang made off with an additional $1,000 worth of personal property from the train’s passengers.  

The wheel commemorating this fateful turning point in American thievery was donated by the Rock Island Railroad in 1954. Standing nearly as tall as an adult man, the monument illustrates the dangers faced when robbing a train in motion, throwing into heightened relief the boldness of the feat pulled off by Jesse James and his gang.

Know Before You Go

Take the exit for County Road G30 from I-80.