From the Museum Archives: The deadly Meeker bank robbery of 1896
In the middle of a Tuesday afternoon on October 13, 1896, three armed men entered the Bank of Meeker located in the Hugus Store on Main Street. Two warning shots were fired and the eight store patrons and employees were disarmed and corralled to the center of the room. An estimated $1,600 was then placed in a sack. Everything seemed to be going smoothly for the gunmen, but things were about to go south — as in six feet under, south.
Gunshots emanating from inside a bank typically warrants suspicion. This wasn’t lost upon Deputy Game Warden W.H. Clark, who was outside at the time. Clark immediately put out the call to help cover the exits of the Hugus store. Several well-armed Meeker citizens happily obliged.
Meanwhile inside the bank the three bank robbers were instructing their captives to walk single file out the door where their getaway horses were tied to a nearby freight wagon.
Once the trio exited the building behind the hostages, it didn’t take long for them to realize they were staring down the barrels of rifles, shotguns and pistols in nearly every direction. With their options limited, and evidently ruling out surrender, they took the only option left: attempt to shoot their way out of a nearly impossible situation.
The head bandit took the first shot and struck Deputy Clark in the chest. Then, as soon as the two other bandits left the protection of their human shields to mount their horses, all hell broke loose. A violent volley of shots seemingly came from every tree, wagon and window in sight. When the smoke cleared, two of the bank robbers and one of their horses lay dead on the ground. A couple of the hostages were also hit most likely from friendly fire.
The third bandit, though struck several times, limped down a side street while continuing to shoot until he finally fell to the ground. He lived for another hour or so until he proclaimed “Oh, mother!” and took his final breath.
As for the money? It never even left the bank! It was found still sitting inside seemingly forgotten by the obviously novice bank robbers.
It was later determined that the three now-dead men were George Law, Billy Olmstead and Jim Shirley. All of them had ties in and around Northwest Colorado. None of the men were considered particularly menacing nor had significant run-ins with the law prior to that day.
It was also discovered that, however haphazardly the robbery unfolded, the bandits at least had the forethought to make getaway preparations. 17 days after the shootout, a camp consisting of rifles, ammunition and a relay of three horses was discovered about six miles northwest of town. Unfortunately, the horses had been tied-up without food or water and one had already died; the other two were nursed back to health.
Despite being shot in the chest, Deputy Clark made a full recovery as did the other wounded. Only the three careless bank robbers and one of their horses lost their lives that historic day in 1896.
White River Museum is currently preparing a Meeker Bank Robbery exhibit planned for this summer.
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. To learn more, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum’s Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.