Some stories of those who worked on the line...
The crew of the last train, 1994
This clipping originally appeared in the Ebensburg Mountaineer-Herald, 7/27/94.
Warren C. "Bucky" Mentch
Bucky 'll Never Forget Oct. 11, '24
by Thomas H. Russell
article and photo appeared in the Johnstown (PA) Tribune-Democrat, 10/11/64
COLVER - If "Bucky" Mentch lives to be 100, he'll never forget that morning run on the Cambria and Indiana Railroad. Bucky is about to observe his 80th birthday, and to this day the memory remains as deeply etched as the day the run was made - 40 years ago. Monday is the veteran railroader's birthday. Oct. 11 will be the 40th anniversary of Cambria County's "great train robbery."
The robbery, carried out by 5 or 6 armed men near Concrete Bridge Crossing, in the Belsano area, netted a payroll of $33,000 in cash, and cost the life of a guard on the train. The victim was James Garman, 65, of Ebensburg, who was one of two American Express Company guards assigned to accompany the payroll to the Ebensburg Coal Co. at Colver.
In thick of things
And Bucky Mentch was right in the thick of things. Today, from the comfort of his home here - Colver has been "home" for the past 53 years - Warren C. "Bucky" Mentch remembers the events of Oct. 11, 1924 in this way:
"I don't think I've forgotten a minute of that run. I was the engineer on a small combination freight-passenger train. We were pushing a boxcar and a passenger coach. There was a 5-man crew and some passengers, along with the payroll safe and the guards.
"I was running a little late that morning, I remember, and was trying to make up time. We were moving along pretty lively when just before we got to Concrete Bridge, my brakeman (S.M. Rice, now deceased) yelled: 'Hey, Bucky, there's a man waiting at the station.' There was a little 2x4 station there, and when someone was standing there you could be sure he wanted to board the train; there wasn't much else there. Well, I hit the emergency brake and got us stopped. When I leaned out the cab window, I heard a shot. A bullet went right over my head and stuck in the cab. (Mr. Mentch recalled that the slug remained embedded in the locomotive "I guess until they scrapped her.")
"Next thing I hear is someone saying, 'Get 'em up.' A fellow was standing behind Sharpe (the fireman) and me, pointing a revolver. Now, I always figured I have no more and no less nerve than the next man, but let me tell you, when that fellow pointed that gun and and said get 'em up, I got 'em up. Then he ordered us down off the engine and lined us up with the other crew members. He told us not to move - and we didn't.
"I remember suggesting to the gunman that I turn off the injector on the engine so the whole thing wouldn't blow up. He answered, 'What's the difference, it don't belong to us.' I was standing beside the engine, and I guess the noise drowned out the sound of the shots that were fired, including the one that killed Garman.
"A couple of minutes later, I saw the men - there were 5 or 6 of them - throw the safe from the passenger car, carry it to an automobile they had parked nearby and drove off. We got Garman to a hospital as quickly as possible, but it was too late. He was dead. Later on, a couple of weeks maybe, I was asked to identify suspects as they were arrested by the police, but I never really saw the faces of the men who shot Garman.
Couldn't make identification
"I couldn't make an identification. After all, when you could be sending a man to his death, you have to be sure. It was an unforgettable experience. Seems like it all happened yesterday."
Mr. Mentch, whose railroading career spanned some 54 years before he retired in 1956, and L.A. Duman, whom Mr. Mentch believes is now living in Latrobe, are the only surviving members of the train crew on that wild Oct. 11 run.
Roy Holmes and Rice since have died and the fifth member, Walter Cameron, was killed in a railroad accident some time later. (more on Mr. Cameron appears below.)
The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat's 1924 account of the train robbery stated that a posse of 100 men took to the woods near the scene and that "state constabulary (police) from Hollidaysburg, Greensburg and nearby stations have been ordered to report here."
A reward of $1,000 was offered by the Cambria County Board of Commissioners (John D. Walker, Homer C. George and W.J. Cavanaugh) for information leading to the arrest of the bandits. Subsequent investigation disclosed that the getaway auto used by the robbers had been stolen in downtown Johnstown a day or two before the murder-robbery.
In December of the same year, 2 men were found guilty of first degree murder in Cambria County Court in Garman's slaying and were executed. Both were tied to crimes in other sections of the country, according to newspaper accounts. The story then faded into the blend of daily news events.
Mr. Mentch is a native of Shamokin, Northumberland County, a son of the late Elmer and Ella (Gehres) Mentch. His father was a carpenter, but young Bucky "had the railroading fever." He was just 15 when he got a job as a messenger for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Cresson where the family moved about 1898. "From there I moved on to caller, hostler, fireman and finally to engineer."
In January 1911 Mr. Mentch joined the Blacklick and Yellow Creek Railroad, which he described as "strictly a lumber road." The railroad hauled timber from the Colver area to Vintondale for processing into lumber. Later, the B&YC became the C&I and changed from a lumber road to a coal road, serving mines in the Colver area.
Since his retirement, Mr. Mentch has filled his days by gardening, "helping mom (his wife of 56 years, the former Elizabeth Weaver of Morrisdale, Clearfield County) and tinkering around the house." The octogenarian is enjoying good health - and an equally good memory. Mr. and Mrs. Mentch are the parents of 7 children: Mrs. Gertrude Hassenflug, Pittsburgh; George (also known as Bucky), Belsano; Fred, Butler; Mrs. Dorothy Bollinger, Cape May, NJ; Mrs. June Mentch, Penn Run; Ellajean, Colver and Pittsburgh; and Nelson, Colver.
Only one son has followed in his father's railroading footsteps - Nelson is an extra engineer on the C&I.
Albert Waldo (Walter) Cameron
A.W. "Walter" Cameron was a crew member of the train that was robbed in 1924. From 1916 until 1927, he served as a brakeman and conductor on the C&I and also as an operator of the Brill cars that ran on the railroad. Wally, as he was known, is pictured above next to gasoline-powered Brill car #99. While working at a serious derailment at Sides (near Alverda), he lost his life when an improperly secured crane car toppled onto him, killing him instantly.
The Friday before the accident, he had remarked to his wife that he felt the rigging of the crane was insufficient and unsafe, and that someone might get killed as a result. On the following Monday, May 9, as he was assisting at the site, the crane began to fall. He attempted to run for safety but a shoelace in one of his boots got caught on a lacing hook of his other boot, tripping him. Ultimately, he became the man he feared would be killed. Nowadays, the surviving family could sue for big bucks due to management's negligence, but back then the other workers were told to keep their mouths shut lest they lose their jobs. (After Bethlehem Steel became majority owner of the C&I, worker safety was to become an important issue - a company slogan in its latter years was "Cambria and Indiana Railroad: Geared to Safety." Unfortunately, this was not the case in much of all industry in 1927... certainly not on the railroad.)
May 11, two days after the fatal accident, his funeral was held and his third son was born, who would be named for him: Walter Edwin Cameron (even though Walter was not his real name). Both events took place within a few hours of each other in the same small family home near Strongstown.
Wally Cameron is the man with arms folded, standing third from left. Next to him with the oil can is Bucky Mentch.
Wally losing his hat to the wind beside battery car 14. Notice the trolley pole on the battery car - after a full day of running on the line, the batteries did not have enough power left in them to get the car up the 5% grade from the C&I yards at Colver uphill into the town of Colver Heights (today known simply as Colver, "Heights" having been dropped long ago). To solve this problem, trolley wire was strung and trolley poles attached to the battery cars so they could make it through the switchbacks and up the grade. In this picture, the battery car is parked at the top of the hill in the middle of Colver Heights, along Reese Avenue.
Some C&I employees (and a dog - it's hard to see him) posing on a passenger car. On the steps of this C&I combine car is Bradley Straw, who would several years later marry Wally's widow and become the stepfather of his children. In W.E. Cameron's book, Something Tells Me (Dorrance Publishing, 1992), he notes that his mother was told that she had had the privilege of being married to "two of the best men who had ever lived."
Special thanks to Walter E. Cameron for much of the above material. Photos:Walt Cameron collection, Nelson Mentch, and C.A. Bearer for the last three
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