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Gold, Black Bart and frontier 'CSI'

Portland's Wells Fargo History Museum recalls life in the Wild West, from stagecoach travel to law and order
by: Janie Nafsinger, Steve Greenwood is curator of the Wells Fargo History Museum in downtown Portland, where the centerpiece is an 1854 stagecoach.

His name was Charles E. Boles, also known as Charles Bolton. But when he robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches, he called himself Black Bart, the poet bandit who left rhymes in place of the strongboxes that he stole.

Legend has it that the dapper gunman never fired a shot and always refused to take personal valuables from stagecoach passengers. 'Thank you madam, but I don't need your money,' he told one worried woman who threw her purse at him.

However, Black Bart robbed Wells Fargo 28 times in Northern California and Southern Oregon (at least twice in Jackson County) before Wells Fargo detective James Hume apprehended the outlaw in 1883 and a judge sentenced him to six years in San Quentin prison. Black Bart's undoing: a telltale laundry mark on a handkerchief that he left at a crime scene.

There's more - but you can hear it from Steve Greenwood, curator of the Wells Fargo History Museum in downtown Portland. The museum, located at the Wells Fargo Center at Fifth Avenue and Jefferson Street, is filled with historical tidbits and artifacts depicting life and commerce in the Wild West.

It was a dicey business transporting gold, banknotes and other valuables along lonesome stage routes and railroad tracks where masked men lurked, armed with shotguns and six-shooters. Frontier law and order being what it was, Wells Fargo - founded in 1852 - hired its own force of detectives to protect the company's assets and hunt down thieves.

Their success mostly came down to good old-fashioned detective work, just like today. 'We had a two-thirds conviction rate of stagecoach and train robberies over about 15 years,' Greenwood says.

The work of Wells Fargo's crime-stoppers is highlighted in a new exhibit at the museum. Titled 'Crime Scene Investigation: Officers in Pursuit,' the exhibit shows how Wells Fargo officers - including Hume - looked for stolen items, suspicious characters and other clues to track down robbers.

The 'CSI' exhibit also includes tools that robbers used to hold up stagecoaches, trains and banks - chisels, axes, dynamite, chains (the latter were placed across roads to stop the teams of horses).

'This really emphasizes the whole risky proposition this business was in the early days,' says Tom Unger, vice president and Oregon regional manager of corporate communications for Wells Fargo.

Elsewhere in the museum, visitors will find a telegraph machine that still works; scales once used to weigh gold; maps showing Oregon's gold and silver mines in the 1860s (in Eugene, Roseburg and La Grande); information about Wells Fargo's famous but short-lived Pony Express; reproductions of a turn-of-the-century bank and a Wells Fargo agent's office; and photographs of Oregon's first Wells Fargo offices.

Then there's the museum's centerpiece - an 1854 Well Fargo stagecoach, 'the oldest in our fleet,' Greenwood says. Wells Fargo never actually used this stagecoach, he adds - built in Concord, N.H., it was found in a barn in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, a long, safe distance from Black Bart's crime spree.

Fittingly, this coach boasts a more genteel claim to fame: England's Queen Elizabeth II rode in it during her visit to the United States in 1951.

Wells Fargo History Museum

Where: Second floor of the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Portland, 1300 S.W. Fifth Ave.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Admission: Free.

Large-group visits: Guided tours for groups up to 30 people can be scheduled by contacting museum curator Steve Greenwood at 503-886-1102 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Other locations: The Portland museum, which opened in 2001, is one of nine Wells Fargo museums in the United States. Wells Fargo exhibits also are in Astoria, Eugene, La Grande and Roseburg and in Washington in Seattle, Battle Ground and Bellevue.

More info: www.wellsfargohistory.com.