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A look back at Alberta's great train robbery 100 years ago in Crowsnest Pass

Not many people know the details of one of Alberta's most dramatic crime stories — the great train robbery of the Crowsnest Pass, which happened 100 years ago, this weekend.

Museum plans series of commemorative events to mark historic events from summer of 1920

Local historians tell us the sordid tale of three train robbers involved in a manhunt that lead to a deadly shootout and arrest south of the border, all with a watch at the center of it. 5:36

Not many people know the details of one of Alberta's most dramatic crime stories — the great train robbery of the Crowsnest Pass, which happened 100 years ago, this weekend.

On Aug. 2, 1920, three men boarded a train in Lethbridge, rode quietly and then robbed the passengers and conductor just past Coleman in the rugged Crowsnest Pass.

It did not end well.

The men got away that day; one escaped to the U.S., and the other two were eventually killed in a shootout with police at the Bellevue Cafe.

  • WATCH | Visit the site of the train robbery in the video above.

Crowsnest Museum and Archives has planned a week-long series of events to mark the anniversary.

"It's really I think a story that needs to be more widely told, and we're using this 100th anniversary to try to shed some light on it," Chris Matthews, the museum's executive director, told The Homestretch.

"This is just one of the many unique stories of our area down here and just another chapter in the pretty dynamic history book of the past, starting with the Frank slide of 1903 and going all the way through," Matthews said.

"There's just some great stories, great history coming out of this area and this is one of the ones that isn't as well known."

This story started when the three Russian men — George Arkoff, Alex Auloff and Tom Bassoff — decided to pull off the daring robbery.

Three Russians — from right, Alex Auloff, George Arkoff and Tom Bassoff — boarded CPR #63 in Lethbridge but waited until the train was in the Crowsnest Pass and clear of Coleman before making their move. (Glenbow Photo Archives)

"The rumour was that they thought one of the local rum runners, Emilio Picariello, was on the train with a large sum of money — probably ill gotten money — but he was not on the train," Matthews said. "All they got all they got away with was about $400 in cash and some valuables."

One of those valuables was the conductor's pocket watch.

That watch is now on display in the museum, the only artifact directly linked to the whole affair, from train robbery through to shoot-out at the Bellevue Cafe, to the capture of the final, elusive thief years later.

But on that day, the robbers would have no idea of the role that watch would play.

The conductor's pocket watch, taken during the train robbery of Aug. 2, 1920 in the Crowsnest Pass, is the only artifact that remains of the event, and is now on display in the Crowsnest Museum and Archives. Director Chris Matthews says the rare, engraved piece was issued to CP Rail conductors and also a key link to solving the final piece of the crime. (James Young/CBC)

In the moment, they were focused on escaping with their loot.

Ian Mackenzie, volunteer with the Crowsnest Heritage Initiative, said this is still the only known armed train robbery in Alberta's history.

He said the train came to a stop in a location the robbers didn't expect, and that's where they decided to flee.

Arkoff, Auloff and Bassoff jumped off and the passengers watched the men disappear into the woods.

"You can imagine that the passengers of the train were quite excited," Mackenzie said.

"The train continued on to the next stop, which is Crowsnest, and at that point the staff alerted the CPR police and also the other law enforcement agents of what had happened."

A manhunt ensued.

"It was at that point, likely because there wasn't as much loot on the train, that Alex Auloff, he left to the group and headed down toward the United States and kind of escaped," Matthews said.

"But, oddly enough, George Arkoff and Tom Bassoff, they stayed in the area. They were even spotted in some of the town sites frequently as the manhunt was being carried out by multiple authorities — CPR Police, RCMP and the Alberta Provincial Police (APP)."

The shootout

Five days later, on Aug. 7, the two showed up at the Bellevue Cafe. That's where the more well known event occurred — the shootout that left one of the robbers and two police officers dead.

"I leave out many of the grim details of this shootout," Matthews said. "But the result was one of the bandits, Arkoff,  APP Constable Bailey and RCMP Corporal Usher were killed. And Tom Bassoff got away. And he was still a fugitive."

A re-enactment of the shooting of a policeman by Tom Bassoff at the Bellevue Cafe, which was used during the trial as 'evidence.' (Glenbow Photo Archives)

The Bellevue cafe is still standing, though not open to the public.

"You can come into the former town, the community of Bellevue, drive down Main Street and it's right there for you to see," Matthews said. "That, and the pocket watch, are pretty much the only artifacts that really you can experience with this story."

In the days following the train robbery and the shootout, the manhunt was well documented in regional papers including Lethbridge, Calgary and the local papers in the Crowsnest Pass.

The story got more attention three years later.

"The Alberta Provincial Police actually tracked down Alex Auloff, who had fled to the states, and arrested him on a tip that the pocket watch that they had stolen showed up in a pawnshop in Portland, Ore.," Matthews said.

"And they actually traced Alex Auloff all the way to Butte, Mont., where they arrested him and brought him back to Alberta. And he was tried and sentenced to seven years in prison for his part in the train robbery."

Chris Matthews, executive director of the Crowsnest Museum and Archives, said the train robbery of Aug. 2, 1920, represents a dramatic piece of Alberta's history. (James Young/CBC)

The museum has pulled together a range of online events to mark the anniversary, including a virtual bus tour of the crime scenes and daily "100 years ago" updates.

"We actually have the newsreels recreated for each day of this manhunt and the saga surrounding the train robbery and shootout, and those are on daily," Matthews said. "We will be live streaming a memorial service for the fallen police officers that were involved in this saga, and that will be actually on the day of the deadly shootout, which will be Aug. 7."

There will also be a Mystery Towns Tour called the Blairmore heritage digital hunt, an art gallery display and a country market.

Matthews encourages anyone who can't make a trip out to the area to see the cafe, or visit the restored RCMP building that now houses the museum, to participate virtually at home. 

For full details and the whole schedule of events, go to www.cnpheritagefest.ca


With files from The Homestretch.

With files from James Young

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