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Arts & Culture

The Great (Little) Train Robbery Happens Again

San Antonio’s 343-acre tree-shaded Brackenridge Park is home to the Zoo, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Witte Museum and the Sunken Garden outdoor Theater. It’s likewise home to one of the oddest stories in San Antonio history.  

That story starts 50 years ago on the miniature train that runs nearly two miles on narrow gauge tracks, crossing the San Antonio River twice, going through a man-made tunnel, and by lots of waving tourists it passes. Lillie Goodspeed knows well what was then called the Brackenridge Eagle. Her father Travis Goodspeed managed the train depot.  

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Credit Jack Morgan
Lillie Goodspeed with her father's picture and dogtags

“He ran the station. He was the man with the great voice in the speaker running the trains in-n-out,” she said. “And he’d say ‘watch it now, watch it now, get back from the tracks!’ and he kinda guided the crowd.” 

26 years before, Travis Goodspeed was part of the second wave at Normandy’s Utah beach: D-Day. He survived that and fought in the Battle of The Bulge. But all those years later, the tough guy in war wasn’t tough on his daughter back home.  

“I’d go to work with him a lot; I was 10 at this time. We stopped for donuts, went to the depot station,” she said.

Lillie still wears his World War II dog tags as a necklace. On a hot-n-sticky July 18th, 1970 though, something odd happened on the little train they called 'Old Smokey.' And Greg Hargis remembers it was a noteworthy day.

“It was my 11th birthday, we were here with my brother, my sister, my mother and father and two cousins,” he said.

He and his family took the train, and just past the tunnel, the train came to a stop. The family was near the back of the train, and rumors traveled quickly. What at first looked like a charity fundraising stunt got serious quickly. 

“We heard murmurs that the train was being held up. I took my watch off and put it in my socks so I wouldn’t get robbed,” he said.

Greg's brother Jeff, then 8 years old, also remembers what happened. 

"The robbers were wearing masks. One had a gun, the other had a duffle bag,” he said.  

Some hopped off the train to ditch their wallets into nearby bushes.

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Credit Lillie Goodspeed
Travis Goodspeed outside the old Brackenridge Eagle train station

“I remember hearing the gunmen yelling for people to get back on the train,” Greg said. “Our father took the cash out of his wallet and held up his wallet and showed the bandits that it was empty, and they passed him by.”

Jeff said the train's engineer had a brainstorm.

“While the robbers were still there and walking down the length of the train, the engineer got on the radio and called headquarters,” he said. 

Lillie picks up the story.

“One of the guys dispatched into my dad on the radio, and my dad said ‘you’ve got to be kiddin’ me.’ And he says ‘are they armed?’ and the guy said ‘yes,’” she said. 

Perhaps owing to his time fighting in WWII, it prepared Travis Goodspeed for such eventualities.

“My dad clicked off the radio, opened up a safe—I watched him open up the safe—and he pulled a gun out,” she said. “The ticket lady said, ‘Travis—what are you doing with that gun?’  And my dad said ‘lock everything down. They’re probably going to double back and they’re probably going to try to rob the main office here, too.’”

They ran multiple trains through Brackenridge, so Travis grabbed another one and headed toward the tunnel. Greg said it wasn't in time to catch the robbers.

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Credit Jack Morgan
Jeff and Greg Hargis

"It seemed like it didn't last very long. It was over quickly. I don't remember being afraid," he said. 

The two robbers ended up being soldiers stationed at nearby Ft. Sam Houston. They got away with about $500 in valuables and cash, but not for long—they were caught. And given that train robbery is a federal crime, they were given time in a federal pen—10 and 20 years each. 

Fast forward to this year’s July 18th, also a Saturday. The Hargis boys were back, this time to celebrate Greg’s 61st birthday. 

“I brought some cash, and I actually brought a watch,” he and his brother laughed. 

The reason they laughed is that they knew the little train would be “robbed” once again. This time by re-enactors with bubble guns. 

“I think they’re raising money to buy another engine,” Greg said.

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Credit Jack Morgan
train about the cross the San Antonio River

In fact, they are. Zoo employees dressed as bandits once again walked the length of a train holding out a bag, this time asking for donations toward a new train. 

The era, her experience, and that train occupies an emotional place for Lillie Goodspeed.

“It touches my heart. My dad died in 2005, in my arms, and he’s been my world,” she said. “I spent a big part of my life out there, going to work with him. I fished behind the train station. I went next door to bring him coffee in the morning and hung out with the squirrels. It was so beautiful.” 

Over time, what’s become known as The Great Little Train Robbery is for the Hargis clan a point of family humor.

“It has become part of the Hargis Family lore. We have revisited this event many times over the last 50 years,” he said.   

And again on Greg Hargis’s 61st birthday, they rode the train once more, reliving memories and sharing a few laughs. 

If you Google this event, most articles refer to The Great Little Train Robbery as having been the first one in 47 years, and it’s also history’s very last train robbery.   

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3llAMZ-qDQ&feature=youtu.be