The “sting” had its beginnings on a very dark night on the Cuesta Grade in 1892.
A one-armed constable and his prisoner, a very drunken horse thief, were riding down the 1875 county road toward San Luis Obispo. The prisoner revealed a dastardly plan that threatened the financial stability of our county.
The plot of the “Great Cayucos Bank Robbery” begins to unfold.
Bank failures were common during the 1890s. A cash flow crisis could be precipitated in the fragile, unregulated banking system by a successful robbery at a distant branch. Such was the fear for the security of the J. P. Andrews County Bank.
On Aug. 31, 1892 its Bank of Cayucos branch was the target of a robbery. Benjamin Brooks, the editor of the San Luis Obispo Tribune, reported the incident as comic farce to ease the fear of a bank crash. The robbers, all local youth, were indeed inept. But a robber died, and two other youths would surely be sent to San Quentin.
The potential loss of nearly $4,000 in cash might have had dire consequences for the County Bank. Moreover, the foiled robbery was a part of a larger plan to steal sizable sums from branches in Santa Margarita and Port Harford, now Port San Luis.
The Tribune’s headlines read “BANK ROBBERS: Local Talent Making a Record. But the Attempt was a Great Fiasco.”
The story read: “Our community yesterday was in a state of amused excitement over an attempted bank robbery at Cayucos. So far as the attempt itself is concerned, it is perhaps the most ridiculous farce which could be imagined.
“A little after midnight, a gang of men, heavily armed with their heads enveloped in grain sacks, appeared at the door of the bank in Cayucos. They were escorting the supposed clerk of the institution, who they compelled to open the door and the vault, only to discover that they were trapped and surrounded by officers.
“The leader of the robbers was shot down and the rest escaped, for the time in the darkness.”
Two of the gang were apprehended by morning. The great bank robbery scheme had been undone weeks prior to the Cayucos fiasco.
It all began in early August. C.A. Dunn stole a fine mare from the Steele Brothers’ dairy farm at Corral de Piedra. The Steele Brothers filed a complaint with Peter Banks, the tough “one armed” constable of San Luis Obispo.
Banks located Dunn in a lumber yard in Paso Robles where Dunn was in the process of exchanging the stolen mare for $65. The mare was valued at $200. There’s no record of the fate of the prospective buyer of stolen property.
Banks was returning Dunn to the County Jail. The pair stopped in Santa Margarita for supper. After eating, Dunn demanded a whiskey. It was dark. The subject was unruly and “ugly from drink.”
Banks had only one arm and didn’t want any problems along the lonely, heavily-shaded county road down the west side of Cuesta Canyon. Banks thought that a completely intoxicated prisoner might be easier to handle. And so the constable allowed Dunn to become “sweetly reasonable.”
He gave his captive a whole bottle of “the best in the house.” To Constable Banks surprise, the prisoner suddenly became loquacious and began an effort at “plea bargaining.” He revealed the details of the planned robbery.
NEXT WEEK: The plot unfolds.
** At 7 p.m. Friday, I’ll be doing an illustrated show on the history of “lively Cayucos” in the Cayucos School Auditorium, 301 Cayucos Drive. It’s free and families are encouraged to come.
Visit the new Cayucos History Museum located at 41 S. Ocean Ave. at the Cayucos Visitors Center. Summer hours are Friday-Monday, 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.
Liz and I just spent an hour at the museum and had a wonderful time with docent Terry Throop who showed us a full-scale model of the “little canoe” or “kayak” that gave Cayucos its name in 1603.
Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association