Photos from the Vault

Don Henley’s upcoming visit spurs memories of SLO County’s desperados

Gary Burden (art), Larry Penny (roadie), Richard Fernandez (road manager), Boyd Elder (artist), Tommy Nixon (roadie), John Hartmann (manager), Glyn Johns (producer). Front: Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, J.D. Souther, Don Henley, Jackson Browne.
Gary Burden (art), Larry Penny (roadie), Richard Fernandez (road manager), Boyd Elder (artist), Tommy Nixon (roadie), John Hartmann (manager), Glyn Johns (producer). Front: Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, J.D. Souther, Don Henley, Jackson Browne. Eagles Desperado album, back cover

“Desperado” — the second album by the Eagles — was an anti-hero/outlaw concept album released in April 1973 that was inspired in part by a book about the Doolin-Dalton gang.

The record’s back cover included a black-and-white photograph by Henry Diltz recreating a famous Dalton gang photo.

The original photo was taken Oct. 5, 1892, after four members of the Dalton gang were killed in a fusillade of gunfire in Coffeyville, Kan., after a botched dual bank robbery.

Several photos were taken of dead bandits Bill Power, Bob Dalton, Gratton Dalton and Dick Broadwell, propped up for the camera.

Emmett Dalton survived, bleeding from 23 gunshot wounds. After conviction and prison, Emmett spent time writing about his outlaw past, working construction in Hollywood and trying to make movie deals.

After Coffeyville, Bill Dalton and Bill Doolin formed a gang. Of the Doolin-Dalton gang — aka the Wild Bunch, aka Oklahombres — 11 members in all were killed in gun battles with lawmen, all but one before 1900.

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Near San Miguel in the late 1880s, Bill Dalton (sometimes called Will or William) was ostensibly in the business of ranching, leasing property on present-day Estrella River Road. Brothers Gratton, Bob, Cole and Emmett would sometimes board with him. For a time Littleton Dalton owned a bar in San Miguel.

The Daltons liked guns and ammunition more than the average farmer. Nearby, the oldest church in the North County is the Estrella Adobe. A church clerk recalled services were interrupted by the sound of the Dalton Brothers practicing their shooting. They never attended services. Apparently their antics were too loud for the Weir family, who moved off River Road and down Ranchita Canyon to avoid the commotion.

Myron Angel wrote in an 1892 book on the history of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties that the Dalton gang was suspected in three deadly train robberies. A Fresno Bee story from July 19, 1928, said the Pixley/Goshen robberies were the work of George Sontag and Chris Evans.

Pixley — Feb. 22, 1889: Deputy constable Ed Bentley and passenger Charles Gubert were killed, and the express car was ransacked.

Goshen — Jan. 21, 1890: Two men pulled on masks in the frigid night and clambered over the lurching tender into the cab of the railroad engine, guns drawn. The crew was forced at gunpoint to halt the train and order the expressman to open his door.

The San Francisco Morning Call said that curious passengers hopped off the train to investigate the late-night stoppage and were greeted with “Get back there, ___ ____ you!” and a punctuating gunshot fired overhead.

A tramp riding the brake beam startled the gunmen when he crawled out to investigate and was fatally shot in the face. When the messenger was slow to open the door, the robbers said the engineer would be shot on the count of 10.

The San Luis Obispo Tribune reported the next day that “it is rumored that they got several thousand dollars.” A story in the Sept. 15, 1892, San Francisco Morning Call said the haul was $25,000.

Alila (now Earlimart) — Feb. 6, 1891: Robbers hit train No. 17. Fireman George Radcliff was fatally shot during a shootout between the express agent and robbers. This robbery failed.

Superintendent Fillmore of the Southern Pacific offered $5,000 for the arrest and conviction of the Alila train robbers.

The Tribune the following day said: “The trainmen say there were either two or four robbers engaged in the affair, and judging from the character of their work, they are the same parties who were engaged in former robberies committed near this point.”

The Tribune reported Feb. 11, 1891: “It seems to be certain that the robbers took refuge in the northeastern part of this county. Sheriff O’Neal was over in that direction Monday, and reports every canyon is infested with detectives.”

Later the story said: “What became of the suspects seems to be a profound mystery. The parties were identified and tracked, and the officers were all in full cry on their trail, when suddenly in the vicinity of Cholame all traces of the men utterly disapeared. They had vanished as if the earth had swallowed them.”

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ed O’Neal and express company detective Bill Smith went to the Dalton place to ask some questions.

Bill Dalton lied convincingly to the lawmen: The brothers they were looking for had left the state. But the lawmen could spend the night. Dalton was active in politics and had assisted in the election of O’Neal.

Tipped off about the lawmen’s approach, Bob and Emmett Dalton hid on a makeshift bed in the attic. As the lawmen went to sleep, the outlaws they were tracking had revolvers ready.

According to the website “When the Daltons Rode on the Estrella,” Bob later told his brother Littleton, “If Smith had put his head up through the trap he would have stopped two 44’s.”

The Tribune reported Feb. 14, 1891: “The chances are that they have made their escape for good, and by this time are rusticating in the wilds of Mexico.”

Then the Tribune reported on March 3, 1891, that Grets (Gratton) Dalton was arrested 12 miles north of Paso Robles in connection with the Alila train robbery. The day before, Cole Dalton and Jack Parker were arrested there, too. Only Grattan was convicted.

On July 8, 1891, the Sacramento Record Union reported that Gratton Dalton was convicted of the Alila train robbery after a Visalia jury deliberated 21 hours. Newspaper stories said Grat escaped from the Visalia Jail. Another said that he was on the prison-bound train when he slipped out of his handcuffs and jumped out the window into the San Joaquin River.

California was no longer welcome to several Daltons, and they made their way back to meet their fate in the streets of Coffeyville, Kan.

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The last song the Eagles played together, weeks before the death of founding member Glenn Frey, was “Desperado.”

Frey and Don Henley co-wrote the song, and Henley sings the ballad. In an interview Henley said the song was the birth of their songwriting partnership. On July 26, Don Henley is scheduled to play at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, a short horse ride from where the desperadoes once lived.