John Boston | Simple Things in Life, Like Train Wrecks

John Boston

Not too many folks know this, but right behind Del Taco and up a few hundred yards was the site of one of the most spectacular train robberies in American history. It was pulled off nearly a century ago by a smallish local thief and pathological liar. I may have been hiking along the tracks this week. But, I’d deny it. 

“Buffalo” Tom Vernon had many run-ins with Santa Clarita law prior. His first recorded crime was liberating the milking cow from movie star/rancher Harry Carey’s wife, Olive, back in May 1923. Tom leapt from petty thief to major felon in a blink. At 7:45 p.m. Nov. 10, 1929, the Saugus trick rider and cowpoke derailed the West Coast Limited right behind the Baker Ranch. Today, we call it the Saugus Speedway. Tom broke into a railroad tool shed, loosened several yards of track, then crouched in the weeds. He waited for the big steam engine and cars to come rumbling around the corner and listened to the sickening sound of metal grinding against metal as the huge locomotive flipped. Then, Vernon calmly climbed aboard the hissing wreckage.  

Posing as a train official, Vernon strolled among the injured passengers, pretending to help. Then he pulled a pistol and proceeded to liberate the passengers of their valuables, about $300, before disappearing into the night. For decades, Vernon’s fanciful verbal autobiography served as the only known authority for his life. As years passed, more information surfaced. Besides a train robber, Vernon was a liar. 

What are the odds? 

Vernon claimed to be the son of a saloon owner and that his mom was Cattle Kate, who allegedly ran a brothel in Carbon County, Wyoming (they and Buffalo Tom were part of the story in the box office bomb, “Heaven’s Gate”). Making this oft impossible to follow, we have many levels of lying going on. Besides Tom lying about being the son of Cattle Kate, there was never a Cattle Kate. It was a fabrication made up by mainstream and yellow journalism of the late 19th century. 

One newspaper carried the story of Tom’s Fake Mom’s lynching with this headline:  

“Blaspheming Border Beauty 

Barbarously Boosted Branchward.” 

Even The Mighty Signal would help broadcast Tom’s tall tales on our front pages. Like newspapers everywhere, for decades, we kept Xeroxing the fibs, over and over. Well. They were pretty entertaining yarns. 

There was no Cattle Kate. She was a made-up villain of the day’s mass media. There was an Ella Watson, a hard-working honest woman. With her Sweetwater, Wyoming, postmaster and fiancé, Jim Averill, they built a small cattle ranch, restaurant and general store on their property. Ella and Jim adopted an 11-year-old boy (not Tom), abandoned by his drunken father. Ella wasn’t a prostitute, didn’t run a whorehouse and wasn’t a cattle thief. She and Averill were literally murdered by cattle ranchers, eager to steal their prime property.  

So. For years, Tom Vernon spread stories around the West and the SCV about being the orphaned son of “Cattle Kate” and being raised by the Sioux. Tom also claimed to have ridden with Buffalo Bill, hence the adopted nickname of “Buffalo” Tom. Personally? I wish Tom would have been named Bob so he could have called himself “Bison” Bob. Alas. That is beyond my powers. 

So. Back to the Saugus train robbery of ’29. It was a horrific crash. Hundreds of tons of cast iron and steel train cars flew off the tracks and were twisted into scrap metal. It made the front pages of most major newspapers in America. Tourists by the hundreds were driving to Saugus to see the work crews labor to remove the giant locomotive and train cars. Trainmen built an emergency track around the fallen cars, then righted the engine and rerouted train traffic. That 5000 engine would get back into service and run until 1960. 

Instantly, local sheriff’s deputies figured out it was Tom Vernon who pulled the rail holdup. You see, the lawmen back-trailed his tracks to the equipment shed, then quickly deduced the robber’s name was our own Tom Vernon. How? Mr. Buffalo had dropped a piece of paper from his pocket by the tracks. The paper had Vernon’s name on it.  


BT was caught a few weeks later after derailing ANOTHER train (Wyoming) in the Midwest. Idiot he was, Vernon left his address and itinerary with a Denver hotel maid that detailed his visit with another girlfriend/hooker three weeks hence in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Tom surely had this thing for hookers. The reason why Vernon derailed the West Coast Limited passing through Saugus? At his trial, he confessed it was to raise money for yet another hooker’s — ahem — operation, which, had he waited, is now legal and encouraged in California. 

It was a heck of a trial and story, with all manner of errors. Vernon acted alone. But, three other men, all nut jobs, separately confessed to pulling the job. Newspapers of the day reported that several to every passenger and crewman was burned alive by steam. The engineer, R.C. Ball, was badly scalded but was the only serious injury.  

Vernon was supposed to serve life in prison and one story had him being pardoned as an elderly man in 1964, then dying of another “ahem” please, “social disease.” But, a letter and photo from a Carolena Rezendes to our local SCV Historical Society noted Tom Vernon, Buffalo or not, was living with her family in 1957-58 in Sacramento. Her family buried the guy after he died of tuberculosis.  

I hiked up along the rails this week, retracing Tom’s tracks by the Saugus Speedway. Beautiful day, with a Technicolor blue pop to the sky and the air so cool and clean. Caught myself smiling, walking near the rails where I wasn’t supposed to be, like when I was a boy. Elections. Outrage. Crime. Inflation. Gas at $6. Such a week, wasn’t it? 

Much easier to ponder simpler things, like hookers and train wrecks… 

John Boston is a local writer. Visit his bookstore at

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