Article originally published in the September 1998 edition of The West Side, the official YCHS newsletter. Written by historian and West Side editor John White (1928-1999).
Sometime after midnight on Sunday October 18th 1903 a group of men stopped in front of the Bank of Newberg on First and Washington Streets. Two or three of them forced open the front door while at least two more, armed with rifles, took up lookout positions in the shadows outside the building.
Once inside the robbers made their way across the lobby and past the teller cage to the vault room. Electing to not attempt entry by breaking through the heavy steel door, they attacked the eighteen inch brick and concrete vault wall with sledgehammers. After nearly two hours of smashing and a bit of cursing, the burglars were able to gain access to the vault room. Their demolition work for the evening was not yet over however as the bank kept its cash in a formidable steel safe within the vault. It had been the very latest in secure design at the time of its purchase ten years earlier.
The robbers placed an explosive charge on the safe, lit the fuse and exited the building. When reentering after the blast they found the concussion had blown open the heavy steel vault room door from the inside making access much easier, but the safe itself remained unopened and relatively unharmed. Once more the robbers set off another charge only to find the strong box again remained solidly intact. In fact, no less than a total of nine attempts to blast open the safe occurred over about a thirty minute period and all produced the same result. Although somewhat battered and bent by its ordeal, the safe had performed its intended purpose admirably.
Perhaps becoming disgusted, or more likely because they had no more explosives, the thwarted safecrackers abandoned their project and departed the scene. They barely had time to disappear into the darkness before the city fire bell began ringing and the entire community came to life.
As the citizens rushed to the business district in search of a fire, they were warned by neighbors of the bank building to take cover as the armed robbery might still be in progress. After several minutes without any sign of the bandits, a group of men including bank cashier, J . C. Colcord, cautiously entered the building. Enduring thick smoke and an acrid explosive odor, they found the interior a shambles of fallen plaster and other debris. Needless to say they were relieved to discover the battered safe unopened. The building was then cordoned off awaiting a full investigation by authorities the following morning.
Probably the first to learn of the attempted robbery were two of three Maxfield siblings (two brothers and their sister), who rented quarters above the bank. Miss Maxfield and one of her brothers were awakened about 12:30 by the sledgehammer noise below, but upon observing an armed lookout from the window, declined to risk going for help. When the nine explosions began slightly after 2:00 a.m., they were terrified the building might collapse around them. Amazingly, the other Maxfield brother slept through the entire episode prompting the Newberg GRAPHIC of October 23rd to suggest “Gabriel will have to give an extra toot for his benefit on the day that’s coming.“
The noise of the explosions awoke several neighbors who quickly became aware of the situation and most, like school principal R. W. Kirk, elected to remain spectators out of respect for the armed lookouts outside. A Mrs. McDaniels who lived in a small house directly behind the bank endured the blasts by hiding under a bed with her two daughters. Isaac Vinson was returning home on Washington Street after working late when one of the lookouts shouted “Get out of this or I’ll put a hole in you!” following up his command with a shot fired in Vinson’s direction. Isaac lost no time in responding as directed. Reverend S.W. Potter had loaded his pistol and was preparing to go for help when the shot fired at Mr. Vinson whistled down the street. At this point the preacher wisely decided the entire matter was better left in the hands of the Almighty.
Henry Austin and his son Arthur did make an attempt to alert the community. Arthur was dispatched to the electric light plant with instructions to wake the engineer who slept there and have him turn on the street lights (normally turned off at 10 p.m.). The lad was then to head for the city hall and start ringing the fire bell. In the meantime Henry would cautiously crawl to a position near the bank. Their plan was that the noise of the bell would scare off the intruders, and with the street lights on, Henry might be able to identify them. This effort fell apart when Arthur arrived at the light plant to find the engineer gone and then at city hall discovered the robbers, in anticipation of such an occurrence, had removed the fire bell rope. Scrambling to the top of the bell tower Arthur managed to finally sound a belated alarm about the time the empty handed gang crossed the city limits in the direction of Chehalem Mountain.
The next day town marshal Joe Woods along with detectives from the insurance and safe companies conducted an investigation. It was determined that the explosive employed had been nitro-glycerin, but the robbers were not experienced with its use. Only very small amounts of this explosive are required to produce the desired results while larger charges usually send the force in directions not intended. These robbers had used far too much in each of the nine blasts as evidenced by blowing out the locked heavy steel vault room door while inflicting only minimal damage upon the target object inside. As to the identity of the miscreants. Marshal Woods was able to uncover but two clues: One safecracker was heard to call another “Bob” and footprints left by one of the lookouts indicated he had enormous feet.
Once the on-scene investigation was completed, the battered safe was hauled to the blacksmith shop at 108 S Meridian Street where it was opened under the watchful eye of Mr. Colcord and other bank officials. The contents were secure and undamaged.
Although their escape route was later traced through Scholls to the edge of Portland, the inept safecrackers were never apprehended. The Bank of Newberg interior was soon replastered, the vault door repaired and a brand new safe installed. Finally, for the next seventy years the sturdy old safe remained in service as an iron cleaning bench at the blacksmith shop.