The great bus hijacking of 1931


Texas Tales


As the driver turned the lumbering Pickwick-Greyhound bus off Route 66 for a construction detour that distant pre-dawn, most of his passengers slept or tried to.

They were about to get a rude awakening.

In the early 1930s, commercial bus travel could hardly be considered luxurious, but a Yellow Coach Co.-built bus beat the horsedrawn stagecoaches of the previous generation, an era many Texans still remembered. The bus had left Tulsa on the night of June 6, 1931, bound for El Paso. The last stop had been Erick, Oklahoma, where two men boarded with tickets to the Panhandle town of Shamrock, Texas.

About 2:30 a.m. on June 7, driver W.E. Trammel felt something hard poke him in the back — the barrel of a pistol. The gunman and another passenger — the pair who had gotten on the bus in Erick — ordered Trammel to stop the bus, open the door and hand over his money. The stunned Trammel complied but he had no money or valuables to surrender. With the nation gripped in what would come to be called the Great Depression, Trammel was lucky to even have a job, much less any spending money. Two cars pulled up and

Two cars pulled up and five other men rushed on the bus. Now Trammel understood the significance of the vehicles his bus had been sandwiched between since leaving Erick. One had been closely following him, the other keeping pace just ahead of it.

When a rough search satisfied the robbers that Trammel wasn’t lying about not having any money, they cursed him and called him a “hack driver.” Then the hijackers turned their attention to the passengers, who they ordered off the bus. Like Trammel, five of the passengers either had no money or had managed to hide their cash and valuables. The take from the others ranged from $477 and a diamond ring lost by a woman from Michigan to a lady who had only $1 and a cheap watch.

In all, the robbers netted $668 in cash and $273 in jewelry. That haul, totaling $941, would have the spending power of $14,640 in today’s dollars. Stealing a page from earlier “kind-hearted” outlaws like Jesse James, the robbers were not without consideration for their victims.

“Emulating the chivalry of the old-time wild west robbers,” the Associated Press reported later that day, “the highwaymen asked each passenger from whom they took money where he or she lived and ‘refunded’ enough change for them to wire home for more money and to buy their breakfast. The ‘refunds’ ranged from 70 cents to $1.50.”

But while the robbers proved

mildly considerate of their victims, they didn’t want the bus going anywhere. Opening the hood (buses back then still had the engine in the front, looking more like overlong trucks than the flat-nosed buses of today) they shattered two spark plugs, ripped out the ignition wiring and even cut the fuel line.

robbers got in the two cars With the bus disabled, the bus and disappeared into the that had been shadowing the night. Trammel and two of the male passengers then walked more than four miles to the nearest town, Texola, Oklahoma. There Trammel reported the robbery to the bus company’s office in Clinton, Okla- homa, and in turn someone alerted law enforcement of the brazen robbery. The company who repaired the bus, which also dispatched a mechanic made it to Shamrock about sunup. The holdup was big news, the

banner story in many news- The holdup was big news, the anything funny about armed papers. While there wasn’t robbery, the anonymous AP staffer who filed the report must have had fun hoking it up.

“Rivaling the thrills of a stagecoach holdup in the wild West,” the dispatch began, and woolly days of the old “seven unmasked highwaymen halted a Pickwick-Grey- hound westbound bus nine miles east of here [Shamrock] early this morning and robbed its 18 passengers …”

after the initial coverage, the Despite the splash it made, story disappeared from the newspapers. Officers arrested

two men in Erick, Oklahoma, but when the bus passengers viewed them, they did not recognize anyone. If anyone else was ever arrested and charged with the holdup, which today would be a federal crime since it involved interstate commerce, it was not reported. And given the state of law enforcement in Texas at the time, that the case remained unsolved is not surprising.

The newly created Texas Highway Patrol did not yet have radios in their patrol vehicles, so response time would have been slow. Nor did most sheriff’s departments have two-way communication, especially those in small counties. The Texas Rangers surely investigated the case, but they had no forensic support and no tracks to trail. Another year would pass before even the FBI had a crime laboratory capable of analyzing fingerprints and any other evidence that might have enabled the case to be cleared.

Meanwhile, Route 66 — the so-called Mother Road — continued as a major transportation artery until Interstate 40 made it obsolete. The great Shamrock hijacking of 1931 has been forgotten, but Route 66 became an American icon.

An award-winning author of more than 30 non-fiction books, Mike Cox is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters. A long-time freelance writer and public speaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Hill Country.

To read more about his work, visit his website at mikecoxauthor. com. He can be contacted at