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Like most days since the 1950s, the little train let out a whistle as it chugged out of the train station near the San Antonio Zoo, followed a narrow track over bridges, through a long, dark tunnel, and across roadways in and around Brackenridge Park.
Kids and grownups alike waved to bystanders, and the conductor urged his passengers to keep an eye out during the meandering 20-minute ride – “You never know what you might see!”
Then as the train rounded a bend overlooking a sun-scorched driving range, two masked bandits emerged from shadows under an old oak.
“Put your hands where I can see them! No hands move – unless you’re reaching for your wallet!”
For Greg Hargis and his brother Jeff and sister Carrie, Saturday’s holdup was surreal.
It was on the same date in 1970 that the Hargis kids came from Brownsville to visit grandparents and cousins. They were riding the train to celebrate Greg’s 11th birthday when two men jumped from the scrub brush just past the tunnel and held up the train at gunpoint.
In a heist that lasted about five minutes, the robbers demanded money, jewelry, and car keys from passengers before fleeing back into the woods.
It was the first “Wild West” train robbery since 1923, and the last train robbery in Texas since.
On Saturday, zoo educators dressed as cowgirl outlaws and brandishing bubble guns reenacted the “Great (Little) Train Robbery” to raise funds that will go toward purchasing new, more accessible trains for the popular attraction. During the scheduled “donation holdup,” the bandits collected cash and coins from amused passengers before the train continued on its way.
San Antonio Zoo CEO Tim Morrow has had the event on his calendar for more than two years, hoping to plan a commemoration.
“We met and said what could we do that would be fun and not glorify the robbery, but still talk about the history of this very strange crime in San Antonio,” he said.
Zoo officials were unsuccessful in tracking down passengers who were on the train that day. But the Hargis family saw a Facebook post about the event and contacted the zoo.
It was a 61st birthday to remember for Greg, an airline pilot who now lives in Dallas, and his family. “This is so much fun,” he said.
The actual event that made history five decades ago was unexpected and unsettling.
“We were sitting near the back. The train stopped. We heard people mumbling something about a train robbery,” Greg said. “When I heard the train was being robbed, I took my watch off and I put it in my sock.”
Their quick-thinking father shoved money from his wallet into a pocket, then showed the robbers his empty wallet. Some women tossed their purses into the brush as the robbers, one holding a .22-caliber handgun and the other a duffel bag, walked down the tracks, Jeff said.
“I wasn’t scared,” said Jeff, a Kyle resident who was 8 at the time. “It was more like a little adventure.” But Carrie, who was 7, recalled being scared.
After the ambush that summer day in 1970, police took statements from passengers while they sat in the train cars, and the offenders, two soldiers from Fort Sam Houston according to news reports, were captured several days later.
When the Hargis siblings look back on that day, they don’t recall much beyond the robbery or what they did afterward.
Some families were stuck at the zoo, remembered Jeff. “A lot of people were missing car keys, but we as a family didn’t lose anything.”
Instead, they gained family lore. “It just became part of our family history,” Greg said. “The story has been told and retold many times.”