Cowen today is a sleepy town of 500, perhaps best known for its location near a quiet lake, but it was hardly so in 1900 while railroads were first being extended into the dark interior of the Alleghenies. One of the last ancient forests in the eastern U.S. was being timbered, and the resulting cataclysm of industry and humanity was difficult to believe. Lives were lost daily in logging accidents and boiler explosions, and fortunes were won as quickly as loggers and merchants arrived.
As is told in the following tale, the “Wild West” character that existed in remote sections of West Virginia was an attraction for fascinated spectators from nearby cities. One summer night in particular the arrival of a second-rate Wild West show sparked the romantically lawless atmosphere that existed, and passengers on a train excursion got more Wild West than they bargained for.
The Cowen Massacre
Between 1904 and 1910 the B&O Railroad ran frequent nine-car excursions from Clarksburg to Richwood—the fabulous boom town on Cherry River—for the benefit of sight-seers and tourists. The trains left Clarksburg early in the morning and, after affording passengers an all-day opportunity to stroll the lumber city, left Richwood at about 7 p.m. and arrived in Clarksburg around midnight.
On July 9, 1905, about 300 sight-seers boarded the Clarksburg-bound train after an uneventful day touring Richwood and visiting its then infamous ghost house. Perhaps a bit disappointed, the sleepy crowd was looking forward to a safe return home.
Among the passengers who boarded that evening were two circus performers — “Mexican Bill” and a man to this day known only as “Mister Fluteplayer.” Both were members of Texas Bill’s Wild West Show, which had played Cowen the day before and was scheduled to perform at Camden-on-Gauley the following day.
Also on board was a B&O detective, or “bull,” who kept a wary eye on the two circus men, knowing that if any trouble developed, it would probably be from this quarter.
Two constables, one from Camden-on-Gauley and another from Richwood, had also boarded, having been given free passes by the railroad in case of trouble.
A few miles out of Richwood, an altercation ensued after the escort of a young lady took offense at her flirting with Mister Fluteplayer. Before a fist-fight developed, the bull stepped in and placed the actor under arrest.
When the train reached Camden-on-Gauley, the detective took his charge to the lock-up. There a local man who tried to argue for Mister Fluteplayer’s release occupied the lawman only a few minutes before he, too, was placed in custody and lodged with his wild-west friend in the jail.
Mexican Bill was also not about to take his friend’s arrest lightly, and when the train reached Cowen, where the rest of the Wild West show company was billeted, he enlisted the support of his friends in avenging the wrong done to Mister Fluteplayer.
Hoping to avoid a disastrous encounter, the three officers riding the train quickly cut Mexican Bill off from the rest of the thespians, but, before he could be nabbed, he ran back to the train and tried to lock himself into one of the coaches. The bulls finally captured him and altered his anatomy somewhat with their billies then dragged him off to an empty coach to be used as a temporary jail.
Declaring that they were “Wild West men,” the cowboy crowd attempted to recapture their comrade by shooting at the officers with real bullets. Passengers who were able to escape the fusillade of bullets did so with dispatch. Others lay down on the floor of the coaches and prayed. The officers, pretty well protected by the walls of the coach, fired deliberately and slowly, but the maddened showmen shot bullets like hailstones.
The rapidity and lack of direction of their shooting accounted for the death one of their own, killed by a stray bullet while trying to force the door of the coach-jail. Furious at the death of their friend, the other performers charged the coach and lost another of their number.
Meanwhile, a resourceful train crew, hoping to halt the carnage, moved a freight train between the two fighting parties.
By then it was dark. Two of the cowboys hatched a plan whereby one would enter the locomotive and get rid of the engineer while another would uncouple the cars that were moving into position between the trains. To do so, he had to crawl under the train. Somehow he miscalculated and was beneath a car before the train had stopped moving. He, too, was killed, cut in two by the wheels.
At last the cowboys gave up. The wounded were taken to Flatwoods, where a physician was found. The cowboy who had been shot on the platform of the coach died before the train reached Burnsville. The two others were found dead the next morning in Cowen. Mexican Bill was in bad shape but was kept alive and summoned to court on a charge of “disorderly and riotous conduct.”
The next day Chief of Police Kearns of the B&O, accompanied by seven officers, journeyed to Cowen to arrest the remaining members of the Wild West show.
On July 10, 1905, the Clarksburg Daily News carried a banner headline reading: “Sanguinary Conflict On Excursion Train.”
Our thanks to historian Joe Green for his assistance in composing this article. Visit his Facebook page “Our Southern WV Roots” for memoirs and historical photographs of southern West Virginia.