Dixie Hotaling, a volunteer with Chelatchie Prairie Railroad, offered passengers her typical rundown of the ride ahead — views of livestock, creeks, trees and a beaver pond; a stop at Moulton Station and a few seconds passing through a pitch-black tunnel. On Sunday, however, she also issued a warning: a nearby convenience store had recently been robbed.
“There’s rumor that the Chelatchie Prairie Gang is in town,” Hotaling said.
Passengers seemed more intrigued than concerned. Each summer, the railroad stages a western-style “train robbery,” during which more than a dozen outlaws hold up a locomotive, grabbing as much as they can from passengers before the sheriff and deputies arrive on horseback.
The tradition began around 13 years ago. Dana Bourn, one of the creators of the robbery, hosted 27 actors and other volunteers — some of whom came from out of the area and spent nights in tents — this weekend at his Yacolt home.
“The basic idea is to rob the thing, make a lot of noise and harass the passengers,” Bourn said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind robbery.”
Passengers who board the diesel train at the station in Yacolt, 207 Railroad Ave., received a beaded necklace and plastic coin — at least for a few minutes. The bronze-colored coin features a pirate’s skull on one side and a treasure chest on the other.
“Nothing’s happening quite this minute, but you never know,” Hotaling alerted riders about 20 minutes into the excursion.
Rustling could be heard in the surrounding shrubbery. A masked man on horseback emerged from the bushes with a rifle in his hand, and a few more outlaws appeared after that.
Suddenly, following a bang, a sheriff’s deputy — standing in the last car toward the engine side of the train — dropped dead. The outlaws swarmed both sides of the locomotive and hopped aboard.
“Get your hands up!” the gang’s leader — played by Tony Dallas of Yacolt — shouted.
While some outlaws outside the train continued to fire blanks from pistols and rifles, others manoeuvered through the cars to rob riders of their valuables.
One outlaw, “Betty Bear,” — played by Betty Roulette of Eatonville — made sure Melanie Barlier and her granddaughters — Chloe, 7, and Autumn, 5 — handed over their loot.
“No holding out,” Betty Bear said to Chloe. “I want the coin, girl.”
When the crime was finished, and as the gang hopped off the train, it seemed as though the treasures were lost. But moments later, Sheriff Curtis — played by Curtis Kelley of Centralia — and a band of deputies stormed in on steeds.
Following a gun fight, members of the gang lay dead alongside the train. After saving their possessions, the sheriff waved at passengers as the train continued along.
Later, the train made another stop with the sheriff, deputies and outlaws in view. This time, however, the scene was more subdued.
With the actors out of the character, passengers had the opportunity to meet them and take photos. Children were allowed to mount the horses.
The actors and railroad volunteers also have chances to let their guards down.
“I hope I died all right,” a sheriff’s deputy — played by Craig Christenson of Vancouver — said.
“You died good,” Roulette said.
Bourn reflected on the thousands of people from across the U.S. he said he’s seen at the robbery over the years. As to why so many people regularly volunteer to be “robbed,” it just might be the outlaws’s appearances.
“I don’t know if it’s my ugliness or him being ugly,” Bourn said, joking with nearby volunteer Larry Richards of Yacolt.
After the stop, passengers again boarded the train for the final stretch. As the train pulled away, the actors fired their weapons while riders waved and applauded.
“Quite honestly, I’m a class clown, and I like to bring the other clowns into it,” Bourn said. “We’re just a group of people that has a lot of fun doing this.”