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Tales from the Grubby End: The great Newberg bank robbery

In 1903, explosions rock the towns bank as thieves attempt to open the vault


This is the story of what may be the greatest bank robbery attempt in Newberg history.

It’s worth retelling on a number of levels.

For starters, it happened 110 years ago last month: Oct. 19, 1903.

As the details unfold, you quickly realize this would make a great scene in a movie. These are usually the best kinds of stories.

It happened at a time when banks still carried gold. In this case, the gold on deposit at the scene of the attempted robbery was owned by the people of the town.

The Newberg Graphic interviewed a number of eyewitnesses to file its report for the Oct. 23 issue, but no one with a badge. Apparently, Newberg didn’t have a police force at that time and Marshal Joe Woods was nowhere to be found. It was up to the citizens of the town to respond to the threat. And respond they did, with an ingenuity that inspires lovers of local history all these many years later.

But enough of the teasers. Let’s tell the story.

It began on a foggy Monday night. At thirty minutes past three in the morning, the fire bell began ringing, which was what Newberg did back then when there was an emergency.

As folks rushed into the streets, they looked for a fire. Seeing and smelling none, attention began to concentrate on the east side of Center Street, between First and Second. This was the location of the Bank of Newberg (the city’s first, founded in 1886). Talk began rocketing through the crowd that an attempted robbery had just happened, with undetermined results.

They were correct. What they didn’t know, but would find out over the next several days, was that the robbers had actually entered the bank at midnight. The burglars next began the job of tearing a hole through a wall that would put them inside the bank vault.

Above where they were working was an apartment, rented by a woman and her two brothers from Washington. They were of the Maxfield family.

It didn’t take long for the woman and one of her brothers to be awakened by the loud, banging noises coming from downstairs. Looking out the window, they saw two strange men on the street standing guard. Both were carrying rifles.

At 2:30 a.m., an explosion rocked the building. It cut through the nearby neighborhood like a bolt of lightening. The Maxfields told The Graphic, “It seemed at times like the building would be shaken down.”

Then, another explosion, and another. The bombardment went on for 30 minutes. The robbers appeared unconcerned they might be caught.

The second Maxfield brother remained asleep. The newspaper commented: “It is evident Gabriel will have to give an extra toot for his benefit for the day that’s coming.”

Down the street, one of those who was aroused was the principal of the high school, R.W. Kirk. He remembered nine separate explosions. To him and others , the repeated attempts represented the “desperate nerve of the artists in charge.”

Isaac Vinson had been out late and was walking toward the bank when the cacophony began. He heard one of the armed guards yell, “Get out of this you (expletive deleted) or I’ll put a hole through you.” To back up the command, the lookout sent a rifle shot in Vinson’s direction.

At the same time, Seaman W. Potter, a jeweler, optician and minister, grabbed his hand gun and headed for the front door. He wife reached for his coat and pulled him back just as the bullet shot at Vinson whined down the street. He figured the warning given by the guard’s rifle meant him as well, so he didn’t try and press the issue.

Credit for warning the town settled on Arthur Austin, son of Henry Austin, A-dec Inc. co-founder Ken Austin’s grandfather.

Sizing up the situation, Arthur ran for the fire bell tower near the center of town. Arriving there, he looked for the pull rope to ring the bell. It was gone, taken by the robbers before they had made their way down the street to the bank.

Climbing up through the darkness to the top of the tower, the young man pushed on the bell with his hands. The ring was loud and clear. To reinforce the point, he began shooting in the air with a pistol.

The town came running. The robbers fled the scene and headed north toward Portland. Later, investigators indicated nitroglycerin had been used in the attempted robbery, most of which was leveled at a strong box inside the vault. Unflinching, the heavily damaged box refused to give up its precious contents.

Reported the Graphic:

“When the door was finally forced open (by bank officials) and the sacks of gold coin found undisturbed, cashier John C. Colcord gave vent to his feelings in one wild hoop.”

George Edmonston Jr. is the retired editor of OSU’s alumni magazine, the Oregon Stater, and is a frequent contributor of history features to this newspaper. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..




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