The phrase “train robbery” evokes an image of callous desperadoes raiding the midnight train for its valuables, perhaps stripping the riders of their money or holding up the conductor until the cash was gathered. John Barnes of Fairfax had a much different motive than greed. The infamous Highland County train robber stole the entire B&O passenger train to get to his date on time.
In September 1919, 30-year-old Barnes had plans to meet a young lady in Newark, Ohio at her home for a Sunday evening rendezvous, and he had no intentions of being anything but punctual.
Unfortunately, the B&O passenger train in Hillsboro was not running. All the train’s passengers and crew had taken off for lunch, and only the cleaning man was left to sweep up in the train cars. Barnes inquired when the locomotive would be running, and the man informed him that it would not move until 2:50 p.m.
Barnes was frustrated, as he would be late for his date. Instead, he took matters into his own hands.
When he was younger, Barnes had worked on a similar train, so he was familiar with the mechanisms of the B&O passenger train. In order not to leave his lady waiting, he hopped into the cab and prepared the train to leave the station.
The cleaning man had since left for the station. Upon looking back and realizing the train was moving, the man raised the alarm that the locomotive had been hijacked. A car chase was taken up to try and stop the train, but Barnes pushed full-steam ahead.
Unfortunately for Barnes, the speed at which he was going used up all of the steam, and in an anticlimactic end to his journey, he ran out of fuel and slowed to a stop. Barnes hopped off and started upon his journey, this time by foot.
Barnes was shocked when he was chased down and thrown into the county jail by the posse following closely behind.
He never made it to his date.
Once in court, Barnes claimed he saw nothing wrong with his actions. He had been mildly intoxicated during the event.
The train company didn’t press charges. However, the court diagnosed Barnes as suffering from an acute attack of insanity and sentenced him to the state asylum in Athens. He died there many years later.
And thus was the end to the wild tale of John Barnes and the great train robbery of Hillsboro.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette. Her source for this story was the Hillsboro News-Herald.