Local train robbery subject of student’s documentary

Film to debut Monday at cinema in Huntingdon

Photo submitted by JUNIATA COLLEGE
A poster advertises the documentary a Juniata College film student produced about Mifflin County’s legendary 1909 train robbery.

HUNTINGDON — The legend of the Great Train Robbery of 1909 in the Lewistown Narrows will be revisited in a film debuting in Huntingdon on Monday.

Matt Gaynor, of Jacobus, York County, a senior at Juniata College studying integrated media arts and film production, wrote and directed the documentary titled “Find the Pennies,” which will premiere at 8 p.m. Monday at the Clifton 5 Cinema in downtown Huntingdon. The event is open to the public with a $5 donation to the Mifflin County Railroad Club.

“Find the Pennies” takes viewers on an adventure through Mifflin County history, a press release from Juniata College states. The documentary, featuring firsthand accounts and interviews, tells the story of the robbery and the treasure that may have once laid in the mountains of the narrows.

“The premise of the film is critiquing and breaking down the truth of a story that means a lot to the area,” Gaynor said. “We really care about the town we made the documentary about, and it was so moving to hear the experiences of the local people who were involved.”

Gaynor created the documentary for his senior honors thesis project. While most of his work are fictional pieces, he branched out to try a different genre once he became passionate about the story.

Photo submitted by JUNIATA COLLEGE
Juniata College senior Matt Gaynor wrote and directed the film.

“I began my research by reading one single article, and suddenly, I fell down a rabbit hole and learned what an amazing story it was. It needed to have a film made about it because it is such a long-term story with so much drama and so many generations of people that it involves,” Gaynor said.

The documentary will be the second film of Gaynor’s to premiere at the Clifton 5 Cinema, and Gaynor is the first student to ever debut a feature film in the theater. His full-length film, “A Small, Unimportant, and Beautiful Life or: (The Explanation of an Unexplained Journey Through the Multiverse)” premiered in the theater in December.

Gaynor was also the recipient of the Endeavor Award at the 2015 Depth of Field International Film Festival for a film he wrote and directed titled, “Frames: A Handful of Love Stories.”

Complimentary refreshments will be available prior to the screening.

Great train robbery

One of the most infamous crime stories in Mifflin County history involved the railroad, as described in the following account previously published in The Sentinel.

“The Last of the Great Train Robberies” occurred in August 1909, when “Number 39” was speeding through the Hawstone area of the Lewistown Narrows at about 2 a.m. After hearing three loud detonations, the crew stopped the train and were confronted by a man wearing a bag on his head with holes in it so he could see.

He threatened to blow up the train with dynamite unless the doors on the express cars were opened. Believing the crew’s bluff that the first express car was empty, the bandit missed stealing thousands of dollars in currency, and instead dynamited a safe in the second express car. He found bars of bullion and ordered one of the men to put them in a sack with some bags of coins.

He ordered two of the crew to carry the bag about 500 feet up the mountain. Then he said goodbye and wished them good luck.

As it was, the passengers passed through the Lewistown Narrows and on to Pittsburgh without knowing that their train had been robbed.

The bandit was later identified as James Lawler, alias James Lewis and John Showalter. A few more crimes were attributed to him, but he never surfaced again.

Different stories reported different amounts of money stolen — $18,000 to $5 million in gold bullion, and several thousand new Lincoln pennies.

“All rumors to the contrary notwithstanding,” the Daily Sentinel reported, “the actual amount taken from the train did not exceed $5,250, and $5,190 of this amount has been recovered.”

The bars of bullion were found partially hidden at the foot of an old tree.

Nearly half a century later — in 1954 — Charles Bell, Albert Dubendorf and Johnny Dubendorf were hunting when they stumbled on 3,700 pennies abandoned by the bandit, all bearing the date of 1909.

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