TASTE OF THE WILD WEST

Neil Clevenger walks the halls of the Crooked River Dinner Train as train robber Cole Younger.

Few people can rob a train and be really good at it. But then, how many people have their own train on which to perfect a modern Old West holdup?

Pat Daly of Tumalo belongs to both elite groups. He and family members own and operate the Crooked River Dinner Train, which runs from Redmond to Prineville, and back, several times weekly.

Daly is a former rodeo professional who has extensive riding and showmanship skills cultivated during years of rodeo performances. Those skills are put to use when he dons a Jesse James costume and races alongside his train, at nearly 20 miles per hour, and play acts an old-fashioned, western-style train robbery.

Not to worry, train riders are made aware before the train departs that a "robbery" will occur.

Daly, 60, is a rugged, laid-back man who seems like the type who would conserve his energy when he's not chasing down trains. However, he's also a cowboy who, by his own admission, has lived his whole life as a cowboy. He says that means he understands the Wild West better than most and loves demonstrating one of its more notable aspects to the train riders.

He wants everyone who steps on the train to feel as if they've stepped back into the 1890s. Being in the middle of a train robbery is just icing on the cake, for both train riders and Daly, he says.

"As near as I can figure, I've robbed the train about 500 times," he said.

The veteran cowboy "holds up" the Crooked River Dinner Train with two other cowboys dressed as part of the Jesse James gang. The robbers ride quarter horses or quarter horse/Arabian mixes.

Shelly, Perry, Babe, Shadow and Nevada are equine actors who help Daly and his crew stage the robbery.

The horses — all over the age of 12 — are seasoned pros.

Perry has a special part — he's trained to rear up on his hind legs when the train is at a standstill.

When the masked men come galloping out of the brush, there is no doubt that they and their mounts mean business.

"These horses have robbed the train pretty near as many times as I have," Daly observed. "They've been at it a long time."

The horses wait patiently several miles down the tracks from the train's origin in Redmond. However, once they hear the train approaching, the horses get pumped up, Daly said. They know it's time for action.

"Anything can happen with horses," Daly acknowledged. "We've had a few wrecks on that robbery, but these horses are pretty solid."

Daly says his rodeo roots played a large part in the evolution of the Crooked River Dinner Train robberies. He grew up in Culver on a large sheep and cattle ranch.

At an early age, he learned the fundamentals of riding bucking animals. He just kept getting better and better at it, ultimately becoming a champion bareback rider. Eventually he started working for rodeo contractors, helping them produce and promote rodeos.

Helping produce those "performances" gave Daly the experience he needed to create the ultimate performance — a train robbery.

He heard in 1994 that the Crooked River Dinner Train was for sale, and it clicked in his mind that he might be able to turn the failing business around with a little elbow grease and an inspired imagination.

It took two years to get the business out of the red, Daly says, and by then, the bank robbery act was a runaway hit. Something about being robbed by a famous outlaw appeals to people, he thinks.

The only downside to the act, Daly says, is that keeping customers satisfied means the robbery must go on, no matter the weather — be it 100 degrees or 7 below.

"When people pay their money in advance to see a train robbery, they want to see it," Daly said.

People from all over the country have experienced the train robbery's authenticity firsthand.

"One lady from New York wrote on our comment cards that our act should be called ?Broadway on the Range,'" Daly said with a smile.

Daly believes that people have a yearning to experience, and connect with, the Old West.

"Once you walk into this world, you leave everything else behind," said Daly. That applies to the train robbers as well. Daly enjoys slipping into the character of Jesse James, and says not too many people know the true background of James.

"James was kind of a Robin Hood type of outlaw," Daly said. "Right after the Civil War, the railroad treated his family pretty harshly. They took his ranch and burned his house down. He was pretty bitter at the railroad. When he became an outlaw and a train robber, he was also avenging some of the things that happened to him through the railroad."

Daly says the act is a lot of fun for both spectators and actors. He and his two co-robbers board the train after first appearing out of nowhere from the brush along the tracks and then running alongside the train on horseback.

"We get into it," Daly smiled. "We really don't have too many lines. Most of it is ad lib."

The James Gang plays off the obliging staff, who are dressed as Western characters. They loot for conveniently stashed silver and gold, brandish prop guns, sing the ballad of Jesse James, and pose for photos with train guests.

Cynthia DeGroat of Bend says the train ride was the fastest three hours she ever spent.

"The train robbery included three guys riding alongside the train flashing their guns. They boarded the train and acted like they were robbing it. Someone had hid a bag of gold or money or whatever under a seat. They all dressed in authentic period costumes. One guy had a guitar and serenaded us.

"The food was excellent, and the scenery was beautiful."

And when it's time for the James Gang to gallop off into the sunset, they've got the satisfaction of knowing they provided genuine entertainment.

"With the train robbery, the people see these are real cowboys," said Daly.

"These are people who do know how to ride, and ride fast. The excitement of that is I think a different experience for a lot of people. They see live action and actually get to live in the Old West themselves."

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