Morphine Charley
Prospector, Stagecoach Robber, Father of Margaret Reeb

BY ROBERT V. GOSS

They lived and they died for the dream these mountains gave them, and as in tribute...the wild forget-me-nots blossom every spring.
—Margaret Reeb

In March of 2005, less than two months after her death in Livingston, a tribute to Margaret Reeb appeared in the Northwest Mining Association Bulletin of 2005. It read: “A hero of Montana mining died on January 25. Margaret Reeb was born in Walkerville, Montana in 1913 to a Butte mining family and was buried in Livingston, Montana. Throughout her 91 years, Margaret championed the cause of mining and private property rights in Montana and worked to maintain and add to claims left to her by her father [George Reeb] in and around Henderson Mountain in the New World mining district. She is perhaps best known for her nationally publicized standoff with the Clinton Administration, the Department of Justice, and Crown Butte Mines/Noranda/Hemlo Gold over their failure to bring her to the table as part of the New World buyout at Cooke City, Montana, which she won handily.”

In 1989, Crown Butte Mines, Inc., an American subsidiary of Noranda, Inc., a Canadian mining company, proposed to open a huge gold mine in the mountains around Cooke City, northeast of Yellowstone National Park. The area had been explored and mined sporadic-ally for gold, silver, and copper since the early 1870s, producing some 30 million dollars worth of precious metals in today's dollars. Crown Butte conducted explorations for gold and silver during the 1980s and began buying extensive mining claims they believed would produce 800 million dollars worth of ore. When the company put forth their mining proposal, a number of environmental impact studies, requests for permits, and public hearings were set in motion. The mining proposal incited uproar among environmental groups, who feared the mining operations would pollute the park and damage the wildlife and natural resources in the surrounding ecosystem. 

The controversial proposal continued for a number of years and a variety of complicated ploys were proposed that would somehow prohibit mining on the affected properties. The schemes caused consternation amongst the corporate mining community and advocates of private property rights who were opposed to any proposed government takings of properties they felt legally entitled to mine under the 1872 Mining Act. After intense contro-versy and deliberations, President Bill Clinton struck a deal in 1996 that compensated Noranda, Inc. for its mining investment in return for an agreement to abandon the project and clean up and restore the lands that had already been disturbed.
Even though Margaret Reeb's holdings constituted a large portion of the proposed mining area, she was not even consulted during the initial negotiations. Later on, she refused to take part in the dialogs and was adamantly averse to part with her beloved mountain lands inheri-ted from her father and those she acquired during her long lifetime. Margaret Reeb ultimately came out a winner in this David versus Goliath scenario and maintained a firm claim on her 1,471 acres of mining properties until her death. As one friend said, “You might have thought you were negotiating with Maggie, but there really wasn't any negotiating at all…! We will miss her integrity and determination.”

Feisty schoolteacher Margaret Ingeborg Reeb was born in 1913 in Walkerville, Montana, to George Reeb and Ingeborg Loge Reeb. Walkerville was a suburb of sorts to Butte, the one-time copper mining capital of the world. George worked as a miner in the Butte mines, but also prospected the mining districts of Aldridge and Cooke City in Park County, Montana. He eventually owned numerous mining claims in the Cooke City district and managed one of the mines in the area, allowing Margaret to spend the summers of her childhood playing on the slopes of Henderson Mountain. But long before Margaret was born George Reeb led a very different and difficult life, and his multitude of mining claims in Cooke City is not what attracts the interest of Yellowstone aficionados.  Rather, it was George's early persona as “Morphine Charley” and his youthful indiscretion of mining the pockets of tourists traveling through Yellowstone by stagecoach during the summer of 1897.

Born in 1871 in the Zutzendorf region of Alsace-Lorraine, France, George Reeb was the son of Michael and Margaretha Schweyer Reeb. George immigrated to the United States via New York City on March 21, 1887 and eventually settled in Livingston, Montana. He apparently drifted about for some years in Park County, prospecting and mining for gold in Cooke City and Bear Gulch, and for coal in Aldridge. Somewhere during his rough and tumble life in the sometimes sordid saloons of the mining communities of early Montana, George became addicted to morphine and gained the moniker of “Morphine Charley.”

Prospecting along the fringes of Yellowstone National Park, Reeb no doubt had ample opportunity to view the incessant travels of tourists in the park and see, perchance, what he perceived to be great prosperity among them. For reasons unknown, perhaps his failure to succeed in mining, his inability to find sufficient employment to survive, or, conceivably with clouded judgment from the influence of too much morphine, George Reeb teamed up with “Little Gus” Smitzer and formulated a plan to rob themselves out of poverty.

On August 14, 1897, the two men stationed themselves on Solfatara Plateau along the old Norris Road, about four miles from Canyon Hotel in Yellowstone Park. With each of them packing a pistol and rifle, wearing masks, faces blackened, and shoes covered in gunny sacks, the men nervously awaited the line of stagecoaches traveling from the Canyon Hotel to Norris Geyser Basin. Six stages filled with tourists unaware of their immediate destiny and an army ambulance carrying two officers, their wives, and a doctor, rounded a bend to face two armed bandits. One by one, the desperados halted the coaches at gunpoint and relieved the anxious passengers of their cash and coin. Some passengers adroitly attempted to reduce their losses, as one gentleman slipped a large roll of bills to his wife to secrete in her bicycle suit, while another man hid most of his money in a secret vest pocket while giving up a much smaller amount to the robbers. One of the army officers tossed a pocketbook containing several hundred dollars into the bushes to be retrieved at a later date.

When the last stage was deprived of valuables, the entourage was allowed to continue on its journey. No one was hurt during the episode and Bozeman city clerk and occasional stage driver L.L. Pierstorff related in an interview later that, “the passengers took it coolly enough and several said they would not have missed it for $50.” Another woman who had left Canyon two hours earlier than the rest of the group was quite incensed when she later discovered she had missed all the excitement. One gentleman, who had been trying unsuccessfully for several days to get a $100 bill exchanged for smaller bills, lost it to the robbers. Afterward when asked if he had ever gotten his bill changed, he exclaimed “Yes, I got it changed…It was changed from my pocket to the highwayman's sack.”

The gunmen fled on horseback with $630 and apparently camped in the vicinity of nearby Grebe Lake the first night to sort their booty and prepare for flight. Thinking no one would find their camp, they unknowingly left behind evidence that would later be used to convict them of the robbery. A piece of leather belt, condensed milk cans purchased from the W.A. Hall store in Gardiner, pistol shells, government rifle cartridges, and two fishing rod tips from the purse of one of the travelers were later collected by army investigators and matched with equipment used or recently purchased by Reeb and Smitzer.

To aid in the army's search for the highwaymen, Judge John Meldrum of Mammoth Hot Springs hired famed poacher Ed Howell, who was caught red-handed in 1894 poaching buffalo from Yellowstone's Pelican Valley, and caused a national furor over protection of park resources. Meldrum apparently reasoned that it takes a criminal to find a criminal, and his judgment eventually proved correct. Howell worked mostly by himself in this investi-gation, as many of the army officers and scouts refused to have anything to do with him due to his poaching episode.

It was said that Smitzer rode a crooked-footed horse named Bob that was shod with a distinctive corrective horseshoe. Detection of these characteristic tracks in the robbery area by searchers helped them to track and incriminate the men. Circumstantial evidence collected from the Grebe Lake camp and other sources were enough cause for the army to issue orders for the arrest of George “Charley” Reeb and Gus Smitzer. They were captured on August 30 in Aldridge and incarcerated in the Fort Yellowstone (Mammoth) guardhouse. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on September 15 that the pair was captured by Deputy Marshall James Morrison and noted that the “evidence against them was mainly circumstantial, but damaging in character. They attempted to prove an alibi, but failed, and the commissioner held them for trial.” Reeb and Smitzer were later sent to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where in May 1898 they were tried in United States federal court, convicted of highway robbery, and sentenced to two and one-half years in the federal penitentiary by Judge Riner.

Upon his release from prison, Gus Smitzer, repentant of his misdeeds, returned to Yellowstone and approached Judge Meldrum to inquire about legitimate employment. Meldrum helped Smitzer get hired on at the buffalo ranch in Lamar Valley as an irrigator and he proved to be a valuable employee for a number of years. He later planted and tended the trees around Jack Haynes' Photo Shop and residence at Mammoth Hot Springs. Born in 1849, “Little Gus” Smitzer, small in stature and who walked with a limp, died in 1931 and was buried in the Gardiner cemetery.

George Reeb served two years and one month before he was discharged from prison on June 22, 1900, four months short of his sentence due to good behavior.

Upon his return home, Reeb personally stopped at Fort Yellowstone to thank Judge Meldrum for helping him to break his morphine habit. During a 1922 interview with the Park County News, Reeb mentioned that while “visiting” the Evanston area in 1900, where, of course, he had been imprisoned, he happened to meet an Elisha Canary, who had just completed serving a five-year sentence for his complicity in a scheme to extort money from the railroad. As it turned out, Elisha was the brother of Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary, with whom Reeb was acquainted. Calamity had been authorized to sell photographs of herself in Yellowstone in 1897 and frequented the same mining communities where Reeb had lived and prospected. When Reeb returned to Horr, Montana, and the nearby coal mining town of Aldridge, he encountered Calamity Jane and described his meeting with her “baby brother.” Overjoyed at the news about her long lost brother, she broke down in tears.

George Reeb gave up his one time occupation as stagecoach robber and led the life of a productive citizen, apparently keeping the unsavory aspects of his misdeeds hidden in the shadows. On September 12, 1912, he was joined in matrimony with Ingeborg Loge. Born in Norway in 1874, Ingeborg immigrated to the United States in 1890 and arrived in Park County two years later. In 1895 she married Bertil R. Holland, a Cooke City miner. They were blessed with six children by 1908, but sometime between 1908 and 1912, the relationship failed and the couple was divorced.
Following their marriage Reeb and his new wife Ingeborg seasonally lived in both Walkerville and Cooke City. They had two daughters between 1913 and 1918, even as they cared for Ingeborg's children from her previous marriage. The 1920 Census for Walkerville showed that three of the Holland children were living with George and Ingeborg. However, by 1930 George was living in Walkerville, and Ingeborg resided in Livingston with the children. It is believed the couple divorced sometime during that period.

George and Ingeborg's second child was Georgie Lorraine Reeb, no doubt named after George's home region in Alsace-Lorraine. Born November 15, 1918 in Butte, Georgie eventually resided in California, where she died in 2001. But their first child was the spirited Margaret Ingeborg Reeb, born August 13, 1913. Raised in Cooke City, she eventually became a schoolteacher in Livingston. Over the years she gradually acquired numerous mining claims in the New World District and inherited her father's claims upon his death.

 George Reeb, age 67, passed away April 14, 1941 in Bozeman. Margaret, teaching school in Puerto Rico, flew into town for the funeral to pay her respects. Buried in Liv-ingston's Mountain View Cemetery, George's tombstone apparently confirmed his conversion from the indiscretions of his youth, as the monument proudly displayed the noble symbol of the Knights of Pythias. This fraternal order, which he joined less than two years after his release from prison, is dedicated to universal peace and requires members, among other things, to swear off narcotics. Ingeborg, a resident of Liv-ingston for over forty years, lived to be 89. She departed life on March 28, 1963 in a hospital after a short illness and was interred near George. 

Margaret Reeb, advocate of personal property rights, who challenged the United States government and refused to sell her Cooke City properties under duress, died January 25, 2005. Her mining claims passed on to her nephews who entered into an agreement in 2008 to sell their claims for $8 million to the Trust for Public Land, which agreed to re-sell the land to the U.S. Forest Service for permanent wilderness protection. In mid-March, 2009, President Obama signed a $410 billion budget bill that earmarked $4 million dollars as a final installment toward the purchase of the disputed mining lands.

It is an interesting coincidence that the daughter of a one-time Yellowstone stagecoach robber would have the government attempting to rob her of precious mining claims in order to protect the Park. Ultimately though, everyone seemed to win—George Reeb paid his debt to society and became a productive citizen, Margaret Reeb won her case against the government, and the people gained protection for Yellowstone from potential mining pollution and commercial exploitation.

Sources:
Billings Gazette: Among Land Deals is One Near Park to Prevent Further Mining on Site, On-Line edition March 16, 2009.; Haines, Aubrey L., The Yellowstone Story, Vol. 2, 1977; Livingston Park County News, June 22, 1900; McLaird, James D., Calamity Jane, The Woman and the Legend; Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln, Dec. 4, 1897; Northwest Mining Assoc. Bulletin, In Memory of Margaret Ingeborg Reeb, March 2005; New York Times, Last Chapter in Yellowstone, March 25, 2008; Park County Historical Society, History of Park County, Montana, 1984; Reeb Descen-dents and contacts including Annette Miroux (France); Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 15, 1897; Time, Nobody Asked Her, May 12, 1997, Patrick Dawson, Living-ston, MT; U.S. Federal Census 1910-1930; www.reeb.org; www.ancestry.com; Yellowstone National Park Superinten-dent's Report, 1898-99.

See geyserbob.org, a web site devoted to the study of the history of the greater Yellowstone area, specializing in the history of Yellowstone and its gateway communites.

 

 

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