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History in the Hills: Weirton’s lost treasure

Most small children are excited by buried treasure, and my 6-year-old son Paulie is no exception. There is something exciting about hearing a story, finding a treasure map and following it to “X marks the spot.” It is the adventure of the hunt, and the hope of discovery of something lost that is the appeal.

For my son, anyway, adventure, pirates, sailing ships and treasure seem to hold his interest at this moment. The other night when he asked me if there was any buried treasure near us, I had to say no. At least in the sense of pirate treasure anyway — after all, we are a long way from the ocean. After some thought, I was reminded of a case of reported buried loot, not gold doubloons, but cash, reportedly buried someplace in our region.

On Nov. 10, 1920, the Farmers Deposit National Bank in downtown Pittsburgh carefully prepared the payroll of the Weirton Steel Co. to be sent in two packages to the Bank of Weirton by registered mail. The packages, with a total of $93,000 between them, left the bank after being sealed in canvas sacks and tagged for registered mail. A bank messenger delivered the bags from the bank to the Pittsburgh Post Office, and they were subsequently locked up. That evening, the mail was sent to Pittsburgh’s Union Station for transit the next morning by the first train to Weirton. After the mail arrived in Weirton, it was transported a half a mile from Weirton’s Pennsylvania station to the post office and then on to the Bank of Weirton, where it was discovered that the $93,000 — in denominations of 20s, 10s, 5s and 1s — was missing. In its place were stacks of currency-sized clippings from Pittsburgh newspapers dated Nov. 11, 1920.

Immediately, the crime was reported to the post office, the insurance company which insured the shipment and the local authorities. A full-on federal investigation began quietly. News of the heist broke to the press the following Monday. The story made national headlines, appearing in papers as far away as Alaska. Fortunately, there was no interruption in the paychecks for workers, as the cash came from Steubenville banks instead on short notice. As luck would have it, the money had been insured before it left the bank.

In the weeks and months following the heist, the investigation continued. Rumors stated that there were suspects, but no arrests were made. Theories abounded on the manner in which the money was stolen.

One theory suggested that the money was thrown from the train between Pittsburgh and Weirton, but interviews between Department of Justice agents and the crew of the train proved to be fruitless. In April 1922, authorities discovered $17,000, but it could not be confirmed that it was part of the loot.

News of the investigation fell largely silent until October 1923 when an article in the Steubenville Herald-Star suggested a possible lead. Three Weirton men had been tracked down in connection with the robbery. Federal agents had been working for years infiltrating the community to find leads, one even going as far as posing as a fruit salesman to learn information.

It was reported that the prime suspect was the driver of the mail truck between the Weirton train station and the post office. The biggest piece of evidence was the fact that when the canvas mail bags were given to the driver in Weirton, they were reportedly clean new bags, but officials at the Bank of Weirton were given soiled, old and dirty bags. And since the cut newspapers were dated to Thursday, officials decided the heist happened after the train left Pittsburgh early that morning. Also around that time, a sum of $9,000 was found and traced back to the suspects, supposedly part of the heist. The money smelled “musty” as if it were hidden away in a damp place for a long time, and the federal agent posing as a fruit salesman was told that the bulk of the money was still hidden in Weirton.

Indictments were made, and the suspects, who knew they were being followed, were tracked all over the country as well as internationally, but no arrests were made. In 1926, an article appeared in the East Liverpool Review – Tribune that mentioned that information was being sought regarding buried cash connected to a person who was wanted in a 1921 robbery of a bank in Imperial, Pa. They believed this person also was involved in the 1920 Weirton payroll robbery. It is general knowledge, they reported, that more than $100,000 was buried in and around the Weirton-Steubenville area in a milk can.

The sum of $100,000 in 1926 would be the equivalent to around $1.45 milion in today’s money. This is a huge sum of cash to be lost and possibly buried in our region. Could it still be out there? Sorry Paulie, there is no map with an “X-marks the spot” to solve this 100-year-old mystery, but after all, there is some treasure in the thrill of the hunt.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

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