Forgotten Trails: Newspaper writer tells of legendary ‘Railroad Bill'

Published 6:09 pm Wednesday, May 16, 2007

By Staff
This week I thought I would tell you another story that I found in the old bound newspaper volumes. This one was also written by Edley M. Franklin in a time when he was still able to interview some of those who knew the facts first-hand. Some of the writing may not be &#8220politically correct” for today, but this is the way it was written more than 56 years ago.
Railroad Bill has become a big part of the legend of southeast Alabama in general, and of our area in particular. This is the most readable and interesting write-up that I have seen about the infamous robber.
It was the night of July 3, 1895. Near the railroad trestle across Pritchet's Mill Creek at Bluff Springs, Fla., a railroad switch light blinked, casting a dim circle of light in the semi-darkness. There was a moon, hidden most of the time by low, heavy, floating clouds. A hard rain that afternoon had Prichet's Mill Creek overflowing.
A group of men came quietly down the railroad, the light from the switch light glinting along the barrels of Winchesters, pistols and shotguns. One of the men carried a large basket.
At the south end of the trestle they left the railroad and headed up the bank of Pritchet's Mill Creek until they found a footing. The footbridge was partially submerged by the rising water of the creek. The men talked in low tones among themselves. Some were in favor of crossing there, even if they had to get wet, while others wanted to go back to the railroad and come up on the other side of the creek. They finally agreed to go by the railroad.
To get back to the creek after leaving the railroad, the party would have to go around a large gully. In single file and back lighted by the switch light the men started up a trail to get around the head of the gully.
The man who fell was E.S. McMillan, better known as &#8220Mr. Ed,” 37 year-old sheriff of Escambia County, Ala. The man who triggered the Winchester was &#8220Railroad Bill.”
Andrew Cunningham, a Negro who was living in Bluff Springs, but later lived and died in Brewton, was working with Sheriff McMillan in an effort to catch &#8220Railroad Bill.” He had notified the sheriff that Bill was hiding in a shack on Ferry Road - that it had only one window which faced north - and for Mr. Ed and his men to cross the foot log on Pritchet's Mill Creek and come up to the shack from behind - warning him not to go any other way.
To have gone the way Andrew advised him to go would have saved the sheriff's life, even though he wouldn't have caught Bill in the shack, who for some reason had left. And the men were so anxious to catch Bill they hadn't taken time to eat supper but had it packed in a basket with intention of eating after the capture.
There are several stories of what happened there that night after Sheriff McMillan was shot. One is: that some of the party hunted the nearest thicket. Others dived into a nearby ditch as slugs from Bill's 16-shot Winchester drilled holes in the air over their heads, some hitting the rails on the railroad and ricocheting into space.
Laughing about it afterward, the fellow with the basket of supper said, as he lay in the ditch, a big black sow came up and got into the basket but all he could do was just lay there and listen to her enjoy it.
Another story is: that when Bill's magazine ran dry they all got up and began pouring lead into the persimmon tree, not knowing whether Bill was still behind it or not. The volley shot the bark off the tree 10 feet above the ground.
Yet, some claim that at the crack of &#8220Railroad Bill's” Winchester they figured Andrew Cunningham had led them into a trap. They started throwing lead into the persimmon tree, not giving Bill a chance to fire a second shot. However they soon realized they were wasting ammunition, as Bill was safe behind the tree.”
I will continue with this story next week.

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