Bank Job, by Peter F. Kenworthy

Review by Ed Quillen

Colorado Lore – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

Bank Job – The Story of C.D. Waggoner
by Peter F. Kenworthy
Published in 2005 by Western Reflections
ISBN 1-932738-24-X

IN COLORADO LORE, there’s a tale about an heroic banker, C.W. “Buck” Waggoner, president of the Bank of Telluride. The version in Perry Eberhart’s 1959 Guide to the Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps is a typical rendition:

“It began with the crash of 1929. Banks were closing throughout the country. Workers who had scrimped to save a small nest egg were penniless. Waggoner saw the same thing happening to his bank and his long-time friends. But he couldn’t cover the deposits. Something had to be done.

“Waggoner went to Denver. Using a system of banking codes, he wired the top New York banks and told them, on authority of their Denver branches, to deposit huge drafts to the credit of the Telluride Bank.

“Then he went to New York, showed his credentials, and withdrew the money. He sent a large sum in cash to the Telluride bank to cover the deposits. He deposited the rest in the name of the Telluride Bank in so many banks around the country that much of it was impossible to trace.

“When he was arrested a few days later in Wyoming, he took full blame for the swindle, and stated that the bank, its employees and depositors were in no way responsible. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but his friends in Telluride didn’t lose a cent of their savings.”

That may be close enough to what actually happened, although the Denver banks would have been correspondents, rather than branches, of the New York banks.

Then again, Waggoner liked to gamble at cards, and that put him deep in debt. He also made loans to enterprises that he secretly held an interest in, a no-no for commercial bankers. And there remains some uncertainty as to how many of the Bank of Telluride’s depositors actually benefitted from Waggoner’s swindle.

In other words, there’s quite a bit of historical record, but not enough to write a definitive account. Faced with a similar problem when he wanted to write a biography of early 20th-century labor activist Joe Hill, Wallace Stegner switched to fiction and produced The Preacher and the Slave, explaining that the story just couldn’t be told within the confines of non-fiction.

That seems to be the case for Bank Job, too. It’s a novel grounded in the real events, records, and people of Telluride in the 1920s. Thanks to the freedom of fiction, we can read characters’ thoughts and hear their conversations in a way that the historian’s resources cannot produce.

Bank Job is a fairly straightforward novel, much of it told through the eyes of 22-year-old Alta Cassietto, editor of the local paper. The Journal is switching from daily to weekly publication on account of the town’s decline as the nearby mines close down. Alta was a native who remembered Telluride as “a twenty-four hour town when she had been growing up. From the train depot on the south side by the river, to the transfer station in the middle of town, to the smelter at the far east end of the box canyon and the trams that radiated in all directions from it like spokes on a wheel, the town had throbbed with constant industry. Before gold and silver had been discovered, there had been no Telluride. There had been nothing in the box canyon but the river that flowed from the end of it, tumbling more than three hundred feet down Bridal Veil Falls, and before the snows fell and after they melted, the Utes. Now, with the mines closing, it occurred to Alta that the valley might well revert again to an isolated and uninhabitable place. Everyone was feeling the pinch of the constricting economy and, almost daily of late, more and more people were deciding to move on in search of a brighter future.”

Buck Waggoner, the bank president, was one that moved on, loading the family car and sneaking out of town in the middle of the night, hoping to reach Salida by sunrise, and then Denver and his wife’s hometown in Kansas. There she would stay after he boarded a train to New York City, where he walked into the Manhattan headquarters of the Chase Bank and illegally transfered $500,000 to the credit of the Bank of Telluride.

Waggoner “wanted to tell the obliging young fellow [the officer at Chase] that it was his employer, Chase National, and a syndicate of other New York banks, that had sounded the death knell for his town by refusing to renegotiate a number of critical loans for the last few big mines. He longed to explain to the naïve, eager dupe before him that the New York banks, through their ignorance and heedless arrogance, had been instrumental in bringing the most beautiful and dynamic town in the country to the brink of collapse.”

Waggoner takes the train west and soon checks in, under his own name, at a resort in Wyoming where he is quickly arrested. His trial is in New York, the scene of his crime. There’s little question about his guilt, so his attorneys can’t do much more than call character witnesses whose credibility falters under harsh cross-examination by the prosecutors.

EVEN IF THE OUTCOME is predictable at the onset, Alta wants to see the trial herself. With most of its money in a shuttered bank, the Journal can’t afford to send her, but she has some savings of her own, and there’s Charles “Dad” Painter, former owner of the paper and a retired man of some means. But he’s not just handing out money: “What makes you think it’s important to have the Journal there?”

“This is our story. No one [else] writing about our town, our history, our bank and its president will tell the story as it should be told. Why, you can see it already. Half the mob is making Buck Waggoner out as the shrewdest fraudster that ever lived, and Telluride as a hick town that’s happy to turn a blind eye as long as there’s money enough for one more bet or to pay for a shady lady. The other half is making him out as a prince of thieves forced to turn to crime by the greed of others.”

There’s more to this novel, of course, as we also get the views of the state’s bank examiner, an embezzling county treasurer, and a Delta banker. It was a hard and tragic time, and it came right after another hard era, the labor wars wherein Waggoner’s friend [and one of the arch-fiends in my version of Colorado history] Bulkely Wells took a lead role in smashing the Western Federation of Miners.

Bank Job is an interesting novel that examines a cherished piece of Colorado folklore. I wish, though, that the author had provided an afterword on his sources, explaining what was historical record and what was informed speculation.