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A look back in time

They called him ‘Big Dip’ (and smiled when they said it)

By: Al Albertazzi, special to the Journal
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Frank Dependener lived up to his nickname of “Big Dip.” He was 6-feet-7-inches tall and broad-shouldered and was one of Auburn’s most colorful lawmen.
He and Sheriff Elmer Gum were two reasons that a 1920s headline in the Auburn Journal read “Bandits warned Placer to be an unhealthy place.” But, as with all good lawmen, force was a last resort. Though he was involved in several gunfights, Dependener’s stature and reputation were frequently enough to keep law and order.
It was like that the night around the turn of the last century that he stopped a near-riot at the old Opera House on Central Square. A much ballyhooed prize fight turned out to be a push-and-shove match that was roundly booed. The crowd of some 300, many of whom had bet money on the outcome, became incensed when the referee refused to name a winner and canceled all bets. The angry crowd grew restive and a few fights broke out among the bettors who felt cheated. Things were beginning to get out of hand when Dependener bellowed “There’ll be no more fights here. Now go home!” And they did.
Not all confrontations went as smoothly as the one at the Opera House. On another occasion Dependener and Sheriff William Conroy were in pursuit of two stage robbers on the North Fork of the American River when they were ambushed by the men they were after. Dependener stood in the open as he and Conroy returned fire. Nobody was hit during that encounter, but the same could not be said of some other scrapes.
In another incident, Dependener was in a posse pursuing a group of hardened criminals that had escaped from Folsom Prison. As the posse closed in, the escapees began shooting with weapons they had stolen from a cabin the day before. It was quite a battle for a few minutes until one of the escapees was killed and the others fled in a fury of gunfire. Once again, Dependener had come out of the fray untouched. But that was not always the case.
There’s a huge magnolia tree on the downhill side of the courthouse lawn near the corner of Lincoln Way and Court Street. It’s big enough to have been there in 1916 and if it was, it was witness to one of Auburn’s most well-known gunfights.
One day in April, Big Dip arrested local troublemaker named Arthur Cox for drunkenness. Later that afternoon, Cox’s two brothers, Albert and Jim, found Dependener in Old Town and asked to bail Arthur out. Big Dip agreed on condition that the brothers would leave town immediately, and the trio walked up toward the jail, which was then beneath the courthouse steps.
The Cox brothers, still angry over their brother’s arrest and $10 fine, made their feelings known, but Big Dip ignored them. As he turned his back and started toward the rear steps to the courthouse, the Cox brothers drew pistols and opened fire, hitting him in the lung and leg and knocking him to his knees.
Though seriously wounded, Dip turned, drew his gun and returned fire. According to newspaper accounts, another bullet hit his right hand, and he switched the pistol to his left and continued shooting, hitting Albert twice. Neither shot was fatal, and Jim helped his brother as they made their getaway while Dependener lay on the ground by the courthouse. A week or so later, Sheriff Gum arrested Albert Cox in Winnemucca and Jim Cox gave himself up.
Luckily, Dependener’s wounds were not fatal, but he carried two of the bullets from the Cox shootout for the rest of his life. After his recovery, Dependener continued to serve as a lawman for another 12 years before he was killed in a tragic automobile accident in 1928. That, too, was in the line of duty.
He, another deputy, and Sheriff Elmer Gum were transporting an arrested bootlegger (and two barrels of illegal wine) from Rocklin to the jail at Auburn when they collided with another vehicle on the Newcastle Road near Wise Powerhouse Road. The lawmen’s’ overloaded car slid sideways over the edge of the road and rolled 25 feet down an embankment. Big Dip was ejected from the car and died instantly of a broken neck. He was 59 years old.
His funeral was one of the largest in Placer County history and was attended by law officers from all over Northern California. Sacramento Police Capt. Ed Brown described Dependener as “one of the best-known, best-liked and most-feared men in public service.”
Al Albertazzi has lived in Auburn since 1964. He writes an occasional column on local history.