ashland.news
July 24, 2024

Tunnel 13 tragedy: Local events mark centennial of ‘Last great train robbery’

Twins Ray, front left, and Roy DeAutremont posed for the press at the Jacksonville County Courthouse. The trials of Ray, Roy and Hugh DeAutremont captured the public imagination due in part to the enthusiastic coverage in newspapers, which reported their convictions and sentences to life in prison in June 1927. Southern Oregon Historical Society #014431
October 10, 2023

Four left dead in 1923 robbery on Siskiyou Pass

By Buffy Pollock, Rogue Valley Times

By the time local law enforcement could investigate the source of an explosion that rang out from the Siskiyou Mountain Pass near Mount Ashland early on Oct. 11, 1923, a trio of outlaw brothers had killed four men, leaving widows, fatherless children and an angry nation in their wake. A botched and bloody crime often referred to as the “last great train robbery” of the West, the Tunnel 13 tragedy is etched into Southern Oregon history.

The holdup by the DeAutremont brothers — twins Roy and Ray, and younger brother, Hugh — led to a four-year global manhunt, 2.5 million wanted posters and a cost of more than $6 million — in modern currency — to bring the brothers to justice.

Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology students and Jefferson Public Radio are part of a nationwide consortium commemorating the centennial of the tragedy. The project includes a variety of live and virtual events.

SOU research archaeologist Chelsea Rose said centennial events will focus on remembering victims, documenting the event and acknowledging the advancements in modern-day forensics that came from the Tunnel 13 train robbery. Rose said a small group will hold a wreath-laying ceremony at the northern end of Tunnel 13 Wednesday morning, around the time when the explosion occurred. The event is on private property owned by the railroad and not open to the public.

“There was a lot of concern that the commemoration was going to happen, and everyone would glorify the DeAutremont brothers,” Rose said.

Tunnel 13 near Mount Ashland was the scene of the last great American train robbery, on Oct. 11, 1923. Rogue Valley Times photo by Jamie Lusch

“A lot of times, the old-timey stories will romanticize the bad guys. … Our focus has been on prioritizing the victims and highlighting the legacy, and the impacts, of this case.”

The U.S. Postal Service created a custom postmark to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tunnel 13 train robbery.
Unlucky No. 13

Train No. 13, known as the Oregon-California Express, was headed up the Siskiyou grade on its way to San Francisco the morning of the crime. Safety protocol required the train to stop at the top of the Siskiyou Pass for a brake check before descending into California. With their sights set on robbing the mail car, the DeAutremont brothers hid out on a nearby stage road and climbed aboard as the train headed south into the northern end of the tunnel.

Once inside, the brothers fixed their sawed-off shotguns on train engineer Sydney Bates, forcing him to stop the train. As the brothers headed toward the mail car, postal clerk Elvyn Daugherty locked himself inside to try and secure the car. The brothers attached a too-large charge of dynamite to the door, blowing both the mail car and Daugherty to pieces.

When he entered the tunnel to investigate the cause of the explosion, brakeman Charles Orin Johnson would become the second victim.

Tunnel 13 events and resources
Several exhibits and events are set for the centennial of the Tunnel 13 train robbery, including two events slated for Wednesday.
In Medford, a “Commemoration of the Tunnel 13 Tragedy” begins at 11 a.m. at the Historic I.O.O.F. Eastwood Cemetery, 1581 Siskiyou Blvd. The event will begin at the mausoleum and include a walk to the gravesite of Charles “Coyl” Johnson, the off-duty brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railway who was shot and killed by the DeAutremont brothers, followed by a reading of the obituaries of all four victims. For more information on the Medford event, email SOHS curator Anna Sloan at curator@sohs.org.
In Ashland, “Underground History Live: Tragedy at Tunnel 13” is scheduled from 5-8 p.m. at the Ashland Hills Inn, 2525 Ashland St. The free event will feature a director’s screening of OPB’s “Murder on the Southern Pacific,” an episode of the network’s show “Oregon Experience.”
A commemorative stamp cancellation from the U.S. Postal Service will be available at the event, along with a pop-up exhibit featuring historical records and artifacts related to the crime, including the detonator used by the brothers to blast open the door to the mail car. 
Also available for viewing online is The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum’s new virtual exhibition “Tragedy at Tunnel 13: The Crime, the Victims, and the Legacy,” a collaboration between the National Postal Museum, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Southern Oregon Historical Society, at postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/tragedy-at-tunnel-13
Jefferson Public Radio’s “Underground History” program hosted a series of podcasts leading up to the Tunnel 13 centennial, which can be heard at ijpr.org/podcast/underground-history

The DeAutremonts then ordered Bates to move the engine forward, and fireman Marvin Seng to uncouple the mail car. Damage from the explosion prevented the rail cars from being separated, and the mail car filled with smoke, preventing the brothers from finding any of the loot they planned to steal.

Realizing the utter failure that was their robbery attempt, and determined not to leave any witnesses, the brothers killed Bates and Seng in cold blood. A coroner later determined the bullets went through their raised arms before striking their temples.

The brothers would not be held responsible for their crimes until four years later. By 1927, all three brothers were found — having fled the West Coast, living under different names. They were returned to Southern Oregon to stand trial on four counts of murder — the final trial to be held in the Jacksonville courthouse, before the county seat was moved to Medford.

Documenting history

Rose said she and SOU anthropology students visited Tunnel 13 in recent weeks, as well as the ruins of a nearby cabin where the brothers hid out to plan their heist. After the attempted train robbery, the two sites provided important evidence. The cabin has been disintegrating since the 1970s, but splintered boards and hardware remain, and the site has been documented using Light Imaging Detection and Ranging equipment.

“The wood is going to continue to deteriorate, so we used aerial photographs and LIDAR. You can essentially erase the trees and other stuff and see old wagon roads and paths and stuff like that,” she said.

“The cabin site is basically on top of the tunnel, so they hid out and went down that morning before the train showed up. The cabin is really significant because (law enforcement) found a lot of the evidence used in the case.”

Jud Parsons, owner of Mountcrest Working Forest, owns the property where the cabin once stood. Parsons’ grandfather Reginald Parsons purchased the property in 1919, four years before photos of the cabin appeared under news headlines around the country. Parsons said his father, George Parsons, was 12 years old at the time of the tragedy. Parsons, 88, remembers growing up with stories of Tunnel 13 and what his family referred to as “the DeAutremont Cabin.”

With the cabin gradually disappearing, Parsons put rebar into the ground to mark the outline of the original structure, “so people 100 years from now will be able to find it.” A stone’s throw away, he built a replacement shed to look like the original cabin. Parsons said the cabin was a significant part of the Tunnel 13 tragedy because it provided evidence used to identify the brothers.

“There was a postal receipt in the pocket of some bib overalls that named one of the three brothers … he had sent something to his mother in New Mexico,” Parsons said. “They weren’t the smartest robbers.”

Centennial events

Two local events and a number of podcasts and videos have been produced to mark Wednesday’s centennial.

In recognition of postal clerk Elvyn Daugherty, the U.S. Postal Service will offer a commemorative cancellation from Oct. 9-13 at the Ashland Post Office, and at a Wednesday event, starting at 5 p.m., at the Ashland Hills Inn. Retired postal inspector Dan Mihalko designed the cancellation based on a painting he created in 1998 titled “The Last Great American Train Robbery.”

A history buff and an artist who worked for the Postal Service for five decades, Mihalko, who lives in Washington, D.C., said he was “always intrigued by the DeAutremont case.”

“This was a big deal, not only regionally for (Southern Oregon), but for the whole inspection service. You kind of pull out all stops whenever a postal employee is attacked or assaulted or, in this particular instance, killed,” Mihalko said.

“This became a very high priority investigation and kicked off the biggest manhunt in history up to that point. We chased these guys all over the place. … We knew who they were but couldn’t find them. … We had wanted posters all over the world for these brothers.”

Rose said the upcoming events had been months — and in some cases a century — in the making.

“One of the things I think is so cool is that there are so many different stakeholders who are interested for different reasons. For forensics folks, this was the birth of their discipline. Postal inspectors, they’ve been in existence since before the FBI. Local historians. The Smithsonian. … This tragedy was far-reaching,” Rose said.

“At SOU, we’ve been working actively on this commemoration for seven months. … When we first decided to do this, I thought it would be a fun thing about this train robbery from 100 years ago. It turns out that the train robbery, or attempted train robbery, was a very small part of everything that was spurred by this one tragedy.”

Reach reporter Buffy Pollock at 458-488-2029 or bpollock@rv-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @orwritergal. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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