Tragedy at Tunnel 13
A new documentary is being released on the 89th anniversary of what has been billed as the West's last great train robbery.
"The Crime of the D'Autremont Brothers" tells the story of the Oct. 11, 1923, robbery of the Southern Pacific's Gold Special at Tunnel 13 under the Siskiyou Summit, a crime in which three railroad employees and a mail clerk were killed.
But Tom Olsen Jr. will tell you there was nothing great about the crime or its aftermath. He produced and edited the 55-minute documentary for Anchor Pictures, his Portland-based production company (www.anchorpictures.com).
"The robbery was completely botched," observed the veteran filmmaker. "They were young and didn't know what they were doing. They ended up murdering four people.
"It has been hailed as the last great train robbery but it was really quite a tragedy for everyone involved."
Indeed, not only did the brothers kill four innocent people, but the robbery netted them no loot.
Twins Ray and Roy, both 23 at the time, and their teenage brother, Hugh, had heard rumors the train would be hauling up to a half million dollars in gold as well as a shipment of cash that day.
They blew up the mail car with dynamite, killing the mail clerk, then later shot and killed three railroad employees. The brothers were caught nearly four years later, tried in the Jackson County courthouse in Jacksonville and sentenced to life in prison.
The documentary premiers at the Northwest Film Festival in Portland on Nov. 13. Plans are being made to have it shown in Southern Oregon, Olsen said, noting he is working with the Southern Oregon Historical Society, the Ashland Railroad Museum and others interested in showing the film locally.
Olsen, 40, who teaches film at the University of Western States and Portland Community College, is not the first to make a documentary on the robbery. One was made by the Smithsonian Institution; another by a group of college students. To see a Mail Tribune video on the robbery, go to www.mailtribune.com/trainrobberyvideo.
"But I wanted to approach it in different way," he said, adding that he originally intended to find descendants of both the D'Autremonts and those killed to determine how the crime impacted second and third generations.
But none of the D'Autremonts he contacted were willing to participate, so he put the project on the back burner. Olsen, who has a master's degree in film and TV production from Chapman University, has several documentaries about Oregon to his credit, covering everything from Portland gangs to Oregon's beaches.
But he returned to the project after reading the 1976 book "All For Nothing: The True Story of the Last Great American Train Robbery," by Larry Sturholm and John Howard.
And he met Medford-born Noreen Kelly McGraw, an attorney now living in San Diego. As a newly minted attorney, she represented Hugh D'Autremont when he applied for parole in 1957. She later represented Ray for a short time.
He also discovered a documentary that came out in 1973 on the 50th anniversary of the robbery. Produced by Jerry Schneider of Hillsboro, it had been aired only once and that was back in 1973, he noted.
For his documentary, Olsen worked closely with McGraw and Schneider as well as SOHS.
"I use Jerry's documentary as a thread," Olsen said.
The title for Olsen's documentary comes from a 1928 song with the same name by singing brothers Paul and Charles Johnson of Kentucky.
"Way out west in Oregon in 1923, the D'Autremont brothers wrecked the train as brutal as could be," the song begins.
The D'Autremonts picked the 3,107-foot-long Tunnel No. 13 because it would be easy to hop aboard the train as it labored slowly to reach the crest of the summit.
On the day of the crime, Roy and Hugh jumped on the train. Ray waited at the other end of the tunnel with the dynamite.
After scrambling up on the baggage car, the two brothers climbed over the tender and jumped down into the engine cab. Hugh ordered engineer Sidney Bates to stop the train near the south end of the tunnel.
The twins packed the dynamite against one end of the mail car. The blast ripped open the entire end of the car, killing mail clerk Elvyn Dougherty of Ashland.
The second man to die was brakeman Coyle Johnson, who had walked through the thick smoke in the tunnel, startling the brothers. Ray, carrying a shotgun, and Hugh, armed with a .45 semiautomatic, shot Johnson.
The brothers then shot to death railroad fireman Marvin Seng and engineer Bates.
After the brothers fled into the woods, a massive manhunt that included the federal government, Oregon National Guard troops, local posses and angry railroad workers failed to find them.
It wouldn't be until 1927 that Hugh was caught while serving in the Philippines in the military. The twins were arrested a short time later in Ohio.
All three would be sent to prison for life. Roy had a mental breakdown and died in the state hospital in Salem. Hugh died from cancer shortly after he was awarded parole in 1958. Ray, whose sentence was commuted by then-Gov. Tom McCall in 1972, died in 1984.
Meanwhile, Olsen is already thinking about another Oregon documentary.
"I really like Oregon stories," he said. "There is a cold case murder I'm really interested in."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.