Ghosts of Tunnel 13
Famed, fatal 1923 train robbery stays alive in the memory of teller of the tale
Johnny Howard carried a wreath Friday into the cold recesses of the Southern Pacific Tunnel 13, then straddled the abandoned tracks where his old friend Ray D'Autremont helped commit Oregon's famous and bloody train robbery exactly 79 years ago.
Shortly after noon ' the instant the D'Autremont gang dynamited the train in a botched robbery attempt ' Howard closed his eyes and mumbled an impromptu prayer.
It was not for the long-dead D'Autremont, who co-authored with Howard what is considered by many the best book written on the 1923 crime. The prayer was for the four men murdered in what has become known as the West's last great train robbery.
The train robber was my best friend, but it dawned on me 21 years ago that here I was, doing everything for the train robber but nothing for the men who died, said Howard, a former police detective and historian from Portland. I decided that I'd do something about it.
Since 1981, Howard has made the pilgrimage to Tunnel 13 in the Siskiyou Mountains near Ashland each Oct. 11, hanging memorial wreaths to the victims as part of a personal mission to keep a little humanity in this violent piece of Southern Oregon history.
Howard has shrugged off work, illness, bad weather and broken limbs to ensure that he says his prayer and hangs his wreath each year in a tribute that has become as much about Howard as it is about D'Autremont victims.
This has become an obsession for me, Howard said, clutching a broken right arm that almost kept him from making Friday's trip. Ray D'Autremont has become my Jesse James. And I'm going to hang these wreaths and remember these victims for the rest of my life.
Twins Ray and Roy D'Autremont were 23 years old when they were joined by their teenage brother, Hugh, in robbing Southern Pacific's Gold Special train in hopes of collecting the half-million dollars in gold rumored to be on board that day.
They hopped aboard the train at the 3,107-foot tunnel and ordered engineer Sidney Bates to stop the train. They dynamited the mail car, killing mail clerk Elvyn E. Dougherty in the blast. Ray and Hugh shot brakeman Coyle Johnson, who surprised them in the smoke. The brothers then shot to death Bates and fireman Marvin Seng before fleeing empty-handed.
The brothers escaped the massive manhunt that ensued, but Hugh D'Autremont was arrested oversees while in the military in 1927. Shortly after his arrest, the twins were arrested in Ohio.
Despite the botched robbery and the murders, the D'Autremonts became media celebrities and their trial in Jacksonville drew national attention.
Howard first heard of the D'Autremonts 35 years ago while picking pears in Medford. Intrigued, he hiked into the tunnel site near Interstate 5's Siskiyou Summit, carrying stones in each hand in case he confronted a bear or cougar.
It was real scary, I'd say almost icky, being there, Howard said. But it hooked me.
Howard then read everything he could find on the D'Autremonts and the robbery. Two years later, he drove to Eugene and knocked on the door of Ray D'Autremont, who served more than 30 years in prison before his release in 1960.
The men became friends and worked together on the book All For Nothing, which Medford historian Carol Harbison-Samuelson calls the best account of the robbery ever published.
In 1981, Howard grew restless over how he had helped make the D'Autremonts legendary yet did little for the victims. So he decided to make a pilgrimage to the tunnel, stopping on his drive down from Portland to buy a wreath.
I had this really eerie, cold feeling until I said a little prayer that came to mind, Howard said. And when I walked out of that tunnel, I had absolutely the greatest feeling. And I decided I'll never stop doing this.
Howard since has become a part of D'Autremont history, said Harbison-Samuelson of the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
This is a very important part of his life and it's very real, said Harbison-Samuelson, who praises Howard's collection of D'Autremont memorabilia, which includes photos of the crime scene, a signed Wanted poster of Ray and Ray's will. He really wants those people remembered.
About a dozen old, decaying wreaths litter the tunnel site now. Saddled with poor health and the broken arm, Howard ' who refuses to divulge his age ' can't scramble up the steep hill to the top of Tunnel 13's northern rim anymore.
Frank Bertrand, a 32-year-old Ashland man and fellow D'Autremont devotee, hung the wreath Friday.
While the message is always the same, the prayer is always different.
I just say what comes to mind at the time, Howard said. It would be boring to say the same prayer year after year.
As for his criminal friend, D'Autremont discussed Howard's pilgrimage only once, just prior to his death in 1984.
He said, 'That's wonderful.' Nothing else. Not a word, Howard said. And you know, he was right.