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Site of last great train robbery still resonates

The wooden witnesses to the West’s last great train robbery — in a train tunnel south of Ashland nearly a century ago — still resonate today in, of all places, Kaukuana, Wisconsin.

That’s where guitar maker Bruce Petros makes musical instruments with the old redwood timbers that once supported Tunnel 13 in the Siskiyou Mountains high above Ashland.

Petros crafts the timbers into acoustic instruments that sell for far more than a song — in part because of their ties to 1920s history in Southern Oregon.

“They’re expensive guitars, but there’s a story that goes with it that also happens to be true,” says Petros, 67, from his Wisconsin studio.

“It’s a quality guitar with a story,” Petros says. “People dig a story.”

The saga of the Tunnel 13 train robbery is anything but a great piece of Southern Oregon’s past, but its legacy is woven into the community fabric.

Twins Ray and Roy D’Autremont were 23 years old when they were joined by their teenage brother, Hugh, in attacking Southern Pacific’s “Gold Special” train in hopes of collecting the half-million dollars in gold rumored to be on board Oct. 11, 1923.

They hopped aboard the train at the 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 murders, the D’Autremonts became media celebrities, and their trial in Jacksonville drew national attention.

Ray D’Autremont served more than 30 years in prison. After his release in 1960, he befriended Portland Police Det. Johnnie Howard, and the men together penned a book about the robbery called “All For Nothing.” Ray’s sentence was commuted by then-Gov. Tom McCall in 1972. He died in 1984.

Roy had a mental breakdown and died in the state hospital in Salem. Hugh died from cancer shortly after he was paroled in 1958.

A 2003 fire in the tunnel closed it, and several of the timbers were removed while the tunnel was renovated. It reopened in 2005.

But before it reopened, the old redwood timbers from the 3,107-foot tunnel near the Siskiyou Summit were removed and sold locally.

Petros knew nothing of the D’Autremonts and Tunnel 13 when he struck up a conversation in 2007 with other guitar makers at a Northern California guitar festival about the Tunnel 13 wood.

Eventually, Petros got hold of some, mainly because the vertical-grained wood is perfect for his custom guitars.

“It’s particularly stiff, which makes it good stuff for instruments,” Petros says.

The guitars started off at $8,500, and they wholesale for as much as $35,000 now, Petros says.

A song commemorating the Tunnel 13 robbery was penned more than a decade ago and played on Petros’ guitars.

He’s recently made ukuleles from them, as well.

The botched robbery and its connection with the guitar wood has been a massive selling point for the guitars, Petros says.

“It’s what’s selling them, and the wood itself is good,” Petros says.

And just like the wreaths Johnnie Howard used to ceremoniously lay at Tunnel 13 every year, the guitars pay tribute to the victims that day and not the thieving brothers.

“Each has a plaque that pays homage to the victims, not the robbers,” Petros says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Tunnel 13 near the top of the Oregon Siskiyou Pass is the site of the country's last great train robbery in 1923.{ } Mail Tribune file photo taken Feb. 12, 2012.
Guitar maker Bruce Petros makes musical instruments with the old redwood timbers that once supported Tunnel 13 in the Siskiyou Mountains. Courtesy photo.