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The Last Great Train  Robbery
D'Autremont twins

D'Autremont twins Ray and Roy (front) emerge from the courthouse in Jacksonville.

D'Autremonts' bungled train robbery in 1923 left 4 dead

By Paul Fattig
Copyright © interRogue & The Mail Tribune 1998, Medford, Oregon USA oct11,1998

ASHLAND -- An old wreath over the north portal of Tunnel No. 13 at the Siskiyou Summit is the only visible reminder of the deadly crime.
Three railroad employees and a mail clerk were killed when the Southern Pacific's "Gold Special" was held up by the D'Autremont brothers 75 years ago today.

One of those who died shortly after noon on Oct. 11, 1923, was Ashland resident Elvyn Dougherty, the mail clerk. "It was a terrible thing," said Eagle Point resident Nancy Rinabarger, 70, whose mother, Blanche Dougherty, was left a widow with a young son. "He wasn't supposed to work that day. He was subbing for someone else. "I wasn't born then, but I know she had a lot of hardships," she said of her mother, who later remarried. "Since the case wasn't solved right away, they (detectives) even followed her for some time. That was hard on her."

Her half-brother, Raymond Dougherty of Redding, the boy left fatherless by the dynamite blast, will be 80 next month. But he declined to comment about the trauma caused by the 1923 incident, saying it was "personal."

After all these years, what has become popularly known as the West's "Last Great Train Robbery" is still remembered with pain by those whose families lost loved ones. "Four lives were lost and three lives were changed so they that were never the same," said Salem resident Mike Yoakum, a former Rogue Valley resident. "It was a compound tragedy."

Yoakum is a member of the Rogue Valley Model Railroad Club which, for many years, has made a pilgrimage to the tunnel each Oct. 11 in memory of those slain. Because of scheduling problems this year, the short trek will be Oct. 18.

The D'Autremonts included twins Ray and Roy, both 23 at the time of the crime, and their teenage brother, Hugh. Before the crime, Ray served time in a Washington state prison for labor union activity. During that time, he came up with a plan to make his family rich.

"Hatred ate away at my compassion as I saw how the people in power cheated and stole from the masses," he told author Larry Sturholm for the book, "All for Nothing." "Thousands of women and children were starving and dying, thousands  more,  honest working men, were receiving less than half of what they should," he added.

But Ray's action indicated he wasn't interested in honest work. After his release from prison, he and his twin brother traveled to Chicago where they hoped to join big-time gangsters during the Roaring '20s. Unsuccessful, they returned to Southern Oregon where they began studying shipments on Southern Pacific trains. After all, the train through the Rogue Valley still carried the nickname of the "Gold Special" because it once hauled large quantities of gold from the mines.

They had heard rumors that it would be hauling up to a half million dollars in gold as well as a shipment of cash on Oct. 11.

The twins, who recruited their younger brother, 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. Railway regulations required the engineer to test the brakes at the top of the pass by bringing the southbound train to a near stop just north of the tunnel.

The brothers studied the site, and established a hideout a couple of miles from the tunnel. They also stole explosives from a construction site in northern Oregon.

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 containing the mail clerk. The blast ripped open the entire end of the car, killing the clerk and setting fire to the railroad car. The brothers couldn't see into the car because of the smoke and dust. And they couldn't get the train moved out of the tunnel because of the mangled car.

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.

Perhaps angry over not finding any money or gold, perhaps afraid of leaving witnesses, the brothers then shot to death railroad fireman Marvin Seng and engineer Bates.

They fled into the woods, prompting a massive manhunt that included the federal government, Oregon National Guard troops, local posses and angry railroad workers. But the brothers laid low, then slipped through the dragnet.

It wouldn't be until 1927 that Hugh was caught while serving in the Far East in the military. An Army buddy recognized his face on a wanted poster and turned him in for the reward. The twins were arrested a short time later in Ohio.

One of the prosecutors assigned to the 1927 trial held in the old Jackson County Courthouse, now the Jacksonville Museum, was Medford's George Roberts. He had served as Jackson County district attorney from 1916 through 1920. Although the brothers had botched the robbery and killed in cold blood, they were media celebrities by the time they were caught. The trial in Jacksonville drew national attention.

Concerned about potential harm to his family, Roberts sent his wife and their two daughters by train to visit the children's grandparents in Cincinnati. "We were whisked out of town," recalled the late Dorothy Roberts Monroe, then 81, in a 1995 interview. "There were a lot of things that happened to DAs back in those days."

But the three D'Autremont brothers would be sent to prison for life.

"Ray had devised the whole thing -- it was his get-rich quick scheme," observed Medford-born Noreen Kelly McGraw, 66, an attorney now living in Portland. She represented Hugh A'Autremont when he applied for parole in 1957. She later represented Ray for a short time.

As she understood the story from her discussions with Hugh and Ray, they never intended to harm anyone. In fact, the two brothers expressed deep regret for the deaths, she said. The other brother, Roy, had a mental breakdown and died in the state hospital in Salem.

"Ray talked Roy and Hugh into the proposition," she said. "They planned to dynamite the mail car. They didn't think anyone would be riding in it. There was so much smoke and confusion after they blew it up. "They thought they'd get all this money and they didn't get anything," she added. "That's what's so crazy about it."

Not only were the brothers poor criminals, they also had no expertise when it came to dynamite, she said. "They were clueless (in Ashland*)-- let's face it," she concluded.

Hugh died from cancer shortly after he was awarded parole in 1958. Ray, the last surviving brother, whose sentence was commuted by then-Gov. Tom McCall in 1972, died in 1984.

*editorial comment by webpage editor
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