Oregon Trails: D’Autremont Train Robbery

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NEAR ASHLAND, Ore. — When you think of desperados and train robberies in the Old West, you probably think of Jesse James or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, but it was another gang that pulled off what was called “The Last Great Train Robbery” in the U.S.

October 11th, 1923 was a day when nothing seemed to go right for three brothers, trying to make their mark on the rapidly changing post war world. 19-year old Hugh, and 23-year old twins Ray and Roy D’Autremont decided they could become rich and famous at the same time by holding up the Southern Pacific Mail and Passenger Train Number 13, the so-called “Gold Special”. Looking back on it later, it was obvious the three may have had big dreams and plans, but little experience or know-how.

“They thought, ‘we can do that!’ and it seemed like a better idea to rob for a living than, than to work for a living. And they looked around and decided a train robbery might be the way to go,” described Scott Mangold, a D’Autremont historian.

Rumors of a half-million dollars in gold on the so-called “gold special” led them to stop Train 13 near the west end of tunnel 13 at the Siskiyou Summit.

Scott Mangold describes the situation: “They would try to get the mail clerk to open the car so that they could steal the contents. But Elvin Daugherty, who was the mail clerk, was not about to let them in to the car. He slammed the door. Ray tried to coax him with a shotgun blast to the side of the car door. Daugherty was not going to open it, so plan ‘B’ was the dynamite.”

Planting a charge at one end of the mail car, the blast tore open the car and started a fire that not only destroyed the car and killed the clerk, but filled the tunnel with smoke. Not wanting any witnesses they gunned down the engineer, fireman and another engineer and ran for a hideout with blood on their hands and not a dime for their efforts at fame and fortune, and a massive manhunt was soon underway.

“It was called, at the time, ‘The World’s Greatest Manhunt.’ It took law enforcement almost four years and half a million dollars to locate the brothers. They knew with nine days who they were looking for based on evidence left behind at the crime scene,” described D’Autremont writer, Margaret Laplante.

Newsreel footage from “The Crime of the D’Autremont Brothers” described the crime investigation:

“What had led detectives to the identity of the killers was a pair of overalls. Criminologist from Berkeley, California, Edward Heinrich examined them minutely; scientifically. Heinrich determined their owner would be 5 foot 6 inches tall, and a left handed logger of the Northwest woods. The clincher was this receipt for registered mail, which Heinrich found rolled up inside the pencil pocket of the overall bib. The receipt was signed on the backside, ‘Roy D’Autremont’”.

Meanwhile, the boys were on the run. First down into California, then to Chicago and Points East. Hugh joined the Army and ended up in the Philippines. The twins settled in Ohio, where Ray got married and started a family.

“The boys were on the lam for 3 and a half years. It took that long to catch them. A half million were devoted to posters, and it was through posters that all of them eventually were captured,” described Scott Magold.

They were brought back to the Rogue Valley, to the old Jacksonville courthouse for trial. Newsmen from all over the country flocked to the old mining town to see the trial. It was the last big trial in that courthouse because the county seat had just moved to Medford. Hugh’s first trial was a mistrial because one of the jurors had died. By that time, he pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

“But by the time,” Margaret says, “the sentence was pronounced, the boys, the twins had been found and brought back. They decided they would confess for the fear that they might be hung. So they confessed and all three were sentenced to life in prison.”

“Everything we had was invested in the crime. We probably didn’t have $3 among us. And we weren’t thinking about going back to those logging camps with that hard labor,” said Ray D’Autremont.

“It was not even a robbery, because there was nothing stolen. It was a holdup rather than a robbery,” said Mangold. “By all accounts, the D’Autremonts were not successful in what they were trying to do.”

Today, a small withered wreath still hangs at the east portal of tunnel thirteen as a token memorial to the crew members who died in the botched holdup 90 years ago.

Hugh D’Autremont was released from prison on January 9th, 1959. Less than three months later he died of lung cancer and is buried next to his mother in Salem. Roy suffered from schizophrenia and died at the state mental hospital in 1983, after having suffered for years from unsuccessful brain surgery. Ray was paroled in 1961, and worked for years as a custodian in Eugene. He died in December, 1984.