SOULA and partners work on Tragedy at Tunnel 13 commemoration

Collaborative events to commemorate historic “Tragedy at Tunnel 13”

(Ashland, Ore.) — The Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) and Jefferson Public Radio (JPR) are part of a nationwide consortium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the “Tragedy at Tunnel 13” and its legacy. The project includes a variety of live and virtual events that memorialize what may be southern Oregon’s most infamous true crime, its victims and the far-reaching efforts to solve it.

Oct. 11, 2023, marks the 100th anniversary of the attempted robbery of Train 13 at Tunnel 13 in the Siskiyou Mountains. The crime led to the brutal murders of postal clerk Elvyn Dougherty, brakeman Coyl O. Johnson, engineer Sydney Bates and fireman Marvin Seng. The holdup led to a global manhunt, with more than 2.5 million wanted posters and a cost of more than $6 million in today’s money to catch the three DeAutremont brothers who were responsible for the crime.

The case is considered to represent the birth of American criminal forensics. The DeAutremont brothers – Ray, Roy and Hugh – were identified following a painstaking investigation, then captured after a four-year manhunt, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

SOULA and its partners in the commemoration been working for months to plan and create resources, podcasts, exhibits and live events that will focus on a variety of aspects of the historical crime and its legacy. SOULA has used archaeological tools and public outreach to revisit and reframe the case and its relevancy today.

“While to many this case evokes romantic images of the old timey train robberies and elaborate chases, the story is actually more about innovation, collaboration and the modernization of the world around them,” said SOULA research archaeologist Chelsea Rose. “On that fateful day in 1923, the DeAutremont brothers entered Tunnel 13 in one era, and came out in another.”

SOULA, which has played a central role in the Tunnel 13 commemoration, has collaborated with agencies including the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, the Southern Oregon Historical Society (SOHS), the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture (BBRC), the United States Postal Inspection Service, the Oregon Historical Society (OHS), Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), the Southern Oregon Railway Historical Society, and the United States Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory.

The U.S. Postal Service will make a commemorative pictorial cancellation – the postal marking that prevents a stamp from being reused – featuring original art by retired Postal Inspector, Dan Mihalko.

“As a Postal Inspector, a history buff and an artist, I was always intrigued by the DeAutremont case,” Mihalko said.

“In 1998, I did a painting of the robbery entitled, ‘The Last Great American Train Robbery,’” he said. “So, I was thrilled when offered the opportunity to design the pictorial cancellation for the 100th anniversary.”

The cancellation will be available on the anniversary at the Ashland post office and at an Underground History Live event at the Ashland Hills Hotel.

A commemoration of the Tragedy at Tunnel 13 was first suggested by Bruce Shoemaker, board member of the BBRC, which preserves and promotes railroad culture.

“The Tunnel 13 tragedy is a true story worthy of a major motion picture and the single most dramatic incident in the history of railroading in our region,” Shoemaker said. “The murder of the three Southern Pacific trainmen is also a reminder that railroad work has traditionally been – and remains – a dangerous occupation.”

View the full list of Tunnel 13 commemorative events.