Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum Launches New Virtual Exhibition

Remembering the Tragedy at Tunnel 13 a Century Ago
Press Release

The National Postal Museum’s new virtual exhibition, “Tragedy at Tunnel 13: The Crime, the Victims, and the Legacy” is now available for viewing on the museum’s website. The exhibition was curated through the collaboration of the National Postal Museum, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Train 13 of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company regularly carried mail between Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. Both mail and freight cars frequently carried rich cargo, including payrolls, cash, gold, negotiable bonds and other valuables.

On Oct. 11, 1923, four workers lost their lives during a holdup of Southern Pacific Train 13 at Tunnel 13 in the Siskiyou Mountains in northwestern California and southwestern Oregon. The attempted robbery ended with the murders of railway personnel Sidney L. Bates, Charles O. Johnson and Marvin B. Seng and postal clerk Elvyn E. Dougherty. Investigations by local law enforcement, railway special agent staff, U.S. postal inspectors and a forensic scientist led to the search for Ray, Roy and Hugh DeAutremont. For four years, the brothers evaded the authorities until members of the public recognized the suspects from the more than 2 million wanted posters circulated through the U.S., Mexico, Central America and Europe. Arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to life, the brothers each eventually received early releases from prison.

The attempted train robbery and the murders had a tremendous impact on many, especially those in the communities of Southern Oregon and Northern California, where the four victims, their families and co-workers resided. The crime, the long but ultimately successful search for the perpetrators and their trials garnered public attention throughout the 1920s. Since then, the stories have been told and retold in song, film, comic books, history books, documentaries and podcasts. The collections of museums and archives, including those from which the materials for the exhibition have been drawn, continue to be sources for new research and analysis of this complex and tragic history.

“The virtual exhibition is a visual essay of records and artifacts from participating organizations and other archives and museums, recounting this historic case and its legacy,” said museum curator Lynn Heidelbaugh. “Online programs and events in Oregon and California are scheduled to honor the lost lives, recall the impact on the communities and contribute to shared meaning in an effort reconcile with the difficult history.” Participants at select onsite events in October will have the opportunity to view a pop-up version with access to the full content of the virtual exhibition through a QR code.

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railroad tracks leading into a tunnel

The holdup of Train 13 on October 11, 1923, took place in the Siskiyou Mountains just beneath treacherous Siskiyou Pass, where Tunnel 13 served as an integral connector on the Southern Pacific rail line for over 100 years. (Southern Oregon Historical Society 1977.117.14, #034468)

railway mail service workers loading mail bags into a railcar

The criminals targeted the mail car in the attempted robbery of Train 13 of the Southern Pacific Railroad on October 11, 1923, because both mail and freight cars frequently carried valuables such as payrolls, cash, gold and negotiable bonds. This 1925 photo shows mail sacks prepared for transport on a Railway Post Office car. (National Postal Museum, A.2006-59)

a wooden detonator with a leather handle

The DeAutremonts’s attempted robbery resulted in the violent murders of four workers aboard Train 13, including railroad employees Sidney Bates, Marvin Seng, and Charles Johnson. Railway Mail Service Clerk Elvyn Dougherty died when the perpetrators attempted to open the mail car door by using dynamite and this detonator, which investigators later recovered from the crime scene. (National Postal Museum 1991.0025.1)

Wanted poster, issued on June 1, 1924, featuring photographs and signatures of the three accused DeAutremont brothers

Between 1923 and 1927, law enforcement authorities and the U.S. Post Office Department distributed over 2,450,000 circulars advertising a reward and seeking information from the public to help apprehend the suspects. This wanted poster, issued on June 1, 1924, featured photographs and signatures of the three accused DeAutremont brothers. (Southern Oregon Historical Society 1988.11-8.5, MS 672)

Twins Ray and Roy DeAutremont posed for the press at the Jacksonville County Courthouse, Oregon

Twins Ray (front left) and Roy DeAutremont (front right) posed for the press at the Jacksonville County Courthouse, Oregon. The trials of Ray, Roy, and Hugh DeAutremont captured the public imagination due in part to the enthusiastic coverage in newspapers, which reported their convictions and sentences to life in prison in June 1927. (Southern Oregon Historical Society #014431)

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U.S. Postal Inspector in Charge Charles Riddiford landed in California days after the discovery of Hugh DeAutremont in early 1927 and helped transport the suspect to Alcatraz. Riddiford sent this telegram to inform headquarters in Washington, DC of progress on the case. Soon after, an informer’s tip identifying twins Roy and Ray DeAutremont led to their apprehension in Ohio. (US Postal Inspection Service, Record Group 28, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)