Guitar maker uses Oregon wood with a bloody history

Guitar maker uses Oregon wood with a bloody history
While this $35,000 Yellow Rose guitar does use Yellow Cedar wood from Oregon in the neck portion, another select build of guitars called the Tunnel 13 line does utilize Redwood pieces from an infamous train robbery location. All photos courtesy of Petros Guitars.
ASHLAND, Ore. (AP) - Redwood timbers that once framed the backdrop to the West's last great train robbery 85 years ago near Ashland are getting a second life that happily has given Bruce Petros plenty to fret about.
     
One charred chunk of the large, old-growth redwood from Siskiyou Pass historic Tunnel 13 is in Petros' Wisconsin factory, where the veteran maker of acoustic guitars hopes the fine wood and tunnel's infamy will help him sell the high-end instruments.
     
Petros is crafting his Tunnel 13 line of guitars shaped from one of the timbers removed from the 3,107-foot-long train tunnel near the Siskiyou Summit. The first of Petros' Tunnel 13 line already has its own Web site.

When the first guitar is finished, it will be shipped to a Wisconsin writer who will pen an ode to the D'Autremont brothers, whose botched and bloody 1923 train robbery will live on in song.
     
The long grain of hard-to-find, old-growth redwood is favored among instrument makers for creating resonant guitar tops. And if the good wood comes with its own marketing campaign, why not play it up?
     
"I'm always looking for good redwood and I'm always looking for a good story," says Petros, 56, of KauKauna, Wisc., which is outside of Green Bay. "With all the history within this wood, it's a great thing."
     
Petros has so far cut 15 guitar tops from two pieces of Tunnel 13 timbers supplied by John Tepper of Eagle Point, who has a history of scrounging up wood for instrument makers. When done, the guitars will sell to the tune of $8,500 - or more depending upon what extras the new owners want, he says.
     
The sanguine saga of the D'Autremont robbery is anything but a great piece of Southern Oregon's past, but its legacy continues as a piece of 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 that day.
     
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.
     
Petros knew nothing of the D'Autremonts and Tunnel 13 when he struck up a conversation with other guitar makers at a Northern California guitar festival last summer.

As instrument makers are wont to do, they talked about good wood worthy of the time and precision of their craft. A fellow instrument maker suggested that Petros find Tepper, who supposedly had access to the exact wood Petros sought, he says.


     
For guitar tops, the wood must be of perfect vertical grain, virtually knotless or crackless, and large enough to create two pieces that are mirror images of each other. The wood also must be strong enough at 1/10th-of-an-inch thick to sustain 180 pounds of string tension, Petros says.
     
"It's hard to find good redwood," Petros says. "Anyone with good wood wants to talk to guitar makers. We'll pay a lot more for wood than anyone else."
     
Petros arranged last spring to get a test piece from Tepper. He cut three tops from that piece, then received a 56-pound redwood slab from Tepper last month, Petros says. After cleaning off soot and the charred edges, Petros was able to cut 14 tops from the slab.
     
Petros expects to build three or so more guitars for sale, then take orders for as many guitar tops as he can craft from any other Tunnel 13 wood that comes his way.
     
"I know I'll sell them," he says. "People will want them."
     
And they will want to learn more about the famous tunnel and the infamous D'Autremont boys tied to the timbers that spawned their guitars.
     
"If it was a great story and the wood sucked, it would be no big deal," Petros says. "But the wood's phenomenal. "And it's a great story," he says.
     
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)