LJ Booth the road that leads me home

One of the finest guitar builders in the whole country lives an hour east of me.  Bruce Petros has that amazing combination of talents for both…being a great engineer, and also, being a great artist/designer.  But don’t just take my word for it.  ACOUSTIC GUITAR magazine, this year, named him the gold medal winner in the independent builder’s category.

Last year, he emailed me, out of the blue…and made me a once in a lifetime offer.  Seems he had come across some amazing old-growth redwood (see THE HIDDEN TREASURE OF TUNNEL 13 story…just ahead), which was also connected to some amazing history...namely, the last train robbery in the USA, October 11th, 1923.

He had decided to build a limited edition series of TUNNEL 13 guitars…all with tops (soundboards) made from these old beams.

His offer was…if I would write a song about that rich combination of wood and history, he would make me a very good deal on the first one off the line.  When I came out of shock…I said “yes”.

For the next six months, when I came home from my carpentry work, I’d go straight to his website, and his photo gallery. It was the place he’d show the progress, stage by stage, of this (my) guitar being built.  I’ve added a link to that gallery here, so you too can follow the process…from charred 14" by 16" beam…to beautiful and ornate (both visually and aurally) guitar.

I was researching in the evenings, google-ing my way through the Siskiyou Mountains, and google-ing back through time.  The redwoods that were used for those beams (and now, my guitar), had been around since before the great wall in China.  I had no idea that an adult redwood tree transports hundreds of gallons of water, EVERY DAY, up though it’s trunk.  The only thing that pulls the water up the tree is the power of transpiration that it’s crown exerts from above.

When I read about the train robbery itself, it seemed like the replay of so many tragic historical events: the dream of notoriety, the mistakes, the poor planning…the loss of life for no reason other than greed.  Most of the articles and books focused on the robbers, but I was more interested in what actually happened in the local community.  How did they heal and go on? 

After coming up with a musical arrangement with my buddy, Justin Roth…I wrote the lyrics to THE SISKIYOU LINE: which lies within. Bruce also made a YouTube video of the song, with images that tie in with the history and the luthier connection.

If you’d like to see more of the amazing guitars that Bruce and his son Matt put out…visit their website. The TUNNEL 13 is only a partial view into the amazing work they do.

I wasn’t unhappy with the guitar I’ve had for the last ten years.  But my new guitar is the one I travel with now.  It’s tonal range is rich and expressive in ways that go beyond explainable, for me.  And, the surreal thing that I can say now, when people ask…is, “I got it for a song”.

Thanks…to the Petros.

by Jim Rizza

1880-1890 – The Treasure is Hidden

As Southern Pacific Railroad’s Tunnel 13 at Oregon’s Siskiyou Pass is completed in 1887, a treasure is hidden inside.  The treasure is unseen. It is unseen because no one yet realizes it is a treasure.  The railroad men, still laboring to open the Western regions of a vibrant, young United States, drenched in the riches of its own, incredible, natural resources, take the treasure for granted. It is the 1880’s and the country is intoxicated by the spectacular growth that treasures, like the one “hidden” in Tunnel 13, are making possible.

As the construction of Tunnel 13 was underway, history was being made across the land. The West was being tamed.  Sheriff Pat Garrett kills the infamous Billy the Kid, charged with 21 murders. The Earps shoot it out with the Clantons at the OK Corral.  Jesse James is shot in the back by Robert Ford.  Geronimo and Sitting Bull surrender to the U.S. military after years of courageous resistance.  In the space of just twelve months, white buffalo hunters virtually eradicate the North American bison.  Vaudeville comes into vogue.  The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, arrives in New York.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt is born. Coca-Cola is a brand new soft drink hit. The first phonograph and incandescent lamp are invented by Thomas Edison.

The country’s railroads played a key role in the great expansion of the U.S. By the end of the 1880’s the journey Lewis and Clark made from St. Charles, Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia River that took two and a half years could be done by train in nine days.

It was in the midst of this exciting decade that the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Tunnel 13 at the Siskiyou Pass was completed with a treasure placed within that lay hidden in plain view for nearly 120 years.

The Treasure’s Origin

Construction of Tunnel 13 on the Siskiyou rail line was started in 1884 by Henry Villard’s Oregon & California Railroad.  But when the O&C fell on hard financial times, the Southern Pacific Railroad took over, completing the tunnel in 1887.

The chief engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad was William Hood. Hood was the architect of the 3,108 foot long Tunnel 13. He specified tall, heavy, timber shoring to safely support the roof of the tunnel.

In the 1880’s, virgin, slow-growth Redwood was still plentiful. Over 400 saw mills operated on the northern California and southern Oregon coasts to cut the massive, 2,500 year old, Redwood tree trunks harvested there into usable wood.  The gigantic trees were turned into incredibly fine lumber, timber beams and, as inconceivable as it seems today, even railroad ties. Coastal California Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens) was selected for the shoring timber of Tunnel 13. Each timber was milled into 16” x 14” beams.

The Treasure Witnesses The Last Great American Train Robbery

Tunnel 13 was made famous when it became the site of the so-called Last Great American Train Robbery. On October 11, 1923, Southern Pacific’s Train 13, the Gold Special, pulling 13 cars, stopped at Tunnel 13, as was the standard practice at the time, to test its brakes before heading down the steep slope that lay on the other side.  There, the Gold Special was boarded by the three DeAutremont brothers - 19 year old Hugh and 23 year old twins Ray and Roy. 

The DeAutremonts had lived in the forest nearby for nearly two months refining a plan to rob the Gold Special of the $50,000 rumored to be on board.  Jesse James was a hero for these three young men.  They had voraciously read accounts of James’ train robberies and aimed to place themselves along side Jesse James in the annuls of American folklore.

Their carefully laid plans went completely awry when U.S. mail clerk Elvyn Dougherty, locked inside the mail car of the Gold Special, refused to let the would-be robbers in.  After Dougherty ignored several warnings, Roy set a dynamite charge to blow open the mail car door.  Owing to Roy’s complete inexperience with dynamite, the charge he set was much, much too large.  The resulting, massive explosion demolished the mail car, killed Dougherty and destroyed most of the contents.  If there had been any money on Southern Pacific’s Gold Special that day, it was destroyed by the DeAutremonts themselves.

In the ensuing fire, smoke and confusion, their plan completely in shambles, no money to be had, the panicked DeAutremonts killed the Southern Pacific veteran engineer Sidney Bates, 23 year old fireman Marvin Seng and brakeman Coyle Johnson.  The brothers then raced off into the mountains on foot.  Their painstakingly crafted plan to pull off the Last Great American Train Robbery had turned into cold blooded murder committed in a badly botched hold up.  The DeAutremonts got away without a penny.  They were running for their lives, fleeing in the face of the stark reality that the posses pursuing them, largely made up of railroad men, would surely lynch them if they were caught.

The brothers managed to elude capture for 4 years despite what was described at the time as the largest, worldwide manhunt in U.S. history.  In 1927, all were caught and sent to the Oregon State Penitentiary.

The Redwood timbers of Tunnel 13 were there to hear it all.

The Hidden Treasure Discovered

Eighty years later, on November 17, 2003, transients huddle in Tunnel 13 trying to stay warm. A fire is built. It gets out of hand. Some of the timbers are set ablaze. Part of the old tunnel collapses two days later.

The Siskiyou rail line by now only serviced a couple of freight trains a day. The colorful years of countless, picturesque, steam locomotives pulling untold numbers of passengers through Tunnel 13 were gone – the era of the “Great Iron Horse” passed.  But the Siskiyou line was still valuable. Freight could be moved south 5 to 8 days faster through the Siskiyous than via the longer, Eugene route. So, the decision was made to rebuild the tunnel.

The Coastal California Redwood timbers of Tunnel 13 were put up for salvage.  They were replaced by steel reinforced, concrete pillars to support the roof of the old tunnel.  One by one the Redwood timbers were pulled out, covered with 120 year’s worth of soot and dirt.  They had served well for those 120 years, but now, their time standing silently in Tunnel 13 was at an end.  They were not much to look at.  The hidden treasure of Tunnel 13, unceremoniously piled in an ungainly heap, still went unrecognized. 

Then, an enterprising instrument wood sawyer who heard about the Redwood taken from Tunnel 13 had a hunch.  One of the timbers was cleaned up and a section was sent to luthier Bruce Petros, founder of Petros Guitars. What Petros discovered was absolutely remarkable.  A cross section cut revealed incredibly fine-grained, virgin Redwood - Redwood that was alive when the Roman Empire ruled the world, alive even before the Chinese began building their Great Wall.  The timbers of Tunnel 13 were discovered to have been hewn from native, slow-growth, Sequoia Sempervirens (Sequoia – from the Cherokee Indian chief Sequoyah, and sempervirens - from the Latin meaning "always green”). The trees were most likely harvested on the southern coast of Oregon.

Trees that grow slowly produce closely spaced rings that result in very fine, straight-grained wood. Native, old-growth, Redwood forests, which are very shady, force new trees to grow slowly, straight up toward the soft, shimmering light that barely seeps through the forest’s canopy hundreds of feet above.  Trees growing in young, open forests, on the other hand, grow more quickly, thus producing trees with widely spaced rings.  This is typical of the Redwood available today.  Wood milled from new-growth Redwood trees, therefore, generally has much coarser grain.

It was immediately clear that the Redwood taken from Tunnel 13 was truly remarkable. Nothing like it exists any more outside of the few, remaining, native Redwood forests protected from logging. This extraordinarily rare wood, that stood silently in Tunnel 13 for 120 years, air drying, absorbing the sounds of the thousands of trains and hundreds of thousands of people that passed beneath, was ready to have its voice released at last.

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