We have all read stories of phantom railroad conductors seen walking down old railroad tracks waving a lighted lantern to signal an oncoming train, or tales of a deceased engineer alerting someone of appending danger farther down the deserted track. But what if you are forever roaming a stretch of railroad line because you believed it was your duty to protect railroad passengers and to see that they arrive to their destinations?
James Charles Drumgold was considered one of the best locomotive engineers of the Southern Pacific system, and was well liked by all of his fellow employees for his good disposition. He was always ready to help with the needy and always had a good word for his fellow men.
One night in 1896, while Mr. Drumgold was on his regular daily run, he returned home and learned his wife and daughter had died in a passenger train accident. The tragedy occurred somewhere between Bowie, Arizona and Lordsburg, New Mexico due to a broken rail. Heartbroken by the loss of his loved ones, his mind become unbalanced. He lost his job, and in his harmless state of mind, he began tramping the rails out of Bowie. He walked both east and west for several hundred miles, looking from Yuma, Arizona to El Paso, Texas for broken rails that might cause another accident such as the one in which he lost his family.
His life’s work would be of a self-appointed track-walker. Back and forth, a solitary sentry, he walked his lonely post. The railroad workers nicknamed him “Arizona Charlie”. Every railroad employee on the main line knew “Arizona Charlie” and took care of his daily needs.
“Arizona Charlie” never accepted rides offered of the fastest express or the slowest of freight trains. He preferred to walk and look for the broken rail still lingering in his mind. He carried with him a sack for his clothes, frying pans, two small lard buckets for his food, and his coat. He camped near the rails, and always managed to make a water tank by nightfall. The next morning he would resume his hike to the next station or the end of the division.
Contented to walk the ties with his head bent low and eyes to the rails, no one has ever been able to calculate how many miles of track “Arizona Charlie” inspected, but is known they are many. During his inspection “Arizona Charlie” would report any irregularity in the track, be it the ties, the rails, or a bridge, to the nearest section boss. Nothing escaped his keen eye.
Many times the company offered to provide for the keep of “Arizona Charlie” but the offers were refused just as often as they were made. He persistently continued his walking tour for more than twenty years. Engineers would lean from the cab window and blast the whistle as the train neared a lone man walking along the right of way. The man in the car waved and the man on foot answered the signal as the gleaming coaches swept past him.
Legend states that one spring the Gila River was flooding. Swollen water ways carried more than their load from the mountain watersheds and ran over the bank. Roads were washed out and the traffic slowed on the railway as washouts were reported.
Engine men were worried as they rolled their heavy train loads along the line. Gila Bend, Mohawk and Wellton station managers were talking about the unusual rise of water and possibilities of accidents. Bridge foremen, wet and tired, went without sleep as they checked along the route for failing culverts and trestles. The downpour of rain continued as the muddy waters of the Gila rolled toward the Colorado.
“Arizona Charlie”, his clothing wet and muddy, stomped along the track near Wellton, Arizona. He was cold and hungry but knew he must not stop. He came to a place where the track crossed a roaring wash rolling toward the Gila River. He started over the trestle but drew back. He felt it sway under his feet. He watched as the structure shook from the impact of rolling rock. He knew from his twenty years of experience, the long trestle would soon go out.
The water was pouring over the ties as Charlie started over the shaky trestle. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the eastward bound train was due. He must reach Wellton before the train. Once over the trestle, he began to run—slipping and staggering along the center of the track. Dripping wet and gasping for breath, he staggered into the operator’s office in Wellton. He told his story. The trestle was going out, it wouldn’t hold the train: the train must be stopped.
The east-bound thundered into a sliding halt as the semaphore arm flashed to red. The engineer leaned from his cab and the conductor trotted forward along the side of the train to find the reason for the unscheduled stop. The trestle was gone! “Arizona Charlie” had prevented a terrible accident.
Later the old man became bent with age, and was becoming weak and feeble from exposure. He was brought to Tombstone from Bowie. After a hearing in the Superior Court in Tombstone where he appeared before the judge and the lunacy commission, “Arizona Charlie” was committed to the State Hospital in Phoenix where he spent the remainder of his days.
The closing chapter of the life “Arizona Charlie” probably will never be known to many of the railroad men along the tracks. He had taken his last railroad ride and many engineers, conductors, and brakemen missed the sight of the familiar form of “Arizona Charlie” walking the train line with bent head searching for the broken rail.
Who knows how many times “Arizona Charlie” prevented an accident during his hundreds and thousands mile walks along the rails. If you see what looks like an old man along the tracks in the desert—wave—it could be old “Arizona Charlie” still protecting today’s Amtrak travelers.
Note: James Charles Drumgold died at the Arizona State Hospital in Phoenix, AZ on 24 Feb 1926. He was 76 years old.
Photo with story is “Arizona Debe” posing on the tracks along the Missouri River in 1972.