William D. Kalt, author ‘Tucson Was a Railroad Town’
Southern Pacific (SP) rails cross the Colorado River into Arizona in 1877, changing Yuma life forever. The company’s reliance upon men and women of industry, honesty, and reliability fosters a firm community foundation in the low-slung burg. Conductors, engineers, dispatchers and all the other workers who make a railroad roll, help build a civic consciousness and add culture. Many join the ranks of elected and appointed public servants.
Along with these society stalwarts, another exceptional brethren of the railroad—its free riders, spice life in Yuma. The railroad’s creative minds and determined workers find parallels among the matchless characters who ride the rails in nomadic foray across the local division. A fascinating, at times violent, ballet of hobos, brakemen, railroad police, and the citizenry ensues.
In Arizona, free train rides begin with the inception of rail transportation. Be it circumstances or volition, some individuals view jumping freight train’s as the “only way to ride.” Lack of a regular job, a dwelling to call their own, or a guiding purpose in their lives defines many in this loose-knit group of railroad ramblers. In “hobo jungles” across the nation, a culture grows among the “freight car literati” of mostly male travelers, complete with a code of honor.
Many stories of “Wandering Willies’” and their free travel across the desert end in sadness. Around some of the breed, legends swirl along the desert rails. Few accounts prove as gripping as the sorrowful tale of Charles E. Drumgold. His speaks of a hobo gone mad for lost love. It seems, on his very first railroad trip, Drumgold “misplaces” his wife and children.
Setting out on foot west from El Paso in search of his family, Drumgold plods his love-lost heart back and forth across the desolate southern Arizona and California deserts, always refusing to ride the trains that race beside him. Through the years every railroad man from El Paso to Colton, California, grows to know him as “Desert or Arizona Charlie.”
Reports tell of Desert Charlie’s “scant clothing…tattered and torn, his shirt sleeves in shreds leaving his arms to bake and blister in the desert sun.” A small amount of money from his well-heeled brother, a San Francisco jeweler, fuels the tireless, “irreparably crazed” seeker.
Charlie asks rails along the way for tidings of his loved ones. The “kind-hearted knights of the rail pass the word on from one to another to look out for him,” notes one news report. “The decrepit, demented old man imagines he is paid to watch the railroad track and prevent wrecks.”
In January 1908, Drumgold’s brother places the beloved desert drifter into a private asylum. Shortly afterwards, reports of Desert Charlie’s death circulate along the local division. Rails mourn his passing, sure that “another strange waif of the desert” has expired.
No wonder railroader Jack Heyl threatens to “throw a fit and swear that he’d change his brand,” when he sees southern Arizona’s renowned tramp crawl out from under a Yuma freight car the following year. Debunking stories of his rumored demise, Charlie jumps to his feet and shakes the startled Heyl’s hand “as if he had never been reported dead and buried for lo, these many days,” states the report.
Good news for the SP, because in his millions of steps and countless miles that he trods through the years, Desert Charlie comes upon many potential rail accidents. Designating himself a trackwalker for the SP, Charlie saves “the Southern Pacific thousands of dollars through his news of washouts, obstructions, etc.,” the report vouches. On occasion, brakemen and other rails slip him a little money, which he accepts as part of his “salary.”
The SP fails to heed some warnings, however. During April 1899, one “Backdoor Bum” advises the railroad, to no avail, of a fire burning at the Ligurta Wash, twenty-six miles east of Yuma. Morning winds whip a hobo-started coal blaze, igniting the railroad bridge’s support trestle.
For nine hours no train approaches the burning trestle until a “mammoth” 110-ton locomotive, pulling three or four heavily loaded freight cars, crosses its fire-weakened wooden timbers.
The snorting steel behemoth dives off the track to collapse into a fiery heap in the wash. “The big engine…turned in the twinkling of an eye into a fearful agent of destruction, stood upright in the wash…with its nose jammed into the opposite bank.” Freight cars follow the engine off the track and burst into flames, killing the conductor, the fireman and two tramps. Doctors send the engineer to SP’s hospital in with severe scalding on his head, shoulders, and arms.
Tales of the railroad’s “roaming royalty,” such as Desert Charlie’s story and that of the Ligurta Wash Fire, abound in Yuma history. Some heartwarming, many tragic; each forms an element in the historical mosaic of a lifestyle outsite society’s confines.