When Arizonians think of “Arizona Charlie”, they generally reflect on “Arizona Charlie” Meadows of the “Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.” Much has been written about Mr. Meadows’ rodeo endeavors with “Buffalo Bill” Cody. A popular casino in Las Vegas is named after the man.
While Kingman is known for Andy Devine, Payson considers Charlie Meadows their most famous citizen. What most folks don’t realize is that Charlie Meadows’ name wasn’t Charles at the start, it was Abraham Henson Meadows. Abraham’s father, being a southern sympathizer, changed it to Charles at the beginning of the Civil War.
There’s another “Arizona Charlie” few have heard of. He was just as tough as Charlie Meadows, perhaps tougher, yet led a tragic and less publicized life. I stumbled across this man purely by accident.
James Charles Drumgold was born in New York City in 1850. Sometime after the Civil War, James and his older brother John headed West. John Henry Drumgold became a successful jeweler in San Francisco, while James hit the rails as a locomotive engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. James evidently preferred using his middle name, as most early newspapers refer to him as Charles Drumgold, or “Arizona Charlie”.
Details are sketchy, but sometime in Charlie’s life, his wife and daughter were killed in a railroad accident. Several articles say the train incurred a loose stretch of track between Bowie, New Mexico and Lordsburg, Texas. Initially, I was going to tell “Arizona Charlie” Drumgold’s story in my own words. An article in the November 25, 1916 Bisbee Daily Review describes things much better than I can. I’ve transcribed it in entirety complete with typos and misspellings.
FAMOUS CHARACTER “ARIZONA CHARLIE” SENT TO ASYLUM
Walked Railroad Tracks For 20 Years In Search Of Broken Rail Which Caused Death Of His Wife And Daughter.
In the Superior Court at Tombstone Thursday there appeared before Judge Lockwood and the lunacy commission, an old man, unshaven, bent and dressed at the ordinary tramp of the southwest.
He had his trunk (his gunnysack) with him as had been his custom for many years, and after due examination he was adjudged insane by the commission and was taken to Phoenix by Sheriff Harry Wheeler.
Twenty years ago James C. 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, always ready to help the needy and always had a good word for his fellow men, and was a companionable associate with all.
It was while Mr. Drumgold was on his regular daily run one day, many years ago, that he returned one night to learn that his wife and daughter had met death that day in a passenger train wreck between Bowie and Lordsburg, from a broken rail, and not a long time afterward, heartbroken by the loss of his family, his mind becoming unbalanced, he lost his job, and in his harmless state of mind he began tramping the rails out of Bowie, both east and west for several hundred miles, looking from Yuma to El Paso for broken rails that might cause another accident, such as the one in which he lost his loved ones.
In his travels from one end of the division to the other, the employees soon came to know him by the nickname of “Arizona Charlie” which he has carried all these long years until his true name was brought out at the hearing.
Not a railroad employee on the main line does not know “Arizona Charlie” and he has been the recipient of food, money and assistance from them for years, who always looked out for “Arizona Charlie.”
On his hikes, year in and year out, “Arizona Charlie” would never accept a ride proferred from the “Cons” of the fastest express or the slowest old freight but always preferred to walk and look for the broken rail still lingering in his mind. He carried with him a sack for his clothes, two frying pans, two or three small lard buckets, for his food, and a coat if he was lucky enough to get one. He camped wherever night might overtake him, always making a water tank by nightfall, and the next morning would resume his hike, regardless of an offer for a ride to the next station or the end of the division, whichever the case might be.
Contented to walk the ties with his head bent low, and eyes to the rails no one has been able to calculate how many miles of track “Arizona Charlie” has inspected, but it is known there are many. And a peculiar thing regarding his inspection trips was than whenever he did find an irregularity in the track, be it the ties, the rails, or a bridge, he would walk to the nearest section boss and report his find.
Many times the company offered to provide for the keep of “Arizona Charlie” as did a brother in California, but the offers were steadfastly refused, just as often as they were made while “Arizona Charlie,” unassisted continued his walking career year after year, over the division in search of the broken rail.
Of late, however, it has often been noticed that the old man, now bent with age, was becoming weak and feeble from exposure, and he was brought to Tombstone from Bowie, and committed to the State Hospital in Phoenix, where he will no doubt spend the remainder of his days, well provided for.
The closing chapter of the life of “Arizona Charlie” probably will never be known to many of the railroad men along the road, and it will be regretted by those who learn of his feeble condition.
He has taken his last railroad ride and many will be the engineer, fireman, conductor, and brakie who will miss the sight of the familiar form of “Arizona Charlie” walking the main line, with bent head, searching for the broken rail.
And who knows but what “Arizona Charlie” has prevented many an accident during his hundreds and thousands miles of travel, seeking the broken rail?
At the age of 76, on February 24, 1926, James “Arizona Charlie” Drumgold died in a Phoenix sanitarium. This was 10 years after he was admitted. Death certificate listed his occupation as “Track Walker.” Eight years previous, older brother John passed away in California. “Arizona Charlie” Drumgold is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery.