Arizona Myths and Legends: The Lost Patrolman and the Vanished Boys of the Santa Fe Rail

Credit: Erik Glaser

This is part 2 in a series on Arizona’s Lost Patrolman hauntings.

Before Route 66, there was the Santa Fe Line. It was the main route by which people could ferry themselves between America’s crowded Midwest and its exploding California coast. Arizona was little more than a stopover for most of these people, an empty curiosity on their way to somewhere else.

The Santa Fe Line.

And it was here in 1924 that one of the oddest stories attributed to the Lost Patrolman took place. The story was not quite murder, as no bodies were ever found, and yet an examination of the tale leads one to conclude that regardless of the truth of the Patrolman himself something awful must have been afoot on that fateful train in October of 1924.

Although the Patrolman had been spotted on and off since at least 1911, these sightings were confined to his former routes along the General Crook trail near the Rim, or in the depths of the forests. Numerous lumberjacks and cattle ranchers swapped stories of an odd fellow watching them from a distance, typically at dusk, yet sometimes at dawn. What sets the 1924 incident apart is not only did it occur far from the territory of General Crook’s military campaigns, but also that it happened in both broad daylight and the dead of night.

We have, thankfully, a newspaper article from the Flagstaff Gazette which goes some depth into the story, to ground us in real history. When combined with local folklore from around the area, especially amongst regional oldtimers, the picture emerges in a more complete form.

In October 1924, a Santa Fe rail carriage comprised of five passenger cars was on its typical route between Chicago and Los Angeles. This was a long journey, and the passengers had endured hardships and boredom as they made their path across the country. It was especially difficult for young children, who had little room to run and play in the crowded passenger cars. As it happened, this particular train had three families on three different cars, each with boys of roughly 10 years of age. They were all families of modest means, destined for the dockyards or factories of Los Angeles, hoping to restart their fortunes in California, like so many hoping to take advantage of the economic upswing.

At the Winslow stop, passengers noted the arrival of a man wearing out-of-fashion clothes, and speaking politely, if oddly out of sync with the times. No one thought anything of it at the moment, and even his golden-lined cavalry pants seemed to be a sad testament to a backwoods Arizona farmer down on his luck and unable to afford anything but his grandfather’s clothes. Although he generally spent time alone, he was seen neither drinking nor smoking, and so raised few suspicions. Several passengers did remark that, as the train left Winslow, it began to smell of pine ash, although this was attributed to a distant fire wafting through the train windows.

After the passenger was picked up towards the end of the day, the train passed through Flagstaff somewhere in the deep night, as its overnight journey would see it race towards Los Angeles in a mere day. But when dawn broke somewhere in California, it was met with the cries of three families who were missing their children. A full search of the train turned up nothing overtly suspicious, save strange piles of ash placed in odd places, which the crew swore had not been there the day prior. The train delayed itself two days at Barstow as the local authorities conducted a full investigation into the missing boys. But since no blood was found, nor witnesses came forward, the police eventually concluded that the boys had, in fact, either engaged in a dangerous daredevil game that had seen them fall off the train to their doom, or had chosen to abscond from their families somewhere in the night, as boys sometimes were wont to do.

The families had little means to carry out a further investigation than that, and so were forced on to their destination with this less than satisfactory official explanation. Yet their story stirred up interest amongst a journalist on the train, who was going to Los Angeles on holiday, and it was he who put together the details that implied that there was far more than simple runaways or foolish pranks at work here.

This journalist, Thomas Hemsworth, had chosen to live a life of semi-retirement after years in Chicago’s printing presses, and ran Flagstaff’s Gazette more as a hobby than a profession. Yet upon hearing of the grief of these families, he decided to conduct a deeper investigation, and began with an obvious source: just who was the man who joined them at Winslow, and why hadn’t anyone seen him since the night the boys disappeared?

Such an obvious detail should not have escaped the police, yet the railroad’s haste to move on, combined with the modest means of the families in question, had seemingly conspired to produce a shallow report which absolved the rail of responsibility and allow the other passengers to continue towards their destination. Hemsworth’s own investigation discovered that several passengers had serious doubts as to the truth of the official narrative.

He learned, for instance, that two passengers had had an extended conversation with the Winslow man, who had professed ignorance of truly remarkable things, including the current president, the great war only a few years past, and modern marvels such as the electric lamp and radio. Yet at the time it seemed a sad encounter with a backwoods hillbilly, not something nefarious, for Arizona’s reputation, only so recently a state, was not much amongst those who traveled through it.

Every passenger reported the same smell of burning pine, and presumed that it was just the state’s natural aroma, or that the train had switched its fuel type, and yet careful investigation by Hemsworth revealed there were no fires at the time, and the train ran on coal, not lumber. Even tracking down the conductor, he found him at a loss to explain the smell, which had never occurred before or since in the man’s career.

It turned out, as well, that one of the boys was from a deeply cloistered religious family, who did not easily let him out of their sight. To have him befriended two strange boys — and then run away with them! — struck Hemsworth as absurd. The other boys were seen running about together, but they too had met on the train, and were from entirely different states.

Moreover, the conductor swore that the cars were sealed at night, for the very reason of children slipping over the side and under the train wheels.

Yet none of that turned out to be as compelling a case for a Lost Patrolman sighting than what Hemsworth found upon his return to Flagstaff some months later. Having compiled what he believed to be a dossier that pointed to murder by a drifting hillbilly, he was shocked to discover that the talk of the town amongst the train drivers was a near-fatal train accident along the very track where the boys had disappeared. Here, a driver riding the rails at midnight had seen, as had his engineer, three boys standing in the middle of the railroad, motionless and staring directly forward. The driver had slammed the brakes and thrown many of his passengers about, only to watch in disbelief as the boys simply vanished from his eyes as the train neared. They had stopped in time, but had damaged the train quite badly, and had moreover knocked about passengers so badly that one’s head was concussed and bleeding.

Yet the story did not end there, as the driver swore, as did the engineer, that as they stepped out to inspect the damage, they saw the boys again! But this time they were standing at the treeline, and behind them a figure stood, about six feet tall, and as the driver turned his lantern on them he could see the golden stripes of cavalry upon his pants. They turned and faced away from the driver as he called out to them, and then, in a report unanimously corroborated by passengers and crew, he found himself overwhelmed with a burst of hot air and the smell of fire. But as it was still only April, and well before fire season, this led to such a level of unease that the driver decided to make a full report at the next station in Williams.

Hemsworth, a natural skeptic, found the story incredulous, until the rumors of the three boys and the man continued to trickle in every few weeks or months, especially on midnight trains. Deciding to test the gossip for himself, Hemsworth began taking the passenger route between Flagstaff and Williams each night as close to midnight as he could find. On October 26, 1926, Hemsworth wrote the following article for his Gazette:

“I have wondered about the mystery of the Santa Fe Three for two years now, and as we have just passed their bianniversary I thought it fitting to ride the very line they were said to have disappeared on. I have done so many times, hoping to verify the rumors of their haunting the rails, as I have heard over many a stiff whiskey from a frightened railwayman, yet in my many experiments I have seen nothing — until, that is, now!

At approximately midnight, as we were coming around the halfway point between Flagstaff and Williams, the train became overpowered with the smell of fire. This was my first cue to rush to the front of the train and warn the driver of what was to come. Yet by the time I arrived they had already made plans, and told me calmly that they would not stop the train regardless of obstacle until they had safely passed Williams. ‘Safely?’ I inquired. ‘What danger is between such small places?’ And to this they both replied, ‘The Devil himself.’

Though taken aback by their superstition in our modern age, I was nevertheless grateful for their collected attitudes as they glanced out the windows. As it so happened, this was of great value, for at 11:49 PM — I was watching my clock religiously — we saw, at a distance, three figures standing on the rail. To stop was still possible, and for a moment I almost advised them to do so! Yet I remembered their calm warnings, and knew that stopping would be a terrible danger to us all. In spite of all my instincts as a father and a man, we plunged forward until the three figures — three boys — were nearly underneath us. But as we passed through them, it was as if we were hitting a wall of fog, accompanied by the odor of pine burning in the wind. Nothing else of note occurred on the way to Williams.”

The smell of fire would inspire terror in Hemsworth from then on. Not long after his October midnight ride, a great wildfire, very late in the season, swept outside of Williams, and caught a rancher unaware and took his life. The sightings of the boys then began to gradually decrease, until at last conductors forgot the story and lost their fear of the Williams-Flagstaff leg of their long continental journey.

That may too have been the product of slipping passenger numbers, as Route 66 began to replace the Santa Fe railway as the main method of getting from the Midwest to the Pacific. But as the boys slipped from memory, one more incident, in 1967, resulted in a pile up of trucks and cars along Route 66 just outside of Williams. Four drivers were killed, and many were injured, after a Pontiac, whose driver survived, swerved across the highway at dusk, slamming into an oncoming Chevy, whose driver did not survive. When asked why, the Pontiac driver insisted he had seen three boys standing in the road, and had swerved to avoid them. A deputy responding to the scene reported, too, a figure watching the accident at a distance near the treeline, wearing golden lined pants as it turned away when confronted.