Silent Sentinel

Tucson celebrates the 129th anniversary of the railroad's arrival with a vintage piece of equipment gone high-tech

Tucson native Jim Staggs has a simple wish for his 80th birthday, on March 19: "I want to be remembered as a retired railroad man," he declares.

From 1947 to 1950, Staggs worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company and vividly recalled his experiences in a 1999 book entitled Semaphores and Desert Rails.

He was hired at the downtown train station on Toole Avenue and began as a cook's helper. He was first stationed outside of Phoenix and wound up spending much of his time with the railroad in Aztec, located between Yuma and Gila Bend.

"There wasn't much there," Staggs chuckles as he remembers Aztec, "maybe only one or two families. A guy ran a little gas station/country store and had a baseball field, and we went to Dateland for excitement. There wasn't a whole lot to do stuck out in the middle of the desert somewhere."

After a year or so on the job, Staggs became an assistant signalman. His new work included rewiring and painting railroad signals, as well as stringing wire between the signal poles along the tracks. This work also involved maintaining the semaphores--used to notify locomotive crews about other trains on the line--spaced about one mile apart.

"The semaphores were signals for the protection of train traffic running both ways on one track," Staggs says about the tall metal devices, "so (the trains) wouldn't smack into one another or rear-end somebody, especially in areas with a lot of traffic."

First used in England in the 1840s, a semaphore is a large pole with electrically operated 4-foot "arms" and colored lights attached at the top. Depending upon the position of the "arms" and color of the lights, a train was given a signal: stop, or clear.

Introduced in the United States early in the 20th century, semaphores remained in use for decades until replaced by the light signals which are employed today.

In his book, Staggs writes poetically of semaphores.

"They were aesthetically pleasing to the eye," he reflects. "Everything from the ornate Victorian pinnacle, to the spectacles holding the bright colored (glass) roundels, to the movement of the arms, they were an art form in motion and grace."

Staggs also vividly recalls long trains made up of cold cars, carrying fruit, speeding by his work crew.

"You could stand by the track as they swept past," he writes, "and smell the ripe fruit filling your nostrils as the salty water from the melting ice dripped down onto the ties."

Staggs was drafted into the Army in 1950, and the injuries he suffered while in the military prevented him from returning to railroad work.

After his retirement in 1987, Staggs resumed railroading, in a fashion: He took up railroad history as a hobby, got into model railroading and was a member (as was I) of the Locomotive No. 1673 Task Force, which helped cosmetically restore Tucson's last steam engine, and relocate it to the train depot.

"The thing I miss most about the railroad," Staggs says almost 60 years after his employment with Southern Pacific, "is the people."

At least one of the semaphores that once stood as a silent sentinel along the Southern Pacific line will soon make an appearance in town--and the almost-century-old piece of equipment will now be solar-powered.

The circa-1925 semaphore--from Dixie, located west of Phoenix--was donated by the Union Pacific Railroad Company to the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, located at the depot.

"It was a five-year project," says Ken Karrels, president of the museum's board, about obtaining and restoring the semaphore. "It's one of only a handful in the state which is (still) operational."

Karrels credits retired railroader Henry Zappia, along with Staggs, for making the installation of the semaphore possible.

"I'd like to leave the signal as a legacy to the time when they were still used," says Staggs.

The semaphore will be dedicated on March 20. Staggs will also sign copies of the second edition of his book, priced at $32.95.

"Ken kept badgering me to do it, so I finally gave in," Staggs says about his revised book, which has a few more pictures and some other changes in it. Proceeds will support the museum.

As for the railroad life he left behind almost six decades ago, Staggs reminisces: "It's a lost life you don't see anymore. The railroad has changed, along with everything else."