Eugene Francis Phelan

Needles Santa Fe Depot



10/07/1891  to  9/25/1976

Gene Phelan was born in Albuquerque New Mexico in 1891. He made his first Wagon Train trip at a year old, was a Deputy Sheriff, drove buckboards, stage coaches and led mule trips down the Grand Canyon. He served as a Special Officer for the Santa Fe Railroad … wore a badge, carried a gun, escorted prisoners, and was a legend to his Grandkids!

The Unloaded Gun That Went Off!!

It was a warm summer afternoon up in the mountains.  Dad was sitting on a bench in front of the cabin and as usual had his seven adoring kids in a semi circle in front of him, watching as he cleaned his rifle. He liked to used examples to teach us and was explaining the different parts and he told us a gun was always considered loaded no mater how broken down it was. Emily being more curious, leaned forward to look down the barrel of the gun and Dad was quick to tell her to get back. No sooner had she drawn back and the rifle went off! It was terrifying for Dad but a very well placed lesson for all of us. We never forgot that a gun is always loaded!

by Ruth

Emily's version was slightly different, saying that when the gun went off - it sheared some of her hair and that Dad was so shaken, he got up throwing the gun down and took a long hike!

The Coveted Paper Ring

by Suzi Dewsnap Terrell

Gene's Granddaughter


The Santa Fe Park is like an oasis in the desert – the crown jewel of Needles, so it was a real privilege for the four of us to go and greet my Grandpa Gene there at the station, especially since his busy schedule didn’t always match with our free (meaning being out of school) time.  Meeting him where he worked was also the only time we got to see him in action or at least in uniform – for he was a Special Officer on the Santa Fe railroad - he wore a badge and carried a gun.

One of the best parts of seeing the park other than my grandpa, was all the ‘green’ of the lawn and playing under the cool of the huge fan palm trees.  The station took up a whole town block and the El Garces building was an architectural work of art, so the adults said.  The depot was very luxurious with fancy intricate wood work and carvings.  I loved this place, and even though the Harvey House Restaurant which occupied the building for years was no longer functioning, it was still fun to look through the windows imagining all the diners, and wonder where they were going.  I fantasized where I would go and who I’d meet, and of course there was invariably a handsome boy involved in my dreams – always and forever named Johnny.

The Harvey Girls as the waitresses were referred to, were so prim and proper with white starched uniforms, tablecloths and napkins … things quite foreign to our house.  It was like watching the rich and famous from the outside in.  And then of course there was the cannon!  That was the really really exciting part.  It was from WWl and when it wasn’t scalding out, we could actually climb all over it, but today it was Hot in Needles and we would have scorched ourselves touching it.  But I always liked reading the plaque.

“Oh, come on, it’s not that hot!” I’d call as I ran towards it.  But brother Willy (that’s what I usually called him, unless he was being mean or trying to scare me) just kept on going.

“You just like to show off.  There’s no one around who cares or to impressed today!” he said going off towards the depot.  Still I read it – out loud:

The Needles War Memorial was dedicated in the Santa Fe Park on November 11, 1935 and erected under the supervision of the Needles American Legion Post with funds raised following World War 1. The U.S. 4.7-Inch Gun was the heavy field gun of U.S. Field Artillery at the beginning of World War I. Only sixty guns were available when America entered the war in 1917, far fewer than required to support the massive expansion of the U.S. Army. A total of only 48 arrived in France during the war. The Allies did not use the same ammunition, so every round had to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. This gun was obtained tram the Army Arsenal at Rock Island, Illinois. Two hundred seventy-eight men and one woman from Needles went to serve the nation. Eight men died in the service and many more suffered wounds.

Years later in the late 1950’s a couple of high school kids put something inside the gun and fired her off.  Boy I’ll bet they got in trouble for that one … “if” they ever got caught!  It was sealed up shortly after and a fence put around it.

The park used to be a lot cooler … I mean cool like really bitchen (oops forgot I can’t say that word!) but you know what I mean.  The passenger trains use to lay over for 3-hour rest stops so the folks could eat at the Harvey House or shop out on the lawn where the local Mojave Indians set up their beadwork, looms and pottery for sale.  Now the Harvey Girls have gone on to other places and the trains keep on going to towns more blessed by the company, so the Indians stay home.

But I remember when my Grandma Nellie came from New York once, she bought me a little fancy beaded bag made with beautiful colors in a native design that I dearly treasured, but accidently broke soon after when playing.  I swung it at my kid sister trying to keep her away from my ‘Johnny’ doll.  He was the twin brother to her ‘Billy’ doll that we got one Christmas.  They were so real looking that old ladies would stop us to coo over what they thought were actual babies.   They were hard plasticky rubber that had a wonderful kind of baby powderish smell to them, and when my purse hit his head, beads went flying everywhere.  It was hard to keep it from my mom even though I begged and tried to bribe my sister, for the beads had flung high and wide going in and under too many things to pick each one up.  I knew if she found even a single bead, I’d be in deep trouble.  Besides Emy, the ‘kid’ as I called her, told on me as soon as mom got home.  It would have been worse if she’d just got mad – even really really mad, but instead - she cried!  And oh man that made me feel a gazillion times worse.

“I’m gonna be the first to spy the train!” said my sister Cathy as she bounded off to the burning heat of the tracks.  My brother came around from the center of the depot where the big fountain was, sucking on a sharp chip of ice, smirking of course because he did NOT bring us one.  So off we ran to catch the ice cart before it was wheeled off to be refilled with one of those 300 pounder blocks.  It sure was nice of Santa Fe to give out those free chips, otherwise the easterners might faint from heatstroke!   They left a cart at either end of the station where you could help yourself by using the icepick left inside.  There was also a big thermometer by each one to give you the ‘official’ temperature to make you feel even more appreciative of the ice.  Today’s high so far read 115~.

“Hey … are ya all new?” I asked the young iceman, feigning a poor imitation of a southern accent and drawled on “Oh my, I do declare I’m going to faint dead away!” dramatically putting my hand to my brow. “What’s your name?”

“Johnny” he says.  Oh my!  I really was going to faint now!  Is this ‘my’ future beau Johnny, standing right in front of me?  He looked at me kind of funny when I repeated his name – but then corrected me.

“It’s TOMMY” he said closing the lid and handing me my chip.  Well I really wilted with that disappointment.

“Are you meeting your grandpa?  I know he’s due in today from Seligman.” he asked.  Dang!  I didn’t fool him for a minute with my southern belle act. Everybody knew Gene Phelan and therefore all of us by default!  Conductors did, engineers, ticket salesmen and I’m sure ALL the Harvey Girls did when they were here.  They were probably all in love with him for he was very good looking, for a grandpa anyways.  I’ll bet he always had smile for them plus, after all, he was very important - he wore a badge and carried a gun.

He escorted prisoners, tossed hobos off and lots of other exciting things that I didn’t know about.  Well, he didn’t exactly ‘throw’ the hobos off, just kindly ‘invited’ them to get off at the next stop but told them where they might get a free meal if they followed the signs.  Did you know they had a whole mess of symbols that were kind of like codes directing fellow hobos to friendly places or warning them to stay-way from others?  My grandpa wrote them out to show us one time.  He was going to draw one of a cat on a board which meant ‘kindlywoman’ and nail on his fence post once, but grandma said he wouldn’t have a fence to nail one to if he did that!  Oh, she didn’t mind handing out a cup of soup and piece of bread every now and then, but she ordered them around so much, I’m surprise they stayed.  “Wash your hands first, clean up that mess, chop some kindling. She was Boss-ie!!”

Soon the heat made rivers run down our arms from the melting ice but it sure was coolin’.   The heat also brought up the overpowering smell of the creosote.  Baby sister always held her nose, but I loved it!  It somehow smelled like adventure to me … of places the train would someday take me.  So, no matter the time of day or temperature we’d still dance those heat waves, anticipating the rumble while trying to be the first to see the tiny image as it came closer.

“Here it comes!!!” Cathy yelled.

We instinctively moved towards the station away from the rails, waiting in the cool of the grass beneath the shadow of the trees, knowing we were not to run towards him, unless he were alone.   It came screeching and belching to a stop.  Then, out from the steam he would emerge - a giant figure in blue, his boot firmly planted as it hit the steel step, and there he’d be.  There was a hint of a glare off his badge, glinting as he turned towards us.   We stayed, if no one stepped out of the red cab with him, we were free to go, but if a man came walking with him, we paid close attention to whether granddad would just give us a professional nod and keep on going or stop and introduce us as he sometimes did.  If he stopped then we knew the man wasn’t dangerous and granddad just wanted to show him a little kindness and treat him as a person, and not just a convict.  We were given strict orders not to stare at the handcuffs or ask questions – just be polite and say Hello.  When this happened, the men seem to straighten taller and smile broader.  Looking back, it seemed like they’d been given a rare treat.  Only after his business was done and he’d handed off his prisoner, did we run to greet him proper.

We walked in his shadow, chatting noisily, each vying to be close or grasp his big hand.  Before crossing the street he’d always stop, as was part of the custom, our signal to quiet down, anticipating his next move. As sweat tricked down our brow he’d cautiously reached inside his jacket.  Ever so painfully slow he unwrapped his cigar and bit off the end, spitting it out while careful not to meet our eyes, calculating which one of us was next in line.  An impish grin spread across his face when with a slight of hand, the treasured prize was slipped from its place, suspended in air as he looked from one to the other, and then the coveted ring was bestowed on the chosen one.   Oh man the winner would shout as if it were made of gold!  We younger ones would dance around showing it off, but even my brother who was the oldest, would give a smug smile if it were his to keep.

Continuing across the street under the baking sun, we’d welcome those corner doors where the cool air hit us, as did the smells of cheap perfumes, barber tonics and tobacco - all mixed together with burgers and fries.

“Hey Gene” came the calls from the back stools at the soda shop.

We jockeyed around each vying for a place next him, pouting if we were the ones elbowed out, relegated to the end seats.   Sulking, I somehow knew these old rail men needed him as much as we did, so we gave them their time knowing we’d get ours on the way home.  I’d pout though, sneaking a peek from the crook of my elbow where I laid my head, content to wait out the migration of men as they out yarned and slapped each other on the back thinking, this man, was a hero to them … as he was to us.  After all, he did wear a badge and carried a gun.

Both Emily and Ruth remember Granddad bringing Will Rogers home for a visit or two when he would travel through Seligman (Az)


Remembering her Father

Eugene Francis Phelan, as told by Emily his oldest daughter, was born in Albuquerque, NM. He went to school in Belen, now, a suburb to Albuquerque to the Sisters of Charity of Loretta, commonly known as the Lorettas. I do not know how old he was when his family moved to Needles, CA. His father owned and operated a meat market in Needles. His family also lived in Flagstaff, AZ. As a young man, Dad worked at the Grand Canyon, taking tours into the Canyon via mule train. He also worked at the College in Flagstaff, called the Normal School at that time. It was during this period of his life that he met Mother. She told a cute little story about Dad. He picked Mother her friend Ruth Duncan up one evening as they were leaving the Post Office and took them back to the College. At a later date he asked Mother if she would like to go for a ride to the mountains to see the “Teddy Bears”. Mother had some second thoughts at this point because she knew “teddy bears” only as a type of women’s underwear. However, I believe this little ride was probably close to the beginning of their dating time.

Mom and Dad were married on New Years Day,1924, in the rectory parlor because Mom was non-Catholic and they were not allowed to hold mixed marriages in the Church. I think this was a painful point for Mom, judging by the manner in which she talked about when telling me. Dad became a Deputy Sheriff in Flagstaff. I do not know when he took this job but held it until he moved the family to Phoenix after Gene was born. As a Sheriff, he frequently visited the men held in jail. He liked to take Ruth and me with him, believing that it was good for the men to see little children. I can remember getting dressed up and waiting for Dad to come home to get us and I remember a bit about going along past the bars where men reached out to touch us. Some of them would put coins in the pockets of our dresses. We moved to Phoenix because Mother needed to be in a lower altitude. She was very sick after giving birth to Gene. Grandma Phelan came down and helped to take care of the three of us while Mother was in the hospital. While in Phoenix, dad was an undertaker at the Whitney Undertaker Establishment. At that time there were many tubercular patients in the Phoenix area. Dad had some interesting events with tubercular patients. One of his stories: A patient died and was brought to the Funeral home. Dad met the hurse at the entrance and saw the man looking around. Dad explained that they were just taking him back to the sanitarium after a medical exam. Later in the day the same man was returned to the funeral home. Another situation came up when Dad was preparing to embalm the man and his assistant went into prepare the body. The assistant came moving through the room where Dad was exclaiming: “My God, Gene, that man’s alive!” Dad went in to see the gentleman sitting up on the slab rubbing his head and looking perplexed. Dad soothingly let him know he was in for a little exam and that he would be going back to his sanitarium, as he helped him to stretch out and get more comfortable. I loved getting Dad’s stories and asked a lot of questions.

After Mother was stronger, we moved to Winslow where Dad went to work for the Santa Fe. Robert Francis was born in Winslow. Dad was transferred to Seligman with the Santa Fe. The twins were born the year we moved to Seligman. Bill was born five years later. All of us children went to the Seligman elementary school. I graduated from the eighth grade in 1938, at about the time that Dad was laid off from the rail road because he was the youngest man in seniority and the company was cutting back as a result of the great depression.  We moved to Flagstaff where Dad expected to get work with his brother Claude. This happened for a short time then Dad got work as a Game Warden during hunting season.

In our young days when I was 8 and younger: when we misbehaved during the day (to the point Mother deemed it serious) we were banished to a chair beside the back door to await Dad’s return from work. To add insult to injury we couldn’t go to meet Dad. Our usual practice was to walk to the Depot to meet Dad and walk home with him. Quite a picture that was! Ruth and Emily on either side, Gene and Bob holding close to his legs and Pat and Tom held in his arms, Bill was yet to come. When Dad came in the door he would take off his hat, give Mom a kiss, and look at the culprit on the chair with a greeting like: is this my Pard (for each of the boys) or my Mickey for Ruth, or Pinky for Pat, with a look that made you feel pretty sorry you had not behaved as you knew you should. Following that, Dad put his gun on the top shelf of his closet, washed his hands took his place in his chair and sent one of the kids to tell the person on the chair Dad wanted to see him/her. When the guilty one got to Dad he would bring them up close to the chair and sometimes put his arm about their waist, and ask: Do you want to tell me about it?” That would bring about a confession of the days misbehavior beyond what Mom knew! His response was to ask “How does your Mother feel about this?” And a make up with Mother followed.

When we talked about someone in a negative manner, Dad who had already educated us with the Golden Rule would begin: “Remember, there is so much --- and we were to finish with : good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.” That usually cut off complaining. However, both Mom and Dad always heard us out if we had a genuine complaint we needed to talk about. In the interim after his stint as game warden, Dad bid for a night watchman job to be back with the Santa Fe. He got the position at the Grand Canyon and moved his gang there. This was a time for Dad to get his family acquainted with the beauty and the wonders of nature from the Grand Canyon through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. As a young man, Dad had worked in these areas and knew a lot about the territory. Living at the Canyon was a wonderful time for us kids. Winter there was awesome with time for sledding and much fun in the snow. Ruth graduated from the eighth grade there as valedictorian (A class of two). The Canyon school was a typical country school with more than one or two grades to a room. At the Canyon, a Priest used to come once in a while to say Mass and minister to the people in that little community. He used the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel for his chapel. The altar and materials for Mass were stored in a room reserved for the Priest. Before Mass, he used to sit behind the Altar, put his hand to the side of his face, and listen to Confessions. Dad took the eldest of us with him on these mornings (about 6 am) to Mass.

Back to Seligman days for a moment:

During the Depression many men from across the country found their way out west to seek work. Most caught rides on freight trains rolling from Chicago to Los Angeles. Dads work included keeping the trains free of hobo riders, yet Dad knew these men were fine people for the most part and needed whatever help they could find. At the hobo camp, just outside the town, met shared information with each other about where they could get help, a meal, a place to clean themselves, etc. We children were instructed that if a man came to the front door we were not to open the door to him. If he came to the back door and asked if he could do some work for a bit of food we were to call Mother. She always could offer them some form of work as chopping wood for the kitchen stove, raking the yard and clearing out weeds. While the man was working Mother fixed a porcelain baby bathtub with hot sudsy water to be carried to the woodshed. A clean pair of sox, set of underwear, shirt and overalls were set beside the tub along with a towel and washcloth. The man was invited to clean up before coming to get the food. They also were invited to leave their dirty clothes so she could get them ready for the next man who came. This seemed to be very acceptable to the men and I used to be so surprised at how clean and improved the man seemed when he appeared at the back door for his meal. Usually, Mom brought them in to sit at the kitchen table and gave them whatever she could provide. With so many children to feed the meal was meager but nourishing. Word went through the Camp that our house was a good place to come. They must have included some information about how they were expected to behave because there never was any problem that I can remember and I was around most of that time.

It was in Seligman that Mother learned to drive. That was a big moment for me. All six of us were in the back seat of the little Ford and Mom behind the wheel. Dad was the coach in the front seat. He selected a dirt road out of town that led to a cow trail. Mom was doing fine until time to turn around. Dad coached her to stop. She became desperate calling out: “Gene, I can’t make this thing stop”as she pulled very hard on the steering wheel. Much laughter from some in the back seat (mostly because we saw the look on Dad’s face) She did learn and became a very fine driver – good into her last year of life at 85.

The only time I remember hearing Dad sing was when we were driving in the country, usually following trails that he wanted to explore. As he drove sometimes he sang to Mother Let Me Call You Sweetheart and/or When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. This was very special to me because of the loving comfort I took from it.

Dad loved to explore places in the mountains, usually saying: “wonder where this trail leads?” We found such beautiful spots and often stayed long enough for a picnic. On picnics, when there was meat to cook, Dad did the cooking.  (He also cooked when Mother was in bed after childbirth. He taught me to cook oatmeal so it would not get gooey and sticky.) Dad became Special Officer on the Santa Fe at Winslow and moved his family there in time to begin the school year. It was in Winslow that Gene Scott was hit by a car on Friday, June 13, 1941 and died Sunday, June 15, Father’s Day. This was a major tragedy and we all have/had a variety of memories about the event and the summer that followed. As a consequence of the accident that took Gene’s life, there was compensation paid to Mom and Dad. To invest the money, Dad took Mom and went to Albuquerque, a larger place and one somewhat familiar to Dad. While there, Dad wanted to show Mom the place where he went to School with the Loretta Sisters. While riding the bus on their way to Bernallio, Dad saw a place that he thought looked familiar so they got off the bus and went to the door, rang the bell and were surprised to find a Sister who had a different habit than the one Dad remembered. It was indeed, a surprise to learn he had not even left the city yet and had come to the Academy where the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati taught 1 through 12 grades. In the course of their visit here at the Academy, they showed off pictures of their ‘gang’ and told the story about Gene. A Sister asked if the children were in a Catholic school and invited Mom and Dad to send the girls to the Academy. Now, in a very unusual response, Mom said: “Yes, maybe the Nuns can make ladies of them!” The usual procedure would have been for them to discuss the pros and cons of this decision and make it together. The most unusual part was for Mom to have such a mind set!!! So Mom and Dad came home from that little trip with yards of materials to make uniforms for the three girls and in the Fall all three of us went off to Albuquerque to school. Later that year, Dad got transferred to Albuquerque and moved the family with him. For me, this was not the best year of my school life! However, God seemed to have capitalized on it.

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