Tucson on the Rails

A look back at the day the railroad arrived, 125 years ago

"AT LAST!!" screamed a bold headline in the Arizona Daily Star on March 13, 1880. The schedule for rail passenger service to Tucson had finally been set, with arrival of the initial train from Casa Grande set for one week later at 11:55 p.m., and departure for the return trip following in three hours.

Local excitement over the coming of the railroad had been growing for several years. Steel rails would link the isolated desert community with the outside world and make merchandise much cheaper and more available, while allowing the minerals and livestock of the territory to be shipped out of Arizona.

To permit the Southern Pacific Railroad Company to lay tracks through Arizona, Tucson freight company owner and elected official Estevan Ochoa introduced a bill in the territorial Legislature in 1877. But because another company also wanted those rights, the legislation originally was in serious trouble.

To break the political deadlock, rumor was that Collis Huntington, of the Southern Pacific Company, sent Gov. A.P.K. Safford $25,000 to insure passage of the bill. According to folklore, $20,000 was returned with an explanation that Huntington had vastly overvalued the price of an Arizona politician.

After passage of the act, Southern Pacific completed a bridge across the Colorado River at Yuma, then stopped construction for 14 months. In November 1878, 1,300 laborers, including 1,100 Chinese men, resumed laying tracks eastward. Six months later, they reached Casa Grande, where they stopped again because of a shortage of materials and the increasing desert temperatures.

Even though work was indefinitely suspended, anticipation was building in Tucson. The population by 1880 had risen to 7,000, with Anglo outsiders streaming in, hoping to be a part of the expected commercial boom in the mostly Mexican-American community. To accommodate the railroad, the previous year, Tucson's male voters--by a 139-1 tally--had approved the sale of $10,000 in bonds needed to acquire the land Southern Pacific would need to lay its tracks through town.

Not every impact of the railroad was welcome, however. The Star bemoaned the arrival of Chinese railroad workers who moved here after the construction effort halted at Casa Grande.

The Star called the Chinese "an ignorant, filthy, leperous horde of beings who may have the form of a human being but lack every element which enters into true American civilization." Because of that, the newspaper suggested segregating the growing Chinese population into one corner of the community.

The Daily Arizona Citizen was much more sympathetic to the Chinese and offered one reason why they should be encouraged to live in Tucson. The newspaper predicted they would grow new types of fruits and vegetables never before locally produced, so dining habits could be diversified. "Just think of it," the Citizen exclaimed, "strawberries and cream in Tucson next year."

Not everyone in town was confident the railroad would actually bring any improvements. Instead, some people believed a new city having rail access to the rich silver mines of Tombstone might be located on the San Pedro River and quickly replace Tucson in importance.

"It is the generally expressed opinion of the people of Tucson that when the road reaches the San Pedro River," Southern Pacific's general superintendent A.N. Towne reported to Huntington, "that there will be located the city of the territory." But both local newspapers dismissed that possibility, pointing out the future site of Benson was threatened by malaria and had few economic prospects.

The Star and Citizen also agreed that the railroad's arrival would result in an economic impact unlike anything Tucson had ever seen. New businesses would open; existing ones could prosper, and everything pointed to an unprecedented commercial miracle.

"It is now a settled fact," the Star predicted, "that the city of Tucson is to be the future metropolis of the great Southwest. Railroads, agriculture, mining and stock-raising will produce this result ... ."

To mark the momentous occasion of the arrival of the first ceremonial train, at 11 a.m. on March 20, 1880, businessman Ochoa presented Charles Crocker, president of the Southern Pacific Company, with a silver spike. Ochoa then told the throng of people gathered at the future site of Tucson's depot: "Let us put our shoulders to the oars of progress until we become the bright star in the constellation of these United States of America."

Later that day, 1,200 people attended a banquet to mark the historic event and heard speech after lengthy speech.

Seventy-five years later, on March 20, 1955, thousands of Tucsonans participated in a ceremony at the downtown train station and received free rides in cars pulled behind locomotive #1673, the last steam engine to operate here.

This Sunday, March 20, is the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the railroad. The date will be remembered at festivities beginning at the depot (400 E. Toole Avenue) at 10 a.m. The new Southern Arizona Transportation Museum will be dedicated and display important railroad history from throughout Tucson's past.

The 1880 arrival of the tracks in town was called by the Citizen, "the greatest event in the history of this city." Now, a century and one quarter later, it is still an occasion which should be recalled for its vital importance to Tucson.