The Other Station

A look back at a time when downtown Tucson was home to two active train depots

For almost a century, the Classical Revival design of downtown's El Paso and Southwestern Railroad Depot has been architecturally distinctive.

"(It's) considered the prettiest in the U.S.," commented Viola Pyle Freeman shortly after the building opened in 1913. At the time, she was a new resident in Tucson.

Despite its splendid appearance, the building on West Congress Street has always been Tucson's "other" railway station.

The first Southern Pacific Railroad passenger train steamed into Tucson on March 20, 1880. A simple depot was soon built of wood on Toole Avenue, and replaced by a larger structure in 1907.

A few years later, the El Paso and Southwestern, a subsidiary of the Phelps Dodge and Company mining company, decided to extend its railroad tracks to Tucson. At the time, the tracks ran from coalfields in eastern New Mexico through Douglas before terminating at Fairbank, south of Benson.

The company's 66-mile Tucson extension was expected to create hundreds of local railroad-maintenance jobs and was eagerly anticipated by community leaders.

"It is far and away the most important, the most welcome, and most longed-for item of news which this city has received for more than a decade," heralded the Tucson Citizen in an August 1911 editorial.

In addition to hauling freight, the new line would allow passengers to leave Tucson at 6:20 p.m., arrive in Douglas a little more than four hours later, and be in El Paso at 7 the next morning.

As an enticement to the company, the 20 downtown acres required for the passenger and freight depots, as well as other railroad needs, was purchased for $75,000 by local citizens and donated to the company.

By late 1912, the EP&SW tracks had reached Tucson, and a celebration to mark the arrival of the first passenger train was planned by a committee of three Chamber of Commerce members, including businessman Harold Steinfeld.

"Music, speeches and a general outburst of cheers will mark the advent of the El Paso and Southwestern to Tucson," proclaimed the Citizen. Flags were hung from the trolley wires on Congress Street and Stone Avenue, giving the area "a holiday appearance."

Businesses were asked to close at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 20 to allow everyone to join a parade, led by the Old Pueblo Band, which would march to the depot grounds for the festivities.

A crowd of 3,000—almost 20 percent of the city's population at the time—attended, according to estimates. The train arrived at 11:15 a.m., exactly 32 years and 8 months after the first Southern Pacific passenger train pulled into town.

"Whistles blew, people cheered, the band played ("Stars and Stripes Forever"), and it was a time of celebration and congratulation," summarized the Arizona Daily Star.

However, according to the Citizen, the railroad company only had "a small frame affair completed in the past week" to serve as a passenger depot. Nearby, though, "the walls of the large passenger station and freight depot (are) rising from their foundations."

The brick passenger station was finally completed near the end of 1913, and provided two waiting rooms, a baggage room, a ticket office and two outdoor waiting areas. It was fronted by a 2 1/2-acre triangular-shaped garden containing lush plants as well as a massive fountain.

Eight columns of Indiana limestone and a red Mexican tile roof graced the exterior of the depot. Inside, a 20-foot rotunda topped by a stained-glass dome rose 30 feet above the floor.

More than 50 years later, Robert E. McConnell, dean of the UA's College of Architecture, told the Citizen: "It has graceful proportions and nice detail. It looks to me like a building that feels rather comfortable in the Southwest."

In 1924, though, the building was abandoned as a train station. All passenger traffic was transferred to the Toole Avenue depot after Southern Pacific bought out the EP&SW for $64 million.

"When El Paso and Southwestern train No. 3 pulled into the Southern Pacific station at 9:51 this morning for the first time," reported the Citizen on Nov. 16, 1924, "the mustard-colored uniforms of the Southwestern's train-service men were much in evidence at this station."

Within a few years, the vacated depot was being used by a lumber business and as a warehouse for the Citizens Transfer company. In 1929, Southern Pacific announced it was going to erect a tubercular sanatorium for its employees near the former station.

Headed by Dr. Charles A. Thomas and S.C. Davis, the hospital opened in 1931. Among its 100-beds and other facilities was a separate "Negro ward" for the company's black workers.

The hospital served railroad patients with tuberculosis until 1946, when it became a general hospital for Southern Pacific employees. In 1964, it was opened to the entire Tucson community, and three years later, it was named after longtime U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden. It was closed permanently in 1974 and demolished five years later.

During these decades, the nearby depot building was used for storage by Southern Pacific and a model-railroad club. In 1976, the building was acquired by Allan Norville, and Carlos Murphy's restaurant opened in the former station five years after that.

While Norville has long had his company's office in the south end of the historic depot, the remaining space has been vacant for several years. But Norville says he is actively seeking a new tenant.

"It's a grand old building," Norville observes of the former El Paso and Southwestern Railroad Depot, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "It's more of a train station than the other one (on Toole Avenue)."

A festive celebration to mark the 130th anniversary of the arrival of the railroad to Tucson will be held at 11 a.m., Saturday, March 20, at the Southern Pacific Depot, 400 N. Toole Ave.