By Luis Garcia, Michael Garay, Gabriela Guzman, Daniel Martinez, Daniel Ponce and Audrey Schmidt
Since the 1500s, El Paso has been a center for travelers going north and south, east and west. This fact alone has made the El Paso area an important trading center in America. The traders came first by foot, then by horse, then by wagon. By the mid 1850s, on long trips passengers rode along on mail lines commonly known as the "jackass mail" because teams of mules pulled the stagecoaches.
All over the country, government officials and businessmen had been looking for a faster means of transportation, especially to cross mountain barriers and rivers. As early as 1794, a working model of the steam locomotive was running in Pennsylvania. In the 1800s, the railroad expanded as fast as the new nation, giving birth to many cities. In the mid 1800s, pioneers flooded the west and the railroad followed.
By the late 1870s, a race developed between Southern Pacific and the Texas and Pacific to reach El Paso first. The Southern Pacific, owned by Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, was coming eastward from San Diego, California.
The Texas and Pacific, controlled by Jay Gould, was coming west from Fort Worth with the help of 1,600 Chinese laborers who used picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. As this railroad approached El Paso, residents could hear nighttime blasts that the Chinese laborers produced with black powder while laying railroad tracks.
While Gould's railroad company was still 130 miles form reaching the town, the Southern Pacific became the first company to reach the city on May 19, 1881. W. H. Timmons says the train steamed across the Fort Bliss parade grounds at today's Hacienda Café site and halted at the corner of Oregon and Mills.
El Paso author Joseph Leach writes of the occasion: "All El Paso…knew full well they were present at the end of one era and the beginning of another. This was the eventful day when El Paso bade goodbye. . . to horseback, mule back, 'foot-back,' and 'prairie schooner' transportation." In his book Pass of the North, C. L. Sonnichsen calls the arrival of the railroad "El Paso's finest hour."
Image caption: Old Engine Number One, located at the Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso. This steam engine served Texas, Arizona and Illinois until 1909. Photo by Danny Martinez
Later that year, the Texas and Pacific, the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroads also reached the city. In 1882, the Mexican Central reached El Paso from Mexico City, and trains connected the town to other population centers in every direction. The most important benefit from the railroads had to be job opportunities at all skill levels.
This arrival of the "Iron Horse" helped El Paso to develop economically by providing dependable passenger and freight service. The railroad brought outside commerce through trade and exporting. The population of the town jumped from about 700 people to 10, 000 in less than a decade. Adobe buildings gave way to those of brick and wood. Gas, water, electricity and telephone service became available to the area as early as 1882. Two newspapers began operations, the El Paso Times and the El Paso Herald. The railroads began to attract businessmen from other cities such as Charles R. Morehead and O. T. Bassett, who established the State National Bank.
The railroads helped stimulate farming and ranching in El Paso by opening the area to immigration and to outside markets. For the first time, farmers had a market outside the El Paso valley. Farmers used the railroads to take their cattle outside El Paso and to get supplies they needed.
The railroad helped establish El Paso as a mining center for Mexican and American mining operations. In 1887, a smelter and refinery utilizing copper ore from New Mexico and Arizona opened. ASARCO, as it came to be known, became a landmark and employed thousands of area residents until its recent closure. (See Borderlands article on ASARCO for company history and links to recent environmental legal struggles against the company.)
Besides helping to develop industry, the railroads also transformed El Paso into an arts center of sorts. W. H. Timmons says Hill's Hall was constructed in 1881 just in time to welcome Nellie Boyd's Dramatic Company. In 1882, the Coliseum was built and former mayor Samuel Schutz opened his opera house in 1883.
The elegant Myar's Theater, built in Renaissance style and seating 1,200 people, brought Alexander Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo" to El Pasoans. Three other theaters - the National, Pictorial and Gem - also added to El Paso's cultural development. John Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt and Harry Houdini all played El Paso. The railroads also brought the first professional sports to the city - wrestling and boxing.
As population increased, so did interest in other "civilizing" institutions. The first school building opened in 1883, followed by the first public library. Before long, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Mormons and Catholics began to build their own churches.
Along with the tremendous physical, business and cultural growth in El Paso came attendant problems. Once the railroad lines were completed, a rush of wild west desperadoes, gamblers, prostitutes, vagabonds, burglars, and murderers swooped into town. A saloon stood on nearly every corner in the city, with smaller bars on every street. Each saloon had its own gambling hall, offering roulette, faro, sweat, craps, and keno. Prostitution surged in the "Tenderloin" on Utah Street, now South Mesa. El Paso was well on its way to becoming a big city, with the good and bad that came with size.
The railroads continued to be a major influence in El Paso's growth in the 20th century. In 1996, the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads merged, making El Paso's rail yards the central point in the combined company's 35,000 miles of track in 25 states, Mexico and Canada.
Gilbert Saucedo, business manager in Marketing and Sales for Southern Pacific, says that freight service is the most important part of railroad business because the cars can move just about anything. From automobiles to vegetables and bulk material like coal, ore, and sand, anything that can be put in boxcar can be transported. Products also include chemicals, gas products, textiles, lumber, paper, weapons and radioactive materials.
Image caption: Southern Pacific Co. donated Engine No. 1 to the Centennial Museum in 1960. Photo by Danny Martinez.
The railroads have employed thousands of El Pasoans over the years, providing employee benefits and taxes for El Paso and Texas. The railroad is much more complex than just tracks and an engine. Gilbert Saucedo says it is "now a high-tech field with satellite and computer technology." It continues to grow and evolve, continuing to support El Paso.