Research Packet and Narrative by: Ernie Rogers, Armando Sanchez, Dr. George D. Torok
Honors Project 2002-03
National Endowment for the Humanities Historical Markers Project
When completed in 1951, the Bataan Memorial Trainway was heralded as an engineering marvel and dramatically changed the layout of El Paso. The Trainway placed El Paso’s main railroad tracks below street level and allowed for the free flow of traffic in and out of the downtown area. Today, thousands of people cross the Trainway daily but few realize the significance this project had on the future growth and development of the city.[i]
Bataan Memorial Trainway through downtown El Paso, Texas. Image provided by George D. Torok
When the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1881, El Paso was a lightly populated settlement. The tracks were laid north and east of the residential and commercial areas, well outside of the city. Although the railroad was expected to bring more people into El Paso, few anticipated the tremendous growth that would take place over the next few decades. As the city grew, trains began to present an inconvenience, and at times a hazard, to local residents. As early as 1889 the El Paso Times expressed concerns about the train traffic along the edge of the city. An editorial noted that there was an “almost daily instance of danger to life and property from approaching engines on the Southern Pacific road.”[ii] In 1917, Mayor Tom Lea started negotiations with the railroad but public uproar about the closing of downtown streets during the construction caused him to abandon the project.[iii]
During the 1930s city leaders tried to make the project part of a federal Works Progress Administration program to bring funding and desperately needed work to the city, but this failed as well. World War II created another burst of growth in El Paso. By the 1940s, eight different railroads serviced the city, all interfering with automobile and pedestrian traffic. In 1946, the city drew up formal plans for a trainway and presented a bond issue to voters. On January 4, 1947 the bond issue passed by a more than ten to one margin. Beginning in 1948, eight major contractors and twenty-two subcontractors worked on the Trainway under the direction of project engineer Harlan H. Hugg. The R.E. McKee Company did the largest portion of the work re-grading the railroad lines, digging the entire trench, and laying new tracks. A major work of civil engineering, the Trainway cost 5.5 million dollars and took more than three years to complete. More than 4500 gondola cars of dirt were excavated, the trench concreted, and eight bridges were built over the tracks. A 1700 foot overpass across Cotton Street, several blocks east of the Trainway completed the project.[iv]
The Trainway was formally opened on August 21, 1950 and named in honor of prisoners-of-war who died in enemy camps during the Second World War, especially those who perished during the Bataan Death March. .Loaded flatcars with more than 500 people were brought to Union Depot. The Sunset Limited, a new Southern Pacific passenger train, arrived and proceeded to the Main Street overpass where Southern Pacific President A.T. Mercier and Mayor Dan Duke officiated the ribbon-cutting ceremony. It continued through the Trainway to the roaring applause of hundreds of spectators. With the completion of the Bataan Memorial Trainway, trains whisked through the city, the dangers and delays of railroad crossings were eliminated.[v]
With the completion of the project in 1951, the city of El Paso grew well beyond its original boundaries. Today, more than fifty years later, the Trainway is still in use everyday and continues to separate commuter and railroad traffic, allowing for a safer and a greatly expanded downtown.
Leonard, Edward A. Rails at the Pass of the North. El Paso, TX: Texas Western Press, 1981.
Metz, Leon Claire. Robert E. McKee: Master Builder of Structures Beyond the Ordinary. El Paso, TX: Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation, 1997.
El Paso (TX) Herald-Post
Aug. 17, 1950; Aug. 18, 1950; Aug. 19, 1950; Aug. 21, 1950; Aug. 22, 1950;
El Paso (TX) Times
Feb. 20, 1942; Aug. 19, 1950; Aug. 20, 1950; Aug. 22, 1950; Aug. 27, 1950; Aug. 21, 1955