As the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe turned away from the Royal Gorge and cast its fate toward a southerly route, the halt in construction that Collis P. Huntington’s associates forced upon him after the bridge battle at Yuma had proven short lived. Money was still tight, the Big Four’s corporate and individual debt still staggering, but there was too much at stake in the American Southwest to pause for very long.
There were whispers of silver bonanzas in the canyons of New Mexico. Countless boomtowns in the Colorado Rockies boasted of becoming another Leadville. In southeastern Arizona, a rowdy camp called Tombstone promised to rival Leadville in both silver and grit. All around, the West was getting smaller, with a steady influx of settlers and industries.
And draped across the map—as the Southern Pacific paused at Yuma, the Santa Fe crested Raton Pass, and the Texas and Pacific marshaled its forces in East Texas—there was still the prize to be won of a southern transcontinental rail connection. Sit out a hand, and you were likely to lose the game.
While Huntington’s partners held the Southern Pacific at Yuma, there was little doubt—in Huntington’s mind, at least—that the railroad would eventually build eastward across the Arizona desert. The original compromise between Huntington and Tom Scott had been for Scott’s Texas and Pacific Railroad to meet the Southern Pacific at Yuma. But where was Scott? For the moment, it appeared that despite its lucrative congressional land grant, the Texas and Pacific was mired in financing woes and construction delays while still near Fort Worth.
• • •
With perhaps too much bravado, Huntington unabashedly announced that if the Texas and Pacific was not up to the task, the Southern Pacific would gladly build along the 32nd parallel route without a government land grant or other subsidy. “We should not be asked to wait at the Colorado River indefinitely for an embarrassed and mismanaged connecting company to build 1,250 miles to give us connection,” Huntington fumed to Congress, “when we are ready to construct right along and willing to provide the outlet to the East for ourselves without cost to the Government …”1
Charley Crocker didn’t share Huntington’s optimism, but as Yuma enjoyed its railhead boom, reports began to circulate that the Southern Pacific was amassing a large quantity of rails, ties, and rolling stock in preparation for just such a burst of construction. The fiery desert heat of the summer of 1878 led to increasingly wilder claims about the extent of these stockpiles. Finally, after one report of materiel on hand for 200 miles of rail and a 2-mile-long pile of some 500,000 ties, editor George Tyng of Yuma’s Arizona Sentinel dubbed the entire story the “Southern Pacific Mirage.”
Resorting to mangled poetry after Tyng himself had perhaps been a little touched by the sun, the editor began his verse by observing, “There were men, in brags most prolific, of their pushing the Southern Pacific,” before concluding, “their yarns about ties were proven all lies, they swore they ne’er meditated such falsehoods or said it.”2
By fall, Tyng was a member of the board of directors of the local Southern Pacific Railroad Company of Arizona after Huntington obtained the road’s territorial charter. With this secured and Crocker still fretting about the money to be spent, the mirage of the Southern Pacific’s advance eastward from Yuma became reality. Early in the morning darkness of October 10, 1878, while the desert was still cool, a locomotive pulled fifteen flatcars, each loaded with 250 redwood ties, across the Colorado River bridge into Yuma. More ties followed and then came flatcars loaded with rails.
It was a meticulously packaged operation. Each flatcar carried 44 steel rails 30 feet in length, 6 kegs of spikes, 88 steel connecting bars called fishplates, and 3 boxes of bolts—in all, weighing 23,000 pounds and being enough material to build 660 feet of track. By the time tracklaying eastward began on November 18, twenty-car construction trains were arriving in Yuma every other day.3
Crocker’s construction boss on this extension was James Harvey Strobridge, a hard-driving Yankee who had come to California with the gold rush. He had long ago proven his worth to Crocker on the Central Pacific when things had gotten tough in the Sierras. Showing his organizational skills, Strobridge flung a crew of graders 20 miles eastward to tackle the most difficult rockwork between Yuma and Tucson. Other crews laid track east from Yuma.
By the end of November, 7.5 miles of track had been spiked into place, and 1,300 men, including 1,100 Chinese laborers, were at work on the line. Editor Tyng commented that the Chinese “move dirt much more slowly than white men but as they have no pipes to fill and no political reforms to discuss, they manage to get in a fair day’s work before night falls.” As for motive power, if the “Santa Monica, No. 2” sounded a little out of place in the desert, this locomotive was a remnant of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad that Huntington had gathered to his fold.4
As Southern Pacific surveyors moved eastward ahead of the graders, some of the survey stakes they set replaced older stakes driven by Texas and Pacific surveyors back in the days when Tom Scott was planning for San Diego to be the terminus of his road. At the time, no one on the Southern Pacific seemed to think that might cause a problem.
Having initially opposed the Yuma extension, Charley Crocker arrived on the scene in December and was quickly caught up in the excitement of the renewed construction. “It seemed like old times to meet ‘Stro.’ out there, and hear him order things around,” Crocker reported to Huntington. Watching the construction across relatively flat country, Crocker enthused, “I do not think we have ever been able to build a railroad as cheaply as this is being built,” and boasted that at thirty miles an hour, the cars rode as smoothly as they did on the New York Central.5
Initially, water for men, beasts, and machines had to be hauled everywhere. It was even more important than a reliable supply of rails and ties. Local sources were scarce and of dubious quality. Before deep wells were dug, Crocker complained that the alkali content created foam in the boilers of the steam locomotives.6
By April 1879, rails were spiked down all the way to the town of Gila Bend, and its stagecoach stop soon gave way to a depot. Eastward from there, the 19 miles to Maricopa Summit required a climb of almost 800 feet at a maximum grade of just over 1 percent. By April 29, the line was opened to the new town of Maricopa, which boomed as the railhead for the slightly older settlement (1868) of Phoenix to the north.
Already the Southern Pacific was in the business of developing Arizona’s landscape and selling its scenery. A five-day special excursion for about two hundred people was operated from San Francisco at a round-trip fare of $40 to promote an auction of town lots. One writer promised, “There is hardly a sunrise, sunset, or midnight in this country that is not replete with either beauty or impressiveness.”
Although there was initial confusion about which county the new town of Maricopa was located in, the railroad auctioned fifty-one lots at prices ranging from $25 to $1,000. Even Crocker was pleased by the results, reporting to Huntington, “We had a sale of town lots at Maricopa at auction, and sold a little over $10,000 worth, the first pop, so you will see that things are brightening up down that way. There is great talk of new mines being discovered all around, throughout the territory adjacent to the railroad.”7
But now as a long straightaway stretched southeast toward Casa Grande, Strobridge and some of the same men who had tamed the snowy Sierras were faced with blistering heat—literally. Rails, plates, and tools left too long in the desert sun got so hot at midday that they burned on the hands of workers who touched them. Crocker fretted to Huntington about the approach of summer even as he pleaded with him to maintain a steady supply of rails.
Huntington could do nothing about the weather, of course, and there were days when he felt equally helpless about the railroad’s orders for steel. By 1879, every major railroad in the United States and countless local lines were aggressively pushing construction on all fronts. Steel mills in the United States and as far away as Great Britain were taxed to their limits. Even as good—and forceful—a customer as Collis P. Huntington sometimes had to wait for promised deliveries.
Ties were also in short supply. Shipments of stout redwood ties from California flowed over the Southern Pacific, but they weren’t coming fast enough. By the middle of May, 26 miles beyond Maricopa at Casa Grande, Crocker decided to stop construction and wait for cooler weather and more materiel.
“My idea of stopping the road,” Crocker told Huntington, “was based on the fact that the reserve of ties on hand was pretty much exhausted” and the expectation of new deliveries “so irregular that we could not expect to continue the construction except at intervals.” With the weather getting so hot, “the men could not work much longer to good advantage.”
By then, Strobridge’s crews had been at it for 139 working days and, as the Arizona Sentinel put it, “been constantly working at high pressure speed since November last, under the disadvantages of warm days, cold nights, scarcity of water and inhaling the dust of 182 miles now accomplished.” So as Crocker stockpiled ties at Casa Grande, the town gathered in traffic from Tucson and points east, well aware that its future as a railhead would be short lived.8
Sixty-five miles south of Casa Grande, Tucson waited expectantly for the Southern Pacific. Unlike so many towns throughout southern Arizona and New Mexico—including Maricopa, Benson, Willcox, Lordsburg, and Deming—Tucson did not owe its existence to the coming of the railroad. A Papago Indian village stood on the site of Tucson when Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino visited the area in 1692. Franciscans followed, and, in 1775, a Spanish presidio was built there.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War left Tucson in the Mexican province of Sonora. Five years later, it became American territory when the Gadsden Purchase secured the southern watershed of the Gila River and the 32nd parallel route, along which the Southern Pacific was now building.
Tucson had been on the route of John Butterfield’s Overland Mail until the Civil War halted the line’s operations, but the town thrived nonetheless. The 1880 census counted almost one in six of Arizona’s non–Native American inhabitants—7,007 out of a territorial population of 40,400—as Tucson residents. The town was not only the largest by far in Arizona but also the largest between Los Angeles (11,183) and San Antonio (20,550).
Now with the railroad almost upon it, Tucson faced new growth and new issues. Some of the Chinese laborers furloughed for the summer at Casa Grande had already made their way into town. Conveniently overlooking the fact that the Americans themselves were relative newcomers to a historically Mexican town, Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star bemoaned this influx.
“Hardly a stage arrives that does not bring one or more Chinamen to our city,” the newspaper reported in early July 1879. With them came accoutrements. That same week, seven Chinese ladies of questionable virtue—the Arizona Star termed them “Celestial heroines”—arrived and “added to the number already here, make ten in all.”
The Arizona Star found nothing but trouble with this new wave of immigration, but its afternoon competitor, the Arizona Citizen, struck at the core of the matter. “A good deal of the trouble about the Chinese,” the paper noted wryly, “seems to grow out of their temperate habits, their determination to work for a living and their refusal to be bilked out of their wages.”9
Meanwhile, there was railroad talk of all sorts. Some reports voiced fears that the Southern Pacific might bypass Tucson. Other rumors claimed that the railroad intended to build a new town complete with roundhouse and machine shops on the San Pedro River 40-some miles to the east and just that much closer to booming Tombstone. Tucson did its best to dissuade the Southern Pacific from either action and deeded the railroad a 100-foot-wide right-of-way through the northeast quadrant of town. It also vacated a strip for depot operations in addition to twelve city blocks for other facilities. To pay for these acquisitions, the town voted $10,000 in bonds by a resounding margin of 139 to 1 among white American males over twenty-one.
But rumors got so rife that they caused a rising tide of anti–Southern Pacific sentiment. This was reported to Huntington, who was focused on delivering rail shipments to Crocker and holding his transcontinental competitors at bay. He didn’t need local dissension on his flanks. Perhaps remembering the trouble that William Jackson Palmer’s land development tactics had caused the Denver and Rio Grande at Trinidad and Cañon City, Huntington had his managers assure Tucson residents that the Southern Pacific was indeed coming to town and had no major plans on the San Pedro.
About the same time, surveyors for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe showed up in Tucson and stoked opposing rumors that not one but two railroads might soon be in town. The Santa Fe was exploring routes from Albuquerque southwest to Tombstone and Tucson with an eye toward further construction both west to California and south into Mexico. Despite the rugged terrain on a straight line between Tucson and Albuquerque, the Santa Fe engineer in charge hoped to find “a road of easy grade and reasonably cheap construction.” If that happened, the Arizona Starpredicted, it “will make Tucson without question … the Denver of Arizona.”10
The survey work by the Santa Fe was reported to Charley Crocker. The man who had dug his feet in the most to hold Huntington at the Colorado River was once again urging Huntington to hasten an adequate supply of rails to the front. “I wish you would hurry up the steel,” Crocker admonished, “as when we commence work in Arizona again, we do not want to be detained for lack of material.” Huntington assured him, “I am doing all I can to get rails started but find it one of the most difficult things to do that I ever tried.”11
By January 24, 1880, there was a sufficient supply of ties and rails at Casa Grande to commence work on the 65-mile extension to Tucson. But no sooner had Strobridge put his construction crews to work than a freak January snowstorm dumped eight inches of snow on Maricopa. Tucson had its first snow in years. The men who had found it too hot to work just months before now lost time because of slush and mud. Barely had the ground cleared when Strobridge reported more lost time because of Chinese New Year celebrations.
Once engaged, however, the work crews laid more than a mile of track a day. Three weeks later, well past the pointy spire of Picaho Peak and just 18 miles out of Tucson, Strobridge was forced to wire Huntington the result: “End of track Ariz. [February] 26. Out of steel.” Crocker grumbled about the added expense caused by the delay, but used the time to send grading crews east of Tucson to work on the approaches to the crossings of Cienega Creek and the San Pedro River.12
Crocker continued to fret, but enough rails arrived so that tracks were spiked down along the Southern Pacific right-of-way northeast of the Tucson town plaza on March 17, 1880. That afternoon a train “with No. 41 on the head end, followed by 2 water cars, 13 boxcars, 39 flatcars and 11 construction cars” was welcomed by a cheering crowd.
Three days later, Crocker and the usual dignitaries arrived for the official celebration. They steamed into town on a special train that was an hour early, and the shrill blast of their locomotive’s whistle sent Tucson mayor R. N. Leatherwood and the local welcoming committee scurrying to the depot site.
Mayor Leatherwood had already sent numerous telegrams to a list of officials that stretched from the mayor of Yuma to President Rutherford B. Hayes. Also on the list, according to the Arizona Daily Star, was a telegram to Pope Leo XIII noting Tucson’s long ties with the Catholic Church and informing his Holiness “that a railroad from San Francisco, California, now connects us with the Christian world.”
As the story goes, this was a little too pompous for some Tucson residents, and one prankster fabricated a response from Rome that read: “His Holiness, the Pope, acknowledges with appreciation receipt of your telegram … but, for his own satisfaction would ask where in hell is Tucson?”13
Jokes aside, Tucson was well satisfied with its railroad. But Huntington and Crocker did not intend to pause there very long. No matter how speculative the Santa Fe’s survey work around Tucson, there could be no denying that while the Southern Pacific was rushing eastward across Arizona, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe had been building southward through New Mexico with equal determination. There might not be a Santa Fe locomotive steaming into Tucson any time soon, but that did not mean that the railroad did not have Arizona in its sights.
The first railroad car in New Mexico passed into the territory on December 7, 1878. That vehicle had indeed been an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe car and not a locomotive because the train was being pushed backward over the temporary track across the Raton Pass switchbacks. Tentative though the clanging and clicking of those wheels were, in the next two and one-half years, the Santa Fe would build almost 1,000 miles of track in New Mexico.
Throughout the spring of 1879, Santa Fe crews under the supervision of A. A. Robinson graded south from Raton Pass, frequently in sight of the wagon ruts of the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. The trail’s old watering stop of Willow Springs became the town of Raton, New Mexico, and as the railroad built farther south, the new towns of Springer and Wagon Mound briefly flirted with the boom of being a railhead.
South of the oblong butte that gave Wagon Mound its name, the railroad grade passed near Fort Union and the point where the Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail rejoined. By the Fourth of July, the rails had reached Las Vegas. Here the railroad was 50 miles due east of Santa Fe, but the southern slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains forced it into a wide loop southward to get around them. In the process, the railroad snaked through a series of S curves along the headwaters of the Pecos River and crossed Glorieta Pass into the watershed of the Rio Grande.
Meanwhile, trains began using the Raton Tunnel in September 1879, and the elimination of the laborious Raton switchbacks sped up the flow of men and materiel to the construction front. But another event occurred that was much more important to the railroad’s long-term vitality: the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe paid its first stock dividend. With construction rushing forward across New Mexico, here nonetheless was proof that Thomas Nickerson and William Barstow Strong were meticulous managers who knew how to run a railroad and take care of their stockholders. Such solid financial footing would be essential to winning battles yet to come.
From the summit of Glorieta Pass, the Santa Fe’s line descended steep Galisteo Creek through Apache Canyon, where eastbound grades of 3 percent are still in place. At Galisteo Junction, soon to be renamed Lamy after the archbishop of Santa Fe, the main line streaked southwest to Bernalillo on the Rio Grande. But what about the railroad’s long-sought goal of Santa Fe?
Ray Morley surveyed every inch of plausible grade between Raton Pass and the Rio Grande. He convinced A. A. Robinson—who in turn convinced William Barstow Strong—that Santa Fe, despite the town’s prominence in their company’s name, was not to be on the main line. It sat in too deep of a bowl and was surrounded by too many hills that demanded heavy grades. Building into Santa Fe simply wasn’t conducive to through traffic. And truth be told, Santa Fe was no longer the economic magnet it had been for a half century on the Santa Fe Trail. The pull now was California and other points west.
Santa Fe town fathers were far from pleased, of course, but they promoted a local bond issue, and the railroad obliged them by building an 18-mile spur to bridge the gap between Lamy and a location just west of the town plaza. When the rails of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached Santa Fe on February 9, 1880, an era ended.
No one cheered more loudly than a member of the Santa Fe’s board of directors. A scant eleven years earlier, at a picnic celebrating the end of track at Wakarusa Creek just 7 miles out of Topeka, his talk of the railroad building to Santa Fe and the Pacific had been met with hoots of laughter. His name was Cyrus K. Holliday, and now it was his turn to hoot.
But there was other nostalgia as well. “Yesterday morning the last coach went out of Las Vegas for Santa Fe,” the Las Vegas Gazette reported rather wistfully. “The officers were removed to Cañoncito … [and] we are sorry to see them go. The stage men and employees looked like they were leaving their earthly treasures.”
What began in 1846 as “a mail every six months brought through under guard” had grown to daily stage service during what the paper called “halcyon days.” As each new railhead was reached, the stage run was shortened until “gradually,” the Gazetteconcluded, “the iron horse has been driven down the Santa Fe trail.”14
But the way of the iron horse was hardly smooth. After the completion of the line to Lamy, engineer Jake Brown was taking a train up Apache Canyon when he noticed a train coming downgrade toward him at a high rate of speed. Brown reversed his locomotive in an attempt to get back to the siding at Lamy, but then watched in horror as the runaway train’s crew gave up any hope of stopping and simply jumped from their posts.
The lone exception was the brave conductor, who made his way from the rear atop the swaying cars, frantically cranking brake wheels as he went. He made it to the cab of the locomotive just in time to bring the load to a halt and avoid a collision with Brown’s train. Indeed, runaways on Glorieta Pass were so common that the Las Vegas Daily Optic expressed relief and no little surprise when an entire month went by without one.15
But others weren’t so lucky. When Ed Stanley’s eight-car freight train left Santa Fe one evening eastbound, the twenty-three-year-old conductor “was full of life—in unusually good spirits.” It was a bitterly cold February night, and as the train climbed up the heavy grades east of town, Stanley graciously invited his brakemen down from the tops of the cars and into the relative warmth of the caboose.
Unfortunately, it was only Stanley’s second trip on the run behind an engineer who was making his first run on the line. Not expecting any downgrades, Stanley was surprised when the train started to pick up speed beyond Glorieta Pass. The engineer was surprised too, and he whistled an anguished plea for brakes. Stanley and his brakemen scrambled to the top of the boxcars to answer the call. As a brakeman named Charley knelt to tighten the brake wheel on one car, Stanley ran past him and began to crank the wheel on the next car. Just then, the train bounced around a short curve. Stanley lost his balance and, despite a cry of “Oh, Charley!” to the nearby brakeman, he was hurled headlong from the car top.
The runaway train continued on about 3 miles before it could be brought to a stop and then slowly backed to the point of Stanley’s fatal fall. “His dead body, considerably mangled, was picked up by friendly hands, placed in the caboose and brought to Las Vegas.” The next day, a coroner’s inquest found that “no blame attaches to any one” for the incident, but also acknowledged that the train “had gotten away from the engineer and brakemen and could not be controlled by them.”16
That no blame was attached despite this acknowledgment was indicative of the relatively cheap value of human lives in those times and a recognition of the inherent danger of railroading. Accidents were part of the acceptable price of pushing the rails west and tying the nation together upon them. Ed Stanley was but one of thousands of ordinary trainmen who—for a few dollars a day—paid the price.
Such experiences gave rise to many songs, but among the most descriptive was a gospel hymn written about this time. Many a mountain railroader was laid to rest after his last run to the words of “Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad.” It urged those who were of good faith to “watch the hills, the curves, and tunnels, never falter, never fail, keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye upon the rail.” The men who operated the Santa Fe across Raton and Glorieta passes, the Rio Grande through the Rockies, or the Southern Pacific over the Tehachapi Loop never faltered.
The Santa Fe built down the Rio Grande and reached Albuquerque on April 15, 1880. There wasn’t much celebration because the rail yards were located some distance from the old town. This was not from any fit of land speculation but rather to avoid the river bottom and pass through town as quickly as possible. By the end of summer, the Santa Fe’s tracks had been laid another 103 miles south to the little town of San Marcial.
Now the Santa Fe faced a tough decision about its ultimate objective. Due south down the Rio Grande lay El Paso. To the southwest—just as soon as the railroad could turn the corner of the Black and Mimbres mountains and skirt Cookes Peak—the 32nd parallel corridor ran west toward booming Tombstone, Tucson, and the oncoming Southern Pacific. Beyond lay California. But the Santa Fe was also interested in the ground farther south into Mexico.
The Santa Fe’s “Boston crowd” of investors had organized the Sonora Railway Company along much the same route that Dr. Bell traveled during his side trip from Palmer’s 1867 survey for the Kansas Pacific. Their investment anticipated significant Mexican mining revenues and a growing Pacific trade in and out of the Mexican port of Guaymas. But on the larger map of the Southwest, the proposed Sonora Railway was also seen as the perfect end run around the Southern Pacific should Huntington prove successful at blocking the way across Arizona.
During the spring and summer of 1880, Huntington lost no time in pushing the Southern Pacific eastward out of Tucson to counter the threat. Charley Crocker warned Huntington early on, however, not to expect rapid progress as the line dipped into the San Pedro Valley. “There is some quite heavy work, which at very best, will detain us from going on as fast as we have been accustomed to. After that, however, we can go to El Paso any time you want, if the steel is here, surely two miles a day, and if necessary, faster still! There will be no difficulty in reaching the boundary of Texas, by one year from today [April 22, 1880].”17
By now, the construction of a roundhouse, shops, and mushrooming yards overflowing with freight had convinced Tucson residents that they would not suffer greatly from whatever facilities the Southern Pacific built along its crossing of the San Pedro. But a town of some sort was inevitable at the San Pedro, and the Southern Pacific named it Benson after William B. Benson, a friend of Crocker’s who had substantial mining interests throughout the West.
Train service into Benson began on June 22, 1880, and for much of the summer, it served as the railhead for construction farther east and stage and freighting service south to the windswept mesas and rocky arroyos near Tombstone. Among those tempted to try their hand in the stagecoach business was a recent arrival in Tombstone named Wyatt Earp. When existing lines offered too much competition, Earp turned to saloon keeping instead and was soon helping his brother, Virgil, with law enforcement chores.
East of Benson, the Southern Pacific encountered more of the tough ground that Crocker had warned Huntington about, as it climbed out of the San Pedro Valley and crested the northern end of the Dragoon Mountains. At an elevation of 4,613 feet, Dragoon Summit was the highest point on the Southern Pacific west of the Rio Grande—29 feet higher than its projected crossing of the Continental Divide in New Mexico.
East of Dragoon Summit, there was speedy construction across the smooth Sulphur Springs Valley, much of it a dry lake bed that made for a 20-mile straightaway. Along the way, the railroad named the town of Willcox for Major General Orlando Bolivar Willcox, who was then in command of the army’s Department of Arizona. Willcox had earlier served in San Francisco and been in the chain of the “telegram war” over permission to cross the Fort Yuma bridge.
Northeast of Willcox, the railroad made a long curve north of the Dos Cabezas Mountains, two prominent rock towers that dominate the view for miles. The wide valley here was what Lieutenant John G. Parke called Railroad Pass on his 1853 survey. William Jackson Palmer’s subsequent survey for the Kansas Pacific confirmed the value of the route, and now Huntington was taking full advantage of it.
By September 15, 1880, the Southern Pacific was officially opened to the old Butterfield stage station of San Simon, just inside the Arizona border. East of here, tough grades were encountered across Steins Pass astride the Peloncillo Mountains—a much more narrow gap than Railroad Pass. This section of railroad required a helper engine division, and it remains the heaviest grade—about 1.5 percent—on the Southern Pacific main line between Yuma and El Paso.18
In October, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe general manager William Barstow Strong, who was taking an increasingly active corporate role and would soon become the Santa Fe’s president, met with Huntington in Boston to discuss the narrowing gap between the two roads.
By then, the Southern Pacific had reached a point 2 miles north of a feisty little silver mining town called Shakespeare. But, alas, Shakespeare was no Tombstone, and the railroad opted to build a new town and name it after Tucson merchant Charles H. Lord. Meanwhile, the Santa Fe had crossed the Rio Grande near San Marcial and built another 40 miles south. A gap of approximately 150 miles separated the two railheads.
Certainly Charley Crocker had his dander up about the advancing Santa Fe. The last thing that he wanted was for the Santa Fe to rush westward past the Southern Pacific at Lordsburg and parallel its new line across southern Arizona. Even if the Santa Fe merely crossed the Southern Pacific at some point bound for Mexico, it would siphon off some of the Tombstone trade. Tucson—both on its own and because of Tombstone—was booming and bringing the Southern Pacific handsome profits. “The earnings since we reached Tucson have been immense,” Crocker reported.19
Consequently, Crocker urged Huntington to arrange for some meeting point with the Santa Fe. “If we don’t make an arrangement,” Crocker cautioned, “we will both make a great mistake.” Huntington had El Paso and points farther east in his sights, and Crocker was concerned that the Big Four’s wheeler-dealer wasn’t giving this aggressive competitor on their flanks enough credit.
“I very much fear that you are underrating these men and do not give them credit for the energy and persistence which they are showing. They are the only ones that I have feared, or that I now fear,” Crocker lectured Huntington. A week later, Crocker hoped that Huntington would “not get tired of my eternal dinging on this subject,” but that did not keep him from asserting, “those people [the Santa Fe backers] have more power and money than you have given them credit for.”20
Only reluctantly did Huntington—who had once given his own lecture to David Colton about trusting the staying power of Tom Scott—come to view Nickerson, Strong, and the Santa Fe’s Boston crowd as comparable adversaries. “I did think last winter they would come to grief before this time,” Huntington confessed to Crocker, “but they seem to be stronger now than then.”
By “last winter,” Huntington may have been referring to the Royal Gorge battle. But the Santa Fe had gotten a portion of Colorado’s traffic east of Pueblo without the expense of new construction and had not let the fray divert it from larger goals. “Still,” Huntington told Crocker—perhaps with some element of wishful thinking—“I cannot believe that any set of people that have been slashing around as they have, will ever make a perfect success, and I believe they will come to grief sooner or later.”21
Huntington rarely underestimated a competitor, but he may have continued to do so with the Santa Fe when he finally sat down with William Barstow Strong in Boston. The two adversaries agreed that the Santa Fe could use Southern Pacific tracks between an undetermined point in southwestern New Mexico and Benson. In retrospect, it appears that Strong was willing to make this agreement on behalf of the Santa Fe because it meant a quick leap forward of approximately 175 miles toward its Sonora Railway subsidiary and the Mexican port of Guaymas. Strong also assumed that the Santa Fe would share in the Southern Pacific’s east-west traffic.
For his part, Huntington seems to have thought that he had clearly gotten the better of Strong and had blunted further Santa Fe construction westward. “We agreed to this memorandum of contract,” Huntington reported to Leland Stanford, “thinking it would give them [the Santa Fe] time to learn the whole situation of matters on that side, and that as soon as they did, they would hardly think of building through on the 35th parallel, or building the Guaymas road.”22
Thinking that whatever point the two roads joined was destined to become a great railroad center, Stanford may have had a hand in suggesting that the junction be named after Charley Crocker’s wife, Mary Ann Deming. Exactly where “Deming” would be located was still uncertain during November 1880, as the Southern Pacific built east from Lordsburg and the Santa Fe left the Rio Grande Valley at Rincon and struck southwest.
“Water, of course, will be the principal thing that will influence them in selecting the point,” general superintendent A. N. Towne reported to Huntington. But that didn’t stop the speculators from swarming. South of Cookes Peak and the old Butterfield Overland stage route, a tent city sprang up that was christened “New Chicago” in anticipation.
To finalize the meeting point, chief engineers George E. Gray of the Southern Pacific and A. A. Robinson of the Santa Fe met about 10 miles east of the Rio Mimbres in mid-December. This point was a few miles west of New Chicago, so its promoters simply packed up their tents and moved the short distance to Deming. The Southern Pacific inaugurated service into town at the same time.
Before long, the new town boasted “thirteen saloons, two groceries, two Chinese laundries, one barber shop, one restaurant, one butcher shop, and one cigar store.” It was a typically rowdy railhead town. “Deming morals,” reported a visiting editor, “are not to be discussed in a newspaper—till she has some.”23
Whatever early Deming might have lacked, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was eager to arrive there. In its 1880 annual report, the railroad reported that it had increased its total mileage about four hundred miles during the year, “and we shall have reached before the annual meeting the Southern Pacific Railroad at Deming, one hundred and twenty-eight miles further. From this connection, we expect a large business from California and the mining districts of Arizona.”24
Indeed, when Santa Fe tracklayers reached Deming on March 8, 1881, William Barstow Strong and his associates had little reason to expect anything less. A silver spike was driven not only to join the two lines but also to commemorate the completion of the country’s second transcontinental railroad.
Yes, it was true. Eleven years and ten months after the golden spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, Utah, the Big Four had done it again. A southern transcontinental line now stretched all the way from San Francisco to Deming, New Mexico, via the Southern Pacific, and from Deming to Kansas City, Missouri, via the Santa Fe. Cyrus K. Holliday’s little road had grown into a key part of a transcontinental system. But few, including Collis P. Huntington, it turned out, paid much attention to the accomplishment.
Among those who did notice, the Boston Herald—almost a hometown paper for the Santa Fe, given the large numbers of its Boston investors—made a very prophetic observation. “The southern way will without question be the favorite winter route to the Pacific,” the paper predicted. “Tourists for pleasure, who otherwise would like to make a winter trip to California, together with invalids whose delicate lungs have yearned for the balmy air of the Golden State, have shrunk from the hardships of the bleak journey across the snowy plains of the Union Pacific route, with its threatening delays from the furious storms that often block the way and bury the trains in their terrible drifts. But hereafter they may make the journey through the warm air and perpetual sunshine of New Mexico and Arizona direct to Southern California, the most perfect sanitarium on earth …”
Perhaps a bigger and even more prophetic pronouncement came from the Railway Times of London. “This month witnesses the opening of the new route to the Pacific, an event which is probably of as much significance in American railroad history as anything which has occurred in railroad construction since the opening of the first transcontinental line,” the paper observed. It was to be of great value to general commerce, of course, but it “is also calculated to promote the development of a vast region of the Southwest and Pacific coast …”25
The Santa Fe’s first through train from Kansas City to the Southern Pacific’s connection at Deming departed late on the evening of March 17, 1881. Behind engine no. 85 was a consist (those cars making up the train) of eight cars: two express cars, a baggage car, three coaches, and two Pullman sleepers. Fares for the first run all the way from Kansas City to Los Angeles were advertised at $105 for first-class passengers and $47.50 for the lowest “emigrant” class—the latter the equivalent of about $1,000 in 2008 value.
But there was not to be a mad rush to California—at least not now and not over this Santa Fe–Southern Pacific route. There was a very good reason why Collis P. Huntington was not cheering his connection with the Santa Fe. He had his eye on developments in West Texas that he hoped would prove far more lucrative. He simply was not willing to share business into Southern California and Arizona when he could retain control of it via San Francisco.
To encourage the continuation of such roundabout, cross-country shipping, the Southern Pacific imposed excessive rates on all freight bound for Arizona and Southern California that originated on the Santa Fe. In response, the Santa Fe complained directly to Huntington, asserting, “the steps taken by the So. Pacific seem of the most unfriendly kind.”
Particularly onerous was a prohibitory tariff from Tucson to Deming that “prevented all business from going east or from coming from the east.” According to the Santa Fe, “a carload of beer coming from St. Louis to Tucson paid $400 to reach Deming, and had to pay $200 from Deming to Tucson.” Within a week of the opening of the line to Deming, “the Santa Fe announced that no coast-bound freight would be accepted over the route.”26
William Barstow Strong and his Boston cohorts were annoyed by this result, but they were far too experienced and far too seasoned businessmen to throw up their hands in despair. They were far from finished in the transcontinental sweepstakes, but for the moment, about all the Santa Fe got after arriving in Deming was a handshake.