Nestled downtown near the intersection of Toole Avenue and Congress Street, Tucson’s restored historic Southern Pacific Railroad Depot stands in proud repose.
The building brims with tales of days gone by, and as you walk through her wooden doors you can almost hear the voices of the thousands of locals and tourists who have graced her four structural incarnations.
Tucson’s depot sprang to life in 1880 because of grand city-benefactor Estevan Ochoa, whose 1877 territorial legislation allowed the Southern Pacific Railroad Company to lay tracks across Arizona. Co-owner of a freighting company with P.R. Tully, Ochoa surely realized the swifter steam locomotive’s arrival would crush his wagon-hauled business economically. Yet, he stood with community interests, rather than his own.
Those economy-changing tracks were laid by hundreds of men — three-fourths of them Chinese, who were paid $1 a day, substantially less than their Anglo counterparts. Construction paused at Casa Grande during 1879’s blistering summer, and some Chinese workers moved to Tucson to open restaurants or work farms along the Santa Cruz River. They faced severe racial discrimination, including on the pages of the Arizona Daily Star.
When the first ceremonial passenger train reached Tucson on March 20, 1880, citizens paid fitting tribute to Ochoa and chose him to present an engraved silver spike, symbolic of Tucson’s goodwill, to SP President Charles Crocker. By 1884, however, Tully & Ochoa was bankrupt, in part because of competition from the railroad.
Still far removed from the rest of the nation, Tucson would see two decades pass before its population of 7,000 grew and greater prosperity ensued.
The finished railroad meant dozens of freight cars arrived each day, bringing new types of goods and building materials. In addition, the SP delivered many good-paying jobs to the community. Dispatchers, conductors, engineers, telegraphers, accountants and other railroaders would total in the hundreds by the end of the 19th century.
The regular arrival of Southern Pacific’s “pay car” showered a bright cheeriness across an otherwise work-a-day town. Dressed in their Sunday finest, rail employees and their families paraded along Congress and other downtown streets paying not only the grocery bill, but the electric, telephone and other obligations.
Through the 1950s, this joyous, small-town, payday promenade provided desert dwellers festive relief as rail employees strutted in new outfits, rekindled old acquaintances, flirted with their favorites, transacted business or partook of the city’s liquid and other delights.
Among the many railroad superintendents in Tucson, Col. Epes Randolph, a nationally noted bridge builder and engineer, inspired the region economically, politically and culturally after he arrived in 1895. He also oversaw construction and refurbishment of key rail infrastructure in both the United States and Mexico and served as “one of (the) very best friends” of the fledgling University of Arizona. Now, midtown’s Randolph Golf Complex bears his name.
Local commerce bustled around the train station as immigrant families stood stoically on the depot’s trackside platform. California-bound, they awaited the next of several trains headed west each day.
Southern Pacific replaced its original wooden depot with a larger, and fancier, 1907 brick-and-steel version. A decade later, town residents formed long parades and escorted young Arizona men across the depot’s concrete platform to board trains and fight in World War I.
By 1920, Chinese family markets crowded around the area of Meyer Street and Main Avenue south of Broadway. They seemed to keep the entire city afloat — allowing railroad workers to buy groceries on credit “until the pay car runs.”
While Chinese grocers fed the community, other minorities played important roles at the railroad. Barred by local unions from working on train crews, Hispanic and African-American men toiled on track-building section crews and in local railroad shops.
One of those men was car-shop foreman Eddie Caballero. He arrived here with his parents from Mexico in a covered wagon in 1911 and started with the railroad in 1928. Another, Hamblin McNeil, an African-American man fresh off the train in 1922 from shoeing horses in Mississippi, went to work in the Southern Pacific shops as a helper and rose to the blacksmith’s “lead man” position.
When the Southern Pacific shop whistle blared three times a day southeast of the depot, its startling screech keyed a march of coverall-wearing, lunch-pail-toting, unionized workmen striding in and out of the local carpenter, boilermaker and other shops. Tucson was a real railroad town.
The depot saw its share of excitement. Curious spectators flooded the building’s platform in 1934 after police captured John Dillinger and his gang. Public Enemy No. 1, Dillinger was flown east to face trial, while hundreds of locals bid his cohorts adios as they rode the train out of town.
When World War II began a few years later, the railroad installed a neon flag to honor the tens of thousands of troops coming and going through the depot. It read: “Thanks to you this will be flying when you come home.”
A renovated, enlarged and enhanced depot hosted Tucson comings and goings by 1942, when young Julia Newman applied for a railroad job. After supervisor E.D. Rockwell explained he’d like to hire her, but couldn’t because she had no railroad experience, she fired back: “What? You know what, Mr. Rockwell. If you could learn it, I’m sure I could learn it.”
The generous, feisty redhead toiled several decades for Southern Pacific, first in the company freight house, then at the “yard office,” calling train crews to work. Julia completed her distinguished career in the depot, as the assistant superintendent’s secretary.
Today, at 96, Julia volunteers daily and promotes the railroad’s importance to our city. The company also hired her daughter, Julia M. Peters, as one of the first three women engineers in Tucson.
Dynamic Tucson Mayor Elbert T. “Happy” Houston was known to frequently rush through the depot lobby around 1950. Happy worked hard, and many couldn’t figure out when he slept. He ran a “dinky” engine all night long, pushing cars around in the Southern Pacific rail yard. Then he hurried home to shower and eat before dashing off for City Hall.
The 75th anniversary of Southern Pacific’s arrival prompted a great celebration on March 20, 1955. An estimated 10,000 rain-soaked, smiling rail enthusiasts filled the depot grounds to celebrate the city’s economic kingpin in grand fashion. Many enjoyed free rides in cars pulled behind a famous steam behemoth, historic Locomotive No. 1673.
The end of the steam-locomotive era in the late 1950s meant fewer railroad jobs, and more auto travel equaled fewer rail passengers. The local transportation temple endured a steady, decades-long decline. Shabby and disheveled, the once-glorious building sat disrespected for many years at Tucson’s heart before City Hall successfully intervened.
Today, Tucson’s restored historic depot again resonates with vibrant life in a modern southwestern community. Completed in 2004, the re-sparkling of this pivotal structure marked downtown revitalization’s initial leap. As former Mayor Bob Walkup declared: “The depot restoration was the start of downtown redevelopment.”
Now, the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum at the depot preserves our region’s rich railroad history. Using dedicated volunteers, the museum also stages annual free festivals as gifts to the community. More than a decade after its rebirth, the Toole Avenue depot continues to anchor a burgeoning downtown and its brightening future.