Yesterday, Nov. 7, was Mexico’s National Day of the Railroader. There’s a story behind this fact, and it touches our region deeply. It’s a story of heroism and self-sacrifice. It’s the story of Jesús García, el héroe de Nacozari.
The copper-mining town of Nacozari, Sonora, lies about 130 km south of Douglas, Arizona. In 1907 it was a company town, owned and operated by the Phelps, Dodge Company, as were Bisbee and Douglas, Arizona.
Resident in Nacozari was a small cadre of American management; the labor was mostly Mexican. One of those workers was a young engineer in his 20s named Jesús García. It was his job to drive a narrow-gauge train between Nacozari and the mines at Pilares, six miles away. On the trip out to Pilares, he would carry supplies, including dynamite; on the return trip he would haul ore.
When he went on shift that afternoon, he discovered that the conductor, an American whose job it was to see that all regulations were followed correctly, was sick and absent from work. Because of this, two cars containing dynamite had been placed just behind the engine, rather than at the end of the train, where they were supposed to be. Furthermore, the spark suppresser in the wood-burning engine’s smokestack was not working as it should.
As Engine No. 2 (not 501, as the corrido or ballad tells us) pulled out of Nacozari station on its way to Number Six, the upper yard, the brakeman noticed that one of the dynamite-packed cars was smoldering. He tried unsuccessfully to put the fire out.
Then García ordered the crew to jump, and crammed on all steam in the hopes of getting out of the densely-populated valley to a place where he himself might safely jump. However, when they passed Number Six, the dynamite exploded.
Jesús García died in the blast, as did at least twelve other men, women and children. More were wounded. But if Jesús García had not heroically run the train out of own, the death toll would have been far, far greater. No wonder that the town he saved is now called Nacozari de García, and no wonder that the day of his sacrifice is now the National Day of the Railroader in Mexico.
The story of Jesús García, complete with many vintage photographs, may be found in In Search of Jesús García, By Don Dedera. Payson, AZ: Prickly Pear Press, 1989.
You can hear a performance of Máquina 501 on Heroes and Horses: Corridos of the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands. Smithsonian Folkways LC8628, band 10. www.folkways.si.edu.