J.J. Lamb
J.J. Lamb

In the 1880s, railroading was often big news in the Arizona Star.  One edition informed locals that down by Cienega Creek, “. . .  a large number of Chinamen are engaged excavating, as they there encounter considerable elevation through which cuts have to be made, and the grade has to be raised a number of feet above the low, marshy ground . . .”   A revolution in transportation was underway hereabouts.

After the Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) reached Tucson on March 20, 1880, workers continued pushing the rails even further east.  To railroad planners, Arizona was just a pesky stretch of hot, dry terrain that must be spanned to link profitable markets in California and the Midwest.  Surveyors who sited the route were unfamiliar with this area’s intense seasonal flooding.  After completion, wash-outs plagued the main line at Cienega. To solve this problem, the SPRR tracks were raised off the creek bed in 1888 by yet another huge crew of Chinese workers.

In 1910 the El Paso and Southwestern (EP&SW) Railroad wanted to expand service from their Benson terminal by linking up to the transcontinental line.  Tucson had the connections required for coast-to-coast passenger and freight commerce. They explored alternative routes between Fairbank and Tucson. Conscious of flooding problems, the project engineer decided to keep the EP&SW line well above Cienega Creek on a bridge that crossed over the SPRR tracks about eight miles east of Vail Station. When completed in 1912, the new line ran parallel in many places to the existing SPRR. With Vail bracketed by SPRR and EP&W rails, residents dubbed their community the “Town between the Tracks.”

Hear more of this colorful “Iron Horse” history from J. J.  Lamb, crime novelist and Vail Preservation Society director, who will speak Thursday (Sept. 4) about “Steam and Steel Rails: Arrival of the Railroad and its Impact on Arizona.”  Lamb is a founding member of the Vail Preservation Society and the Vail School District’s 2012 Volunteer of the Year.   She leads multiple efforts to preserve local railroading and ranching heritage.  This talk is co-sponsored by the Arizona Humanities Council.

Written by Stan Davis, Academy Village Volunteer

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Workin’ on the Railroads in Arizona:September 2014