Evidence of the past is all around us in the southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico. Petroglyphs made by ancient indigenous people, abandoned forts, ghost towns, remnants of Butterfield stage stations, and old train depots abound. Some communities – Rodeo, Animas and Hachita, NM, as well as Douglas and Bisbee AZ, for example - look much as they did in their formative years.
One of the most visible, but usually overlooked signs of past human activity is the old El Paso & Southwestern railroad line that runs from Tucson to El Paso. For part of the way, it parallels the San Pedro River and historic State Route 80 from Douglas northward through Cochise County and Rodeo, NM. A short distance from Rodeo, it turns east and follows or is covered by, NM State Route 9, all of the way through New Mexico’s bootheel and then snakes across the desolate lonely desert near the border with Chihuahua, all the way to the Rio Grande.
The map of the EP & SW trackage in AZ illustrates how the railroad evolved from a fish hook-shaped 36-mile segment in 1889 stretching from Fairbank to Bisbee, adding an additional line to Benson in 1894, followed by lines to Naco and Douglas in 1901, and then further extensions to the New Mexico state line and beyond in 1901 and 1902, as well as the line extended to Tucson in 1910-1912.
In fact, the railroad’s remnants are SO noticeable that we don’t pay much attention to them. Its residue is part of our everyday existence. But not so very long ago, that roadbed, now covered with mesquite trees and creosote, was topped by crossties and steel rails and served as a primary link to the outside world.
The El Paso & Southwestern Railroad, built in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th to carry copper, coal, other freight and passengers played a major role in the lives of the people who lived here during the early decades of the 20th Century. Contrary to common belief, corporate industrialism, rather than rugged individualism, played the biggest role in developing this part of the Southwest.
Trains on the Arizona & Southeastern line during the 1890s were mixed contents, made up of a locomotive (Engine No. 1 in this photo), a tender, several freight cars, and a passenger car or two.
Bisbee, A Copper Mining Camp
The story of the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad – usually abbreviated as the EP & SW - starts in Bisbee, a copper mining camp founded in the Mule Mountains in 1877. By the mid-1880s, Bisbee had been transformed from a rude camp to a fast-growing, modern, industrialized city. Copper, previously used primarily for making brass and for lining the bottoms of ships, had become an indispensable resource in a world that was rapidly turning to electricity as a source of energy and light.
The Warren Mining District contained one of the richest and largest bodies of copper ore to be found on the North American Continent. And by 1885, the biggest copper-producing player in Bisbee was Phelps, Dodge & Co.
But in the mid-1880s Bisbee wasn’t yet connected to a railroad. Copper ore was milled and smelted on site, turned into heavy, bulky ingots consisting of nearly-pure copper. Getting that copper from Bisbee to the refinery meant taking it to the closest railhead – at that time it was Fairbank, located on the San Pedro River a few miles northwest of Tombstone. That meant hauling the ingots in wagon trains, with each wagon pulled by teams of 20 or more mules over rough terrain - a slow and expensive process.
Bringing necessary commodities, such as coal for fueling copper smelters and other steam-operated machinery, into Bisbee was equally difficult and expensive. As copper production increased, the need for faster, more efficient transportation into and out of the mining camp became pressing.
To meet the need for faster, cheaper transportation, the Phelps Dodge Co. created a new entity in 1888: the Arizona & Southeastern Railroad. By 1889, the A & SE had completed a 36-mile rail line shaped like a fishhook that linked Bisbee to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe rail line at Fairbank. The first locomotive to chug into Bisbee on February 1, 1889, was a small, husky, secondhand engine designated as Engine No. 1. It has fortunately survived through the years and is currently on display at the El Paso, TX Visitors Center.
Increased production also created the need for larger smelting facilities. By 1900, PD and the Calumet & Arizona Mining companies had fixed their attention on a site located some 25 miles southeast of Bisbee along the Mexican border. That location became the city of Douglas. To produce copper efficiently and then transport it to refineries in El Paso – where it would be made into a 99.99 percent pure product suitable for industrial use - Douglas needed a rail connection to that Texas city.
Unhappy with its dealings as a customer of the AT & SF line, Phelps Dodge wanted cheaper rates and more control over the means of delivery. The A & SE had already completed a 19-mile rail extension from Fairbank to Benson in 1894, where it made a direct connection with the Southern Pacific Railroad, but PD President James Douglas was thinking in bigger terms. In 1900, Phelps Dodge renamed the Arizona & Southeastern, calling it the Southwestern Railroad, with the intention of connecting the soon-to-be founded smelter town of Douglas to the rest of its existing line.
In 1901 the railroad’s name was changed once again to the El Paso & Southwestern, reflecting Phelps Dodge’s goal of connecting all of its copper-producing properties to the refineries in El Paso. Later, the line would be extended even further, over the Rock Island line’s trackage to reach Chicago. Branch lines were also built to Phelps Dodge’s coal mining properties at Dawson, NM and to various communities in AZ as well as to the PD copper mines in Nacozari, Sonora.