TOMBSTONE’S RAILROAD CENTENNIAL reprinted with permission from Tombstone Times.
by Larry Jensen & Ray Madzia
Picture the day. Feel the event. The Railroad was coming to Tombstone!!!! It had been nearly 25 years that folks had been arriving in Tombstone, but not by rail. The railroad had not laid tracks and Tombstone was accessible only by horse and buggy so to speak. So here it is. The day has finally arrived and the streets are filled with the expectation of the very first train to arrive in Tombstone. The streets are all decorated. The shop windows display the banners and ribbons that had been readied for this historic event. From the top of the surrounding hills one could hear the trumpeting gun salutes announcing the arrival of the very first train into Tombstone. Picnic lunches were prepared. Ladies were dressed in their finest. Gentlemen were speaking in unison with pride and joy regarding this historic event for their town of Tombstone. And children were playing train engineer with their toy wagons. This was an event to beat all events in this mining town, as the advent of the railroad into Tombstone would mark the future of this “town too tough to die”. We are presenting the following article with some interesting facts regarding the true history of the railroad’s arrival in Tombstone in April 1903. Editor
Tombstone’s progressive businessmen had been lobbying for a rail line since March 1880, when the Southern Pacific Railroad constructed its transcontinental route through Benson, only 25 miles to the north. The need for a railroad to encourage commerce by providing a reliable form of transportation for goods and passengers was seen as being of paramount importance. It was also needed to move ore from the silver mines around town to the mills along the San Pedro River.
Over the years, several projects were proposed but never materialized.
Stagecoaches and other horse-drawn conveyances continued to be relied upon by the town for its transportation needs. The dream came a bit closer in 1882, when the New Mexico & Arizona Railroad was built between Benson and Nogales. The 88-mile line passed through Fairbank, located only nine miles from Tombstone.
The N.M. & A. was an isolated subsidiary of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, headquartered in Topeka, Kansas. The Santa Fe planned to enter into direct competition with the Southern Pacific in Southern Arizona, and this line was intended to be its foothold in the area. A branch line into Tombstone was included, and two miles of new right-of-way for it was graded near Fairbank in 1882, but nothing more was done, and the Santa Fe ultimately abandoned its Southern Arizona aspirations.
There were occasional proposals to build into Tombstone during the balance of the 1880s and the 1890s, but declining silver prices, labor unrest, and problems with the mines flooding discouraged all of these ventures. The turn of the 20th century came and went without Tombstone achieving its dream of a railroad.
The copper boom in nearby Bisbee finally set in motion the chain of events that resulted in a branch line being built to Tombstone. The El Paso & Southwestern Railroad was incorporated in July 1901, to connect various Arizona mines with smelters in El Paso, Texas, and in the new city of Douglas, 20 miles east of Bisbee. The line was also planned as a major regional carrier. The first segment was constructed from Benson to Bisbee, a distance of 55 miles, by May 1902. This line passed through Fairbank. The Bisbee to El Paso segment was completed in November 1902. The line was extended into Tucson in 1912.
At the time this railroad was under construction, there was a renewed mining boom in Tombstone. Local mining entrepreneur E.B. Gage incorporated the Tombstone Consolidated Mines Company, Ltd., in June 1901. The objective of the company was to purchase most of the independent mines in the area and merge them into a large-scale operation. Having been part of the original mining boom in Tombstone, Gage was familiar with the deficiencies of Tombstone’s previous mining ventures. He also knew a railroad line was needed for his new company to achieve its goals. Fortunately, the El Paso & Southwestern was receptive.
According to David F. Myrick, in his epic history “Railroads of Arizona, Volume I”, the El Paso & Southwestern made a preliminary survey in February 1902. The final survey for the branch was completed in early July and grading for the new line began on July 29. Crews consisting of Mexicans and Papago Indians utilized the two miles that had been graded by the N.M. & A. in 1882 and completed an additional seven miles of right-of-way. Six wooden trestles were built across various streams along the route.
From Fairbank, the new line followed Walnut Gulch, a tributary of the San Pedro River, east for six miles, then climbed out of the ravine via a two-and-a-half percent grade. It circled Comstock Hill (behind the spot now occupied by the Best Western Lookout Lodge) and entered town through the area now occupied by the post office and residential neighborhoods. After passing behind the courthouse, it reached its terminal along Toughnut Street. Construction crews began laying track at Fairbank on March 9, 1903 and reached Tombstone on March 24.
Two boxcars served as a temporary depot while E.P. & S.W. carpenters built the wood frame passenger and freight station that still stands at the corner of Fourth and Toughnut streets. Passenger service began on April 5, 1903. Two thousand people came to town on Sunday, April 12, 1903, for a celebration. The Tombstone Prospector, the town’s major newspaper, published a 56-page souvenir edition.
The Tombstone Consolidated Mines Company, Ltd., constructed 9,700 feet of track that connected to the new line and served its various facilities. This track was completed on April 25. Cars of coal were delivered to power the machinery. Coal was later replaced by fuel oil. Outbound traffic from the mines consisted of ore bound for the mills along the San Pedro River.
The entire El Paso & Southwestern system was leased by the Southern Pacific in November 1924. It was finally merged into that railroad in September 1955. The Tombstone branch continued to serve the town’s needs until 1960. The last major mine closed in 1959. After that, there was not enough traffic to support continued operation. Southern Pacific petitioned for abandonment, which was granted. The last train ran on August 13, 1960, and the track was removed shortly thereafter.
The railroad donated the depot to the city for use as library. It continues to be used for that purpose today. Retired Southern Pacific caboose number 1057 and a boxcar were brought to Tombstone by truck in 1971 and placed next to the building on the old right-of-way. They are the last reminders of Tombstone’s rich railroad heritage.
Learn more about the sights of Tombstone on our “Things to Do in Tombstone” page.