By J.J. Lamb, Vail Preservation Society

Railroad Matters

“In the Cienega 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…”

Arizona Weekly Star, April 15, 1880

Chinese settlers were in Arizona as early as 1863, the year Arizona became a territory. Many had left China because of the political unrest. They had heard of a vast and beautiful land full of natural resources. They dreamed of discovering mineral wealth and the seemingly unlimited opportunities to begin their own businesses and provide for their families. Some were

Clara Ferrin with a Chinese vegetable vender in Tucson. Courtesy Arizona Historical Society #41613

recruited by the Southern Pacific and other railroad companies to build rail lines that would link the eastern and western coasts of the United States. Their travel fare was taken care of in exchange for a set number of years of work. The majority of early Chinese immigrants were brought to Arizona for the back-breaking task of laying track for the Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) through the desert.  Heat was the official reason given for importing Chinese laborers. Anglo and Mexican workers could not be expected to put in a day’s work under those conditions.  In reality the SPRR saw the Chinese as cheap, reliable laborers. Their wages were $1.00 per day, 50 cents less than Anglo workers. They were expected to pay for their own food out of their wages. When their terms were completed, they could return home to China or remain in the United States. Often they were away from their families for years. Sojourners returned home, settlers remained. Family was extremely important and great personal sacrifices were made in the hopes of improving life for their families in China.

The SPRR, builders of the southern transcontinental railroad, hired Chinese workers who had experience constructing the rail line in California. For the Chinese it was an opportunity to escape the prejudice in large California cities and find work. Workers were transported to Arizona in rail cars. One report stated that “249 Chinamen came in six cars…” They lived and worked under very difficult circumstances. Some stayed on after the railroad was built and started grocery, laundry and other businesses. They were very hard workers and their gardens supplied vegetables that were sold door to door by cart. In 1897, Clara Ferrin, sister of early Vail school teacher Hattie Ferrin, wondered about the “great disadvantage it would be to us if the vegetable chinamen were all removed from Tucson.”

The railroad tracks that were built through Vail in 1880 and 1888 were constructed by Chinese railroad workers. Their lives and work are an important part of our local history.

On the Wing

There are about 700 men engaged in Blasting, etc., in the cienega Valley.

Heavy work is going on close to, and in front of, Dunbar’s old station

where a cut, some twelve feet in depth is being made.    Arizona Weekly Star, April 1880

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J.J. Lamb