August 22, 2003

Oral History Project to Gather Stories of Mexican Railroad Laborers in the Sa Gorgonio Pass

Grandson of longtime worker hopes to raise awareness of Mexican heritage in the area

Luis Estrada was a railroad man through and through. For 33 years, he worked for Southern Pacific Railroad in the San Gorgonio Pass, the major east-west corridor for rail traffic moving through the San Bernardino Mountains between Los Angeles and points east.

Born in Mexico, Estrada started out as a railroad gang worker in Colton in 1913, rising to crew leader before retiring in 1947. He was one of hundreds of Mexicans who toiled for Southern Pacific in the San Gorgonio Pass area, from Colton to Indio. Now his grandson, activist Leslie Rios, is determined to preserve the history of that community. Rios’ efforts are part of Living on the Dime, the Communities Speak project in Riverside and San Bernardino counties the Council has funded under its California Stories initiative.

During the early part of the century, railroad laborers like rios’ grandfather lived in campo trains, wooden boxcars converted into living quarters. These portable “homes” took the crew from one area of the rail line to another, depending on where the work was. The men carried 50-pound rail ties over their shoulders, pounded metal spikes into the ties, and even repaired steam locomotives.

Luis Estrada married the daughter of a railroad man, and he and his wife, Emeteria Lira, moved into section housing in the barrio labor camp in Colton next to railroad tracks. Together the couples raised 10 children, including Rios’ mother. The family moved to Beaumont in 1931.

Community activist Leslie Rios has deep roots in the railroad community in the San Gorgonio Pass. Rios’ great-granfather, shown here with his wife and children, circa 1918, worked for the railroad in Colton. Photo courtesy of Leslie Rios.

Each town in the pass had its own laborers and special section housing for families. About six railroad families lived in each community in attached to-room cottages. “Everyone knew each other,” Rios says. “The women cooked and took care of children, and curing World War II, men and women worked for the railroad while many of the local boys from San Gorgonio Pass were off fighting. They walked the tracks in towns like Beaumont and Banning, clearing debris so trains, sometimes filled with soldiers, could pass safely,” he says.

Estrada died in 1980 at age 84, but Rios remembers his grandfather well. “After he retired he bought some land and built a house next to the section housing, and he liked to walk out by the tracks. It was what he knew,” Rios says.

When Rios learned that the city of Beaumont planned to rename a street in the town, he immediately decided it should be named after his grandfather. “Other streets were named after pioneers, but none had Mexican names,” Rios says.

Through Rios’ hard work, in July 2001, Luis Estrada Road in Beaumont was dedicated. Rios turned the event into a celebration honoring all the Mexican railroad workers for their contributions, and 500 descendants of 70 railroad workers showed up at the dedication. “The section housing was torn down in the 1960s,” Rios says, “but many families strayed in the area. We all knew we were railroad families, but nothing had been written about our history.”

Rios has already collected a number of stories and photographs and has identified 40 more families to interview. “I want children to know about their heritage,” Rios says. “I think, for example, the younger generation would be very proud to know that their grandmothers or great-grandmothers did important work for the railroad during world War II. Most of them aren’t aware that their families are a vital part of the history of this area. And now people are passing away and the area is becoming more industrial. I want to record these stories before it’s too late.”

For information about the railroad worker project in the San Gorgonio Pass, contact Leslie Rios at or call 909/769-1989

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