October 25, 2002

Roads of steel: Baja California Railroads

By Mariana Martinez

A pilgrims Peninsula.

From the dim light of dawn come clanging of wheels, metal and smoke; the train arrives. From its core come women, children and men, families that join their whispers to those from the station vendors:

— Pork skin, bean or sausage gorditas, what can I get you?

— Tongue tacos, chimichangas, quesadillas

— Taxi?

In the middle of the Baja Californian landscape, the anxious porters help the families with their boxes, trunks and bags, in which they bring there roots and hopes.


A train wagon

The Sonora-Baja California railroad was built under the initiative of the Transit and Railroad commissioner, Ing. Ulises Irigoyen, during Lázaro Cárdenas Presidency in 1937. Threatened by the expansionist views in the United States, México feared for their Baja California territory. Far away from the capital, with precarious communications and little population, the peninsula seemed a likely target; something was needed to bind it to the rest of the country.

Several railroads were being built around the country, so Irigoyen came up with a plan to build one in Baja California, starting in Mexicali and going all the way down to Benjamín Hill, in the state of Sonora, from there, the tracks could hook up with the rest of the Mexican railroad system, all the way to Guadalajara.

The harsh climate and lack of resources made the building of the tracks a heroic task: the first step was to send placing brigades, to get to know the field. On the first expedition, four young men were sent out. They died, lost in the desert, trying desperately to get to the help station near by. The first four camps that were established along the tracks, carry their name in honor of the tragedy: José López Collada, José Sánchez Islas, Jesús Torres and Gustavo Sotelo, none of them over thirty.

Immigrants from all over the country, farmers who heard of the train and left their towns to work up north, mainly did the laying of the railroad tracks.

That’s the way the peninsula was populated, by men who brought their families to live in camps near the tracks. Little by little the camps became villages around the tracks and women offered food and drink to the workers, and later on, the passengers from the trains. In many stations, among the dunes and the cactus, a town was being born.

In opposition to many of the railroad stations, built during the francophiled Porfiriato, the Baja California-Sonora railroad stations were very plain. In common accord with the environment and the socialist ideas of Lázaro Cárdenas, the station and houses around them were built on sun dried bricks and soon became a permanent home to families that started to prosper along with the railroads.

The building of the tracks went fast, until WWII came, along with a shortage of metal around the world. The work stopped, but the Mexicali-Puerto Peñasco (midway to Benjamin Hill) route started functioning May 5, 1940.

The first locomotive engine to cross the tracks was a tiny SCOP 1, 30 ton Plymouth, with six wheels that had been used in the construction of Hoover Dam, and was bought second hand from the American government.

The train tracks passed trough a place they called “the doctor”, a sulfurous water stream that was used in medicinal baths, because of this, the train was first called the Flowing Stream Train.

The coming and going of people and goods was on a rise, and for the first time, coffee, sugar and all types of fruit were coming here from around the country.

In 1942, with the Bracero program, the railroad became even more vital to the region, helping to bring the flow of people going in to the United States and consolidating the local economy in the meanwhile. The rest of the tracks were being built and were ready five years later, finishing the project to join Mexicali with Benajmin Hill.

The fifties were the golden age of trains, especially in Baja California: the mail traveled through these modern wagons, which included a dining car, dorms, first class and even a museum wagon, as a project of INAH-National Institute of Anthropology and History-. Also by that time, there was a wagon called “the dove”, a white wagon, which was a moving store that offered curios goods from all over México an U.S.

With the end of the Bracero program in the early sixties, and the introduction of other means of transportation, train traveling became less and less usual, but remained popular for the exchange of merchandise.

That’s the way the peninsula was populated and attracted foreign investments, and slowly, the winds of development gave way to work, and a constant exchange of cultures, in a flow of immigrants, that are still are characteristics of the region.

Woven history

This success story of the Sonora-Baja California train, is just one of the many routes that lay along the Baja California peninsula. Many years before, the idea to trace a steel road came up at the turn of the century; in 1904 the Intercalifornia train was built by Southern Pacific Co. as a way to link the Imperial Valley – enriched by the gold rush-with the eastern states.

Because of the harsh ground conditions, an agreement was made, so a part of the train could pass through Mexican soil, with the help of a lot of immigrants, most of them of Chinese, Russian and Hindu heritage, that came to California and Baja California to work in the fields.

The tracks left little towns, with curios names, one of them “Palaco”, is now a suburb near the city of Mexicali, and was named after the initials of an American company that used the tracks: Pacific Land Co.


Young boys playing with a model train in the museum.

Five years after the Intercalifornia, the Tijuana-Tecate tracks were built with the help of hte Cucapá Indians, because of their athletic constitution and knowledge of the field. In those years, the train helped bring tourists and travelers, many of them coming to visit the luxurious Aguacaliente Casino and Spa, with thermal water streams that were said to cure tuberculosis.

Joined since their beginnings, Tijuana and San Diego became tightly knit through their commercial and social activities, many of them having to do with the train. Now-an-days, the train still has a daily trip from Tecate to Tijuana and back, bringing many supplies to and from the cities.

Memory scraps

The story the tracks tell, had been kept alive by those who lived it; the many railroad workers, drivers and engineers, their families and those who came to live here, in their well kept wagons…Many of those memories are now part of a large exhibit in the -soon to be, 25 year old- University Museum, a part of the state university UABC.

The museum curators had the initiative to compile a series of well kept objects that reflect the way of living at the time the railroads were operating, and helps the public visualize that time, by an impressive series of photographs that show the way Baja California and its people lived.

“Head trough tail” inaugurated in August of this year, will be open to the public until January of 2003, it has complementary guided tours and kids activities were they build their own paper trains.

As I walk out of the museum and go to the bus station, as I cross the border back to Tijuana, I can’t help but think that still, we are a region whose lives are woven together, and still, we are built of immigrants and still, every day, hundreds of people come here, with there luggage full of roots and hopes, blending in to the whispers

— Pork skin, bean or sausage gorditas, what can I get you?

— Tongue tacos, chimichangas, quesadillas

— Taxi?

Mexicali´s University Museum
Reforma Av. and L street. Nueva Mexicali B.C.
Open M-F from 9 till 6
Weekends 10 to 4
Fee: 1dll per person.
Phone: (686) 5525715 and 5541977
E-mail: educativos@info.rec.uabc.mx

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