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The way we were

Remembering Arizona's deadliest train wreck

In a rapidly growing Sun Belt community like ours, it is too often easy to forget our history. Events and controversies that might define a generation are unknown to newcomers and fade into obscurity over the years. The 1903 disaster at Esmond Station, the deadliest train wreck in Arizona history, is an example of an incident that affected an entire community and changed the course of political history, but the crash and the place where it occurred, were unremembered and neglected for decades.

Esmond Station, 12 miles southeast of Downtown Tucson, was first established as a railroad section station called Papago in April 1880 as the advancing Southern Pacific laid tracks eastward across Southern Arizona. It consisted of a cluster of workshops and warehouses in addition to housing for a handful of mostly Mexican-American employees and their families. Early attempts to sink a well there were unsuccessful and water would have to be hauled in from elsewhere, so unlike some other such places, it would never become the nucleus for a substantial town.

In 1890, the community's small population included, in the words of the Tucson Citizen, a "witch" whose traditional cures were well known in the surrounding countryside. In July of that year, for reasons that remain unclear, the railroad changed the name of the station to Esmond. By this time, the Southern Pacific was the largest employer in Pima County, and it would remain so for decades.

There was little to distinguish Esmond from a dozen or so other railroad stations in Pima County, and it might have remained obscure were it not for what happened near there early in the morning on January 28, 1903. Two trains, the westbound Sunset Limited and the eastbound Crescent City Express, collided head-on near the present day intersection of Houghton and Rita Roads, nearly a mile west of the station. The fire from the resulting explosion was visible as far away as Vail, five miles to the east, and the smoke could be seen from Tucson.

Arriving by a special train at 4 a.m., rescuers from Tucson came upon a grisly and confused scene. Screaming passengers, injured and trapped in the wreckage, were threatened by advancing flames, rescuers unable to immediately reach them because the metal was still red-hot. Survivors who could walk wandered around bewildered, with a number of "lungers," tuberculosis patients bound for Tucson in the hope of recovery, struggling to breathe in the smoke-filled air. It took hours for railroad employees and citizen volunteers to get the situation under control. In the end, 14 bodies were recovered, 11 of which would remain unidentified. It would never be clear how many had perished in the crash. The injured were sent to Saint Mary's Hospital.

Among the deceased was engineer John W. "Jack" Bruce, who was running the engine of the Sunset Limited. Bruce had arrived in Tucson in 1880 as an engineer on the first train to come to the Old Pueblo. He later organized and led Division 28 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and represented Pima County in the 17th Territorial Legislature of 1893, where he was part of a progressive faction that included future Governor George W.P. Hunt.

Investigation into the crash began immediately, and a petty turf battle erupted just as quickly. Justices of the Peace W.H. Culver and O.T. Richey, both Republicans, each claimed to have arrived on the scene first and asserted that they had the authority to convene an inquest in their capacity as acting coroner. County Attorney Roscoe Dale, also a Republican, sided with Culver, but both inquests continued nonetheless.

In the end, both juries came to the same conclusion, blaming a telegraph operator working at Vail who failed to pass on an order for the Sunset Limited to pull over at a siding at Wilmot. The telegraph operator was called to testify by both coroner's juries but, though Constables Robert Frasier and Nabor Pacheco were dispatched to seek him out, he could not be found. He had apparently fled from town and was never heard from again.

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The Esmond wreck was one of four such crashes that occurred nationwide within 24 hours and the incident made headlines across the country. A public weary of the all-too-frequent news of fatal collisions increasingly called for regulation. For their part, the Southern Pacific quickly moved to improve communications and traffic control, but this could not stop the clamor for reform. In Arizona, railroad safety concerns helped drive a growing progressive movement which would soon dominate the political scene and control the 1910 constitutional convention which passed language that empowered the new state to regulate corporations. 

Though the crash dominated the front pages for weeks, it eventually faded from public memory. In 1952, Esmond was abandoned as the Southern Pacific moved its line to the south to accommodate the needs of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. A family named Lopez ran cattle on the surrounding land and from time to time would live in the station buildings, but, except as the name of a road, the site would otherwise be forgotten.

With the growth of Vail in the early 2000s, historians and preservationists began to call for commemoration of the crash site and preservation of the station buildings. Esmond Station Regional Park was dedicated by the county in 2017, assuring that the place and the drama that occurred there would not be again forgotten.

For more on the Esmond disaster and Pima County's railroad heritage, see William Kalt's book "Tucson Was a Railroad Town".

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