3: Nacozari de García
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The first time that I ventured into the interior of Mexico after coming to
Sierra Vista was Thanksgiving weekend in 1987. My destination was Aguas Caliente, the hot
springs near San Felipe, about 100 miles south of Cananea. Agua Caliente had been written
about in both the Star and the Republic.
After getting my tourist visa and car permit in Agua Prieta, I would turn
down the road to Hermosillo, through Nacozari, Moctezuma, and Ures. I would swing west at
Moctezuma, and turn north to Agua Caliente at Mazocahui. At the junction, I slowed down
for a lone soldier with an automatic weapon. Next, I stopped at the interior customs
check, staffed by an old man with his cat. About 48 miles south at the town of Esqueda, I
filled my car with gasoline. According to the map I had, the road was paved to Lake
Angostura. I had time to see what was there, and still get to Agua Caliente to camp before
dark. It appeared that the side road branched from the main road north of Nacozari, at a
point about 20 miles south of Esqueda.
I did not think that it was completely strange that I had to sign in at
the entrance to the copper mine, to pass through their property. After all, there had been
the soldier up the road. Also, I had to sign in to stay after hours at the offices of the
government contractor where I worked in Sierra Vista. I passed the new smelter of the
mine. The concentrator. Around the bend where there was a large Mexican flag, an open pit.
The paved road ended at the other end of the open pit.
It was obvious that this road did not go to Lake Angostura. I gathered
that I had to go north of where I was. I went back past the concentrator and smelter, and
entered a small, modern store. I got a Tropicana orange drink, made in Tijuana, at the
store. I asked how to get to Angostura. The storekeeper said that the road was very bad,
and it would take cuatro horas , four hours, from where I was now, to get there.
I abandoned my attempt to get to Angostura. I signed out of the mining complex, and
returned to the main road. Just six miles to the south, the main road bypassed Nacozari. I
had no time to go into the town, or make any other stops, if I wanted to get to San Felipe
before dark. The peso had just been devalued to about 2,800 to the dollar, so my camping
fee was about 40 cents a day.
For the García in the town's name recognizes the Casey Jones of Mexico.
Jesús García ran a train that had dynamite on fire out of Nacozari, not long after Casey
Jones lost his life in slowing his passenger train down before it collided with another
train in western Mississippi in 1900.
The people who settled most of northeastern Sonora before the Spaniards
came were the Opatas. They provided the origin of the name Nacozari, "naco" for
prickly pear cactus, and "zari" for "place of."
Gold, silver, copper, and lead mining began in the Nacozari area in 1660.
Most famous in the area was the lost mine of El Huacal. El Huacal was probably developed
by the Moctezuma Concentrating Company as San Pedro in 1890. In addition, Moctezuma
developed the La Cobriza and La Bella Unión mines. As the Moctezuma Copper Company, it
discovered the mines at nearby Pilares, and began to develop them.
Moctezuma did not have the resources to continue developing the mines. By
1900, Phelps Dodge and Company had acquired them. Phelps Dodge put in a new mill, and
began a railroad to the border. Copper was hauled partially by mule trains, until the
railroad was finished in 1904.
By 1907, Nacozari had become the metropolis of far northeastern Sonora. It
had 5,000 people, mostly Mexicans and Americans, with some Chinese.
Because of the religious and moral convictions of the founders developed
in the woods of Pennsylvania, Phelps Dodge built good housing, stores with reasonable
prices, churches, schools, and recreation centers. A particular point of pride was the
large library downtown. It built a modern hospital, and imported American doctors to staff
it. Housing and utilities were provided free to workers. While there were enough Americans
in general for separate schools to be constructed for them, there were never more than 50
Americans working in the mines at any one time. A prominent educator from Hermosillo and
other towns in Sonora, Luis G. Monzón, developed the Mexican schools. Miners received
from 1 peso and 50 centavos to 10 pesos (75 cents to $5.00) a day, depending on their
experience. The company did not negotiate with workers on any issue. Workers and their
dependents were taken care of "from the cradle to the grave".
Once the railroad was completed to Agua Prieta, the major event became the
daily arrival of the train from there. On one September 16, a Mexican Independence Day
speaker found himself completely deserted, when the audience left to meet the train.
Jesús García was born in 1883 in Hermosillo. Widowed, his mother moved
him with his four sisters and three brothers to the town of Batuc in east central Sonora
in 1894. After a brief stop in Cananea, the family finally settled in Nacozari. There,
García worked odd jobs, until he became employed by Phelps Dodge in the main railyard of
Nacozari, in 1900. At the railyard, García first worked on the track maintenance crew. He
then got to clean the locomotives, and work with the crew on one. Soon, he had enough
money to move his family to a house in a better neighborhood than where he was. With seven
other young and rapidly-advancing workers, he was rewarded with an all-expenses-paid trip
to the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.
By 1905, García had become an engineer, running trains from Nacozari to
the mines of Pilares, six miles away. Hazards of running the trains included burros
wandering onto the tracks and grazing, lost brakes, and saboteurs who tore up sections of
track who were never caught.
He made enough money to have the best musicians in town serenade the women
he was romancing. By 1907, he had settled on Jesusita Soqui as his fiancée. On Friday,
November 7, he had had her serenaded all the night before, and he had just enough time to
change into his work clothes in the morning. After he got to work, he and his crew made
two runs from Nacozari to Pilares and back. Pilares needed dynamite to reach new copper
deposits. Of the 2,000 boxes in the storehouse, 160 were to be taken there. The plan was
for workers to load the dynamite with detonators onto the train, then break for lunch.
During the break, García, his fireman, and his three brakemen would prepare the
locomotive for the run. They would make the run after the break.
The conductor, Albert Biel, was a stern, elderly man from Germany.
Ordinarily, he would have been in charge of the loading of the train. On this day, Biel
was sick and in the hospital. Responsibility for the loading fell to García, age 24, as
train engineer. García allowed the dynamite to be loaded in the two cars in front of the
train, just behind the locomotive, which Biel would have not done. According to the
account in the Star of November 8, the load included hay, and 2 bales were loaded
on top of the dynamite because there was too much hay in the other cars already.
The crew had allowed the fire in the locomotive to go down, so the
locomotive had no reserve steam pressure. The fire had to be built up again. Finally, the
train pulled out, about 2:00. A spark from the locomotive had reached a detonator in one
of the cars with dynamite. A Mexican boy, and then an American man, spotted the smoke
coming from the car. Not seeing their warnings, the crew continued to add cars to the
train. Just outside the railyard, the crew saw that the boxes of dynamite had caught fire.
They could not find dirt or water anywhere, to put it out.
Francisco Rendón, a brakeman from another crew hitching a ride to Pilares,
had an idea. García stopped the train, and Rendón went to a dynamite box and tried to
use dirt to smother the fire. Gusts of wind came up, and Rendón had to draw back from the
flames. García then started the train, and ordered the crew to jump, which the brakemen
immediately did. Fireman José Romero asked to take the train, saying that García had
family, and he did not. García replied with words as, "I am the engineer. You must
save yourself." Romero then jumped into a drainage ditch.
Fifty more meters, and the train would have gotten to a flat, open area.
García would have had a chance to jump himself, and let the train go. However, the
dynamite exploded 500 meters from the railyard, at Estación Seis. A 14-year-old boy with
an American father and a Mexican mother, and 4 miners waiting at the station were killed.
Along with García, 9 people living near Estación Seis also died in the explosion.
The explosion, at 2:20, was heard 10 miles away. The glass in the library
in the downtown part of Nacozari was shattered. Had García not been able to move the
train as far as he did, a good part of the town would have been destroyed. Had he not been
able to move the train at all, and all the cases of dynamite in the storehouse exploded,
the whole town would have been destroyed, as well as a good part of the surrounding area.
The first thoughts about the accident were that García had saved the
mining property, as well as the townspeople. Phelps Dodge mining superintendent James
Douglas spent all night going from Cananea to Naco to Douglas to Nacozari, when he heard
of the accident. He had met García several times before. He telegraphed Luis Torres in
Hermosillo, and Torres acknowledged him. Very quickly, García was recognized in Mexico,
and in railroad and southeastern Arizona lore if not beyond in the United States as a
hero. On the same day, thousands turned out for García's funeral. Monzón, in his eulogy,
told his listeners that García's act was an example of the civic duty that they needed to
have to get rid of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.
Two years to the date of the accident, a monument was dedicated in the
plaza of Nacozari to García's honor. The town was named Nacozari de García. In his
speech, Douglas recounted the accident, and denied that hay had been put on the dynamite
cars. He also pointed out that García needed to stay with the train to be sure it would
not roll back into town. Along with the rest of the town, García saved his fiancée, but
she would not live to see the monument dedicated to him.
Besides Nacozari, there are monuments to Jesús García in many other
Mexican cities and towns. November 7 is the Day of the Railroader in Mexico. All except
essential employees of the National Railways of Mexico get the day off. Many streets in
Mexico are named Jesús García or Heroe de Nacozari. Poems and songs have been
written about him, and the accident.
Nacozari encountered battles in the revolt of Orozco against Madero in
1912. It raised troops to help Obregón fight Huerta in 1913. Pancho Villa passed through
after facing Calles in Agua Prieta in 1915, on his way to Hermosillo. It was then that
most Americans left Nacozari. Phelps Dodge retained the mines in the area until 1949, when
they were exhausted.
A large mine, La Caridad, was discovered about 20 miles southeast of
Nacozari in 1968. By 1979, the population of Nacozari was back to about 3,000. As Mexicana
de Cobre, the federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop La
Caridad, and revive other mines in the area. Nacozari was estimated to have 18,600 people
in 1986, and 30,000 in 1989. The last population estimate in 2000 was 12,000, so mining
has slowed down in Nacozari again.
In 1988, the government sold the mines around Nacozari to a group of
Mexican, Canadian, and European investors. Even though the miners had been unionized, in
accordance with the principles of the Revolution, the turnover of the mines was not
accompanied by anywhere near the same problems as at Cananea.
For economic purposes, Nacozari remains in the interior of Mexico.
Therefore, the government requires Americans to get tourist visas to go there. Until all
duties are scheduled to be phased out under NAFTA, residents of Nacozari must pay them on
goods imported from the United States and Canada, as residents of places farther south in
Mexico. The sign at the railroad station in Agua Prieta says that it is 123.8 kilometers,
or about 76.9 miles, to Nacozari. Nacozari is about 127 miles from Sierra Vista, closer
than Phoenix. It is a little more than 185 miles from most parts of Tucson, closer than
nearly all parts of northern Arizona.
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