The Eastern/Western Divisions
Courtesy Whitehead Museum
The Western Division was responsible for construction and track laying from El Paso to the mouth of the Pecos River, the point where railway officials decided the west and east sections of tracks would be joined with a silver spike. James H. Strobridge, a seasoned veteran of Southern Pacific Railroad construction in California and Arizona, supervised the work of the Western Division from Sierra Blanca, Texas to the Pecos River. Strobridge, while a construction superintendent for the Central Pacific in the 1870s, had supervised Chinese crews involved with shoveling, surfacing, grading, hauling fill, driving carts, and digging on softer excavations. At peak construction in January-February 1882, Strobridge's Western Division was pushing to complete the last 20 miles of track and employed upwards of 7,000 people, 6,000 of whom were reported to have been Chinese laborers. Once the line was completed in 1883, most of the Chinese laborers eventually went back to California after working in the Mojave Desert on a branch line to tap the Arizona and Pacific Lines. Only a handful of the Chinese workers remained in Texas.
Courtesy Whitehead Museum
There is every reason to believe that the 1881-1883 Chinese labor crews that worked in today's Amistad Reservoir basin were nearly identical in work composition, eating habits, camp organization, and daily administration to the Chinese crews that worked on the first transcontinental railroad in California, Nevada, and Utah during the 1870s. Briggs' research (1974) at the Langtry Construction site (41VV585) clearly indicates that Chinese crews were among the residents of this temporary construction camp. His research identified the presence of four separate double-hearth features, something he attributes to traditional Chinese food preparation. Briggs believes the double-hearth was used strictly by ethnic Chinese, one side for steaming rice and the other for frying meats and vegetables. From analysis of the historic artifacts in association with the four double-hearth features, Briggs makes a conjectural population estimate of 17 Chinese to one Anglo at this site where perhaps 550-665 construction workers lived for a brief period in 1882.
In October, 1882, San Antonio Daily Express newspaper correspondent Fred Locker visited Strobridge's construction camp near Langtry (site 41VV585 noted above) and reported that "the Chinese are treated more like slaves than anything else, they are [sic] drove around and sometimes used severely if they don't work to suit the bosses."
The Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway selected Major James Converse to oversee construction operations for the Eastern Division. Converse was a veteran of the first transcontinental railroad construction through the High Sierras and would later become General Superintendent and Chief Engineer of the line in Texas. The overall operation of Converse's Eastern Division sharply contrasts with the Western Division in terms of the make up of the work force and the organization of construction activities. The Eastern Division contracted out all construction activities, except tracklaying, with the contractors providing the labor force and the railway company the materials. Contracts were made for rock work, tunnel construction, and grading between San Antonio and the Pecos River. Each contractor established his own temporary construction camp and worked independently of other contractors. This meant that construction and grading was taking place simultaneously at non-contiguous points along the route, which sharply contrasts with the orderly grading and tracklaying of the Western Division.
Some of the newly arrived German and Italian immigrants may have learned of the employment opportunities with the railroad through immigrant newspapers published in Europe such as the Weltpost in Leipzig, Germany, or through stateside newsletters from companies such as the Southwestern Immigration Company. The literature often reports that the majority of the Eastern Division workers were Irish immigrants (Wilson 1923:10). However, newspaper accounts on the progress of activities in the Devils River and Pecos River areas fail to mention Irish workers. Therefore, if Irish immigrants were working on the line they were most probably hired directly by the GH&SA in San Antonio to lay track from San Antonio to the contract area (Briggs 1974:34).
The U.S. Army provided initial security for the Eastern Division by temporarily assigning a detachment of horse soldiers from the Eighth Cavalry of the Pecos. Railway officials had been justly concerned about the potential threat of Indian depredations on such a large work force operating in a remote area away from towns or settlements. Between 1873-1881, U.S. Army Lt. John L. Bullis and his companies of Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts from Fort Clark were involved in 26 different Indian campaigns in Texas and Northern Mexico. On at least three separate occasions, Bullis' engagements with nomadic Indian groups had occurred at locations within the future Southern Pacific railroad right-of-way. Two of these engagements occured at the mouth of the Pecos River at the Rio Grande and another occured at Eagle Nest Canyon, future site of the railroad town Langtry, Texas. But initial fears of Indian attacks never materialized and the U.S. Army soon replaced the horse soldiers with a group of infantry and Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts under the command of Lieutenant Jones.
The Eastern division began road construction (building of the grade) west from San Antonio on March 1, 1881, while the Western Division did not begin work east from El Paso until mid-April. Both divisions advanced at a rapid pace due to the relatively flat topography until reaching the canyon lands of Devils and Rio Grande valleys. Here, the deeply incised limestone walls rose near vertically 300 feet above the river bottom below. Crossing the intervening side canyons further slowed construction as both divisions inched towards the Pecos. By the time the lines were finally joined, engineers had designed 2 tunnels, 3,000 feet of wooden trestle, and 14 metal spans each between 100-300 feet in length to complete the line through the canyonlands.