The Eastern/Western Divisions

A picture of the Silver Spike Ceremony in 1886.
The Silver Spike Ceremony in 1883.

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.

At this time, much of the construction work on the U.S. rail system was done by Chinese immigrants. But, most of what we know about their contributions is restricted to period literature about areas in California, Nevada, and Utah. Except for a few comments in regional newspaper articles in Texas from 1881-1883, very little first-hand information exists on the Chinese crews that worked for Strobridge's Western Division. What information we do have on such crews in the Lower Pecos area comes primarily from archeological investigations of railroad construction camps (Briggs 1974), which located Chinese artifacts.

Strobridge's Western Division was modeled after the Central Pacific's operations in central California, Nevada, and Utah which had been part of the larger Central Pacific-Union Pacific Transcontinental network. Due to a reported inability to secure white laborers on the Central Pacific lines, Chinese laborers, by default, became an integral part of the first transcontinental railroad often outnumbering non-Chinese construction crews by more than a 3-to-1 ratio (Reed 1870). E. W. Reed, Superintendent of the Utah Division wrote, in 1870:

"I have on my two divisions about 250 Chinamen. I never saw a better working gang of men than they are. They are a class of people that do not drink and you can depend on them every day unless they are sick. The only place that I see that they are not equal to white labor is in the loading and handling of iron on cars. But for shoveling, surfacing, track-spiking, loading ties or making embankments, they are equal to whites. We pay them $31.00 per month for 26 days work and they board themselves and pay freight that is shipped over the road to them" (Reed 1870).

Contrustion of the southern transcontinental railroad
Construction of the Southern Transcontinental Railroad.

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.

Chinese laborers usually lived and worked in isolation from other railroad employees. Railroad policy restricted them from jobs associated with surveying, supervision, and machinery operations. These jobs were traditionally given to white workmen. A typical Chinese crew might contain 12 to 30 members. Each crew usually had an individual assigned whose sole job was to maintain the 30-40 gallon whiskey barrels full of luke warm tea used by thirsty crew members. A mess attendant replenished the barrels several times a day with fresh tea carried in old powder kegs suspended from each end of a bamboo pole balanced on the shoulders (Kraus 1969:114).

The railway company supplied Chinese work crews, at a cost, with most of the basic necessities needed to live and work in remote or wilderness areas. During the early 1870s, the Central Pacific Railway Company provided Chinese workmen daily rations of 1 lb. of rice, 1 lb. of fish, pork, or beef, 1/3 lb. of vegetables, 1/2 oz. of tea, and a small amount of lard or cooking oil. Water-proof lodging and all tools and equipment for work were supplied by the railway company or contractor; each worker provided his own bedding.

Chinese crews began work at sunrise and quit at sunset, working 6 days per week, with monthly wages ranging between $30.00-$35.00. Days lost to sickness or injury were deducted from wages, with contractors providing free medicines and medical care (when available). Anglo construction foremen would meet with the Chinese "head man" for each work gang on a daily basis to settle up payroll. The head man, who bought and paid for all provisions used by his crew, would divide the payroll evenly among them after deducting the cost of individual purchases he had made on their behalf. Kraus (1969:211) describes one of the few first-hand accounts of wage payments to Chinese laborers working in Nevada in the 1870:

"Sisson and Crocker Company had an interpreter named Sam Thayer and also a Chinese interpreter. When they came up to these gangs of Chinese, the money due to them would be already counted out and they would dump the money in one of the Chinese' hats for that gang with a statement written in Chinese. There would be no time for explanations. They had to take it whether they liked it or not" (Kraus 1969:211).

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."

Following Strobridge's Chinese grading crews were Black Jack Higgins' track layers who numbered about 1,000 strong. The majority of Higgins' track crews were recent immigrants to the United States and included Irish, Italians, and Germans. As long as the track laying crews kept up with the graders, daily supply or work trains from El Paso were able to provision the entire operations of the Western Division (Dolman 1979:6-10).

Still standing railroad structure. Mexican Stonework.
One of many extant railroad structures on the Rio Grande. This is an example of Mexican stonework.

NPS Photo

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.

The work force Western Division was far more ethnically diverse than the Eastern Division. Among the work force could be counted immigrant Italians, Irish, and Germans alongside Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans. A number of the contractors came from the San Antonio area, although much of the labor force was brought in from other areas. Several contractors recruited a large group of workers from Illinois who even brought their wives and children with them and lived in several different camps in the vicinity of the construction work at the Devils River crossing. Three wagon loads of African Americans and supplies joined the Devils River camps in January, 1882. By February, 1882 the San Antonio Daily Express newspaper was reporting there were between 2,700 and 3,000 workers constructing the line between the Pecos and Devils River and that 45 to 60 new workers were arriving daily.

German Railroad structure.
Extant railroad structure on the Rio Grande. This is an example of German stonework.

NPS Photo

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.

Last updated: June 1, 2022

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