The "17th of Ireland" was celebrated in a very quiet and peaceable way yesterday. We have no drunks or disorderlies to report. Our Police Judge will never grow rich in Tucson. --Arizona Daily Star, March 18, 1880
The arrival of the railroad in Tucson on St. Patrick's Day was the big story in 1880.
For years people had been anxiously awaiting the coming on the railroad. Once the tracks reached town, gone would be the days of stagecoaches and wagon-hauled freight, to be replaced by the era of steam engines and steel rails.
The excitement had been building since 1877, when the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. constructed a bridge across the Colorado River. Lack of government authorization to proceed further east and a shortage of needed supplies slowed the company down somewhat, but by May of 1879 the tracks had reached a point that would become the city of Casa Grande.
Then construction stopped again because it was just too hot for the mostly-Chinese work crew to continue. It wasn't until January that the effort resumed, and with growing anticipation the people of Tucson looked for the day when the train tracks would finally arrive.
The coming of the railroad was expected to change many things in town. Lumber would be readily and cheaply available for the first time, thus making wood-frame construction possible. Fashions from the east, modern furniture and a wider variety of foodstuffs would all be easier to come by and considerably less expensive. Plus, the railroad would allow the mineral wealth of southern Arizona to be more extensively exploited.
The sight of the approach of the track-layers yesterday through the city created an enthusiasm among the natives not soon again to be witnessed. The school children were amazed and delighted, and with wonder looked at the 'big idea' and the steel path over which it carried its burden. --Arizona Daily Star, March 18, 1880
Among those who awaited the arrival of that first train were the Irish-born residents of Tucson. According to the 1880 census, 142 natives of Ireland lived in the city of 7,000 people, and another 13 were stationed as soldiers at Fort Lowell to the east of town.
Most of these true Irish were unmarried men in their 20s and 30s who were laborers or miners. A few single Irish women also lived in Tucson, mostly employed as servants, and one married woman from Ireland listed her occupation as "keeping of house."
Among them, however, the Tucson Irish of 1880 did have some locally famous people. John Morris was a civil engineer, P. Lynch ran a saloon and Edward Lynch was a brewer at Fort Lowell, and two Callahans both worked for the railroad company. There were also a physician, a lawyer and a storekeeper in the group.
Probably the most famous son of Eire in Tucson 122 years ago was 50-year old Charles Hudson. He was a partner with former Territorial Governor A.P.K. Safford and former mayor James Toole in the Safford, Hudson & Co. bank. With branches in both Tombstone and Tucson, the year-old business was only the third bank locally.
While it may have been a quiet St. Patrick's Day in 1880 for the Tucson Irish, the excitement of the arrival of the railroad was translated into merrymaking. Shops along Main Street downtown stretched flags across the dirt lane to mark the occasion, decorated their businesses in red, white and blue and lit bonfires on the street corners.
The entrance of the S.P. Railroad and the 17th of Ireland, both at once, was too much for our friends on Main Street. --Arizona Daily Star, March 18, 1880
While the first train had brought a lot of thrills, the community waited until March 20 to really celebrate. On that day at 11 a.m., Charles Crocker, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, arrived from San Francisco aboard the first passenger train. At the depot grounds on Toole Avenue, a silver spike was presented to Crocker by local businessman Estevan Ochoa.
After the trackside ceremony, a large contingent adjourned to Levin's Gardens near the Santa Cruz River. The afternoon was devoted to a banquet and a long, and probably very boring, series of speeches.
The economic miracle that many expected the railroad to bring just didn't occur, however, and Tucson's population wasn't much different 20 years later. In 1884, the Safford, Hudson & Co. bank was in ruins and Charles Hudson would eventually return to Belfast. The freight-hauling firm of Tully and Ochoa, co-owned by Estevan Ochoa, was also ruined within a few years by competition from the railroad.
But on that St. Patrick's Day long ago, all Tucson could talk about was the arrival of the railroad, and the 17th of Ireland, both on the same momentous day.