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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Early Railroad Trip
from San Antonio
to El Paso

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

You can still take a train from San Antonio to El Paso, but the ride on Amtrak is far different from the trip Eda Kampmann Herff took in the early 1880s.

The 29-year-old woman was the daughter of San Antonio contractor and civic leader J.H. Kampmann. Her late husband John, the son of pioneer Alamo City doctor Ferdinand Herff, had died of appendicitis three years earlier. To help in dealing with her grief – she still visited her late husband’s grave frequently – Mrs. Herff had begun keeping a diary. She confided to it in German on everything from the weather and news of the day to her experiences and feelings.

She never explained why she was going to El Paso, but the young widow noted in her diary that she was traveling with “Mr. & Mrs. Lowell and Mrs. Horne.”

One reason for the trip may have been the novelty of it, since the rail connection between the Alamo City and El Paso had only been completed a year earlier. Workers had begun laying tracks eastward from El Paso in May 1881, with another team starting westward from San Antonio. The two tracks met in January 1883, with a silver spike hammered in just west of the Pecos on the 12th of that month.

Now, not quite 13 months later, Eda spent much of Feb. 6, 1884 packing and preparing “a very large lunch” for the train, there apparently being no dining car on the run.

The Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad (forerunner of the Southern Pacific) train pulled out of San Antonio on time at 6 p.m. Eda noted in her diary that the conductor was a Mr. Rogers.

“We went to bed early to be able to get up early to see the beautiful landscape,” she wrote. “We were awakened at 5 a.m. because we were at the Pecos. The scenery is so grand you can’t find words for it. At the painted cave the cliffs are 300-400 feet high.”

From there, she wrote, the train wound on narrow gauge tracks along the Rio Grande, which flowed 200 to 300 feet below. That stretch extended nine miles before the tracks turned toward the mountains farther from the river. Maybe because her father was in the construction business, Eda pointed out that it had cost the railroad $100,000 a mile to build that segment along the international boundary.

“You go through two large tunnels,” she wrote. “Chinese were the only workers, they earn comparatively little, $1.50 per day….” Reflecting the attitude of the times, she noted the Asians had been employed by the railroad because they were “the only workers that can exist in this desolate area.”

Those Chinese workers had blasted away the sides of steep mountains to carve a bed for the rails along that riverside stretch, which crossed the Pecos on a low bridge near the river’s juncture with the Rio Grande. It had been hard work, and not all the railroad’s employees survived the experience.

“The rail then continues through high mountains until Murschyville [apparently, that’s how Murphysville sounded to Eda’s German ear…the town’s called Alpine today],” she wrote, “from there the area after the Sierra Blanca becomes more romantic.”

The steam train must have stopped at Alpine for coal and water, because she had time for a visit with a Mr. Reeves, “an old neighbor of ours.”

The food she had packed, she continued, “tasted very good to all, especially to the conductors and engineers to whom we always sent something out.”

Puffing and chugging on from Alpine, the train rolled into the El Paso depot at 3 p.m. Mountain Time on Friday, February 8. Friends met the San Antonio entourage at the station and filled them in on the local scene.

El Paso is a city of 5,000 built remarkably pretty,” Eda observed. “Everything built in the last 2 years. Property is very high there. The city is totally American. I even saw Queen Anne style houses.”

With the elevation being 3,750 feet, Eda wrote she had difficulty breathing until she got used to it. “The air is curiously light,” is the way she put it. The visitors from San Antonio went from the depot to the city’s best hotel, the Pierson House. Rooms cost $3 a night.

The next afternoon, they crossed over to Juarez, then known as El Paso Del Norte.

“Here everything is different,” she wrote. “The houses are adobe, all flat roofs and very solidly built.”

El Paso’s new rail service stimulated a boom that was well underway when Eda and her friends visited. The influx of new residents and those just passing through apparently also marked the beginning of the tourist trade in Juarez.

“We bought some souvenirs from Mexico and then wandered into the Cathedral,” she wrote. “In the evening when we were at home, we were so tired that we could barely walk.”

Eda and the rest of her party boarded the evening east-bound train that Saturday and arrived in San Antonio on Monday, February 11. “I was so tired that I was not myself,” she wrote. “But I went at once to the cemetery, everything was in order.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 16, 2015 column

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