Thursday, November 7, 2019

Jesús García—Mexico’s Engineer Folk hero

Jesús García in a photo taken just days before his death.
Both the United States and Mexico have national folk heroes who were real railroaders. They were even near contemporaries.  James Luther “Casey” Jones of poetry and song was an engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad who was killed in 1900 when his speeding locomotive rammed a sitting freight train.  The accident was entirely Jones’s fault who was trying to keep up a reputation for “always bringing her in on time” despite weather related delays.  But what Jesús García did seven years later in the state of Senora will shock and amaze you.
Jesús García y Corona was born on November 13, 1883 in Hermosillo, Sonora and was one of eight children.  In 1897 his mother moved the family to Nacozari, a copper mining boom town.  No mention is made of his father, but there were so many ways for a peon to die young in northern Mexico in those days—over work, disease, bandits, accidents,  bad liquor and sometimes  a man with too many mouths to feed would go off to find a fortune north of the border and never be heard from again.  
The copper mines were operated by the Moctezuma Copper Corporation, a subsidiary of American giant Phelps Dodge which also had significant operations in Arizona.  In addition the original mines near Nacoazri, another lode was discovered at Pilares, about five miles away.  
In 1898, a year after the García had arrived in town the company built a narrow gauge railroad between the mines and the town.  This replaced the mule trains that had originally packed the ore back to a breaker mill in town and brought supplied back up the mountain.  It was built on exceptionally steep grades, which were relieved by few switchbacks to save money in construction.  
His mother helped young Jesús get a job on the short line railroad.  He started out as a water boy, but quickly advanced because he was hard working, bright, and could read and write.  It was hard work and the hours were long but the railroad saved the boy from a life as a peon or the dangerous drudgery of the mines and mill.  He was promoted in quick succession to switchman, brakeman, fireman, and finally, by the age of twenty, to maquinista—engineer.  He had risen quickly to the pinnacle of the local aristocracy of labor.
Jesús García was almost surely in the cab when this photo of Engine #2 crossing a trestle near the mine as taken.
García was assigned to Engine #2, a 0-6-0 locomotive built to order in 1901 from H. K. Porter, Inc., a specialist in small engines, in Pittsburg.  It was one of three that the line operated.  All three made several trips a day between Nacoazri and Pilares hauling ore one way and supplies for the mine on the return trip.  Starting in 1904 a standard gauge spur had been extended to Nacoazri so the broken ore could make connections to Phelps Dodge’s smelter in Douglas, Arizona.
The young engineer was so well thought of by his employers that they paid for an excursion to the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904.  He was also a handsome young man who was popular in town and cut quite a figure with the ladies cutting a dashing figure as an accomplished horseman as well.  He became engaged to the lovely María de Jesús Soqu.  He made enough money to regularly hire local musicians to serenade his novia.  Even though it was a Wednesday evening, he had done the same, on November 6. 1907.
The next day, November 7, he found that his regular conductor, a German, was in the hospital.  He would have to operate that day with a brakeman substituting for the conductor.  It may have been fatal.  A conductor was in charge of, among other things, overseeing the safe makeup of the train.  For the run back to the mines from town that day two cars were loaded with crates packed with 70 boxes of dynamite and placed directly behind the engine and tender, a violation of company policy.  Behind those the other cars others were loaded with bales of hay for the mules used in the mines.  
As the train was being loaded García had enough time to walk to his mother’s nearby house for lunch.  Local lore has it that she had a premonition of her son’s death.
At 2 pm García began rolling out of the yards for the trip to the mines.  He did not get far when crewmen noticed smoke coming from the cars.  A faulty spark retarder in the funnel was allowing a shower of sparks to escape from the wood-burning firebox which set fire to hay.  That spread quickly to the dynamite cars.  Crewmen tried desperately to beat out embers on the boxes but they caught fire.  
Realizing that the dynamite would blow with enough force to obliterate the town, García ordered his crew to jump and opened the throttle.  He hoped to get the train out of town and over a rise called the hump after which he probably hoped to be able to jump himself with the train clear of the town.  He was afraid without his hand on the throttle, the train might lose steam and slide back into town before getting over the hump.
He got the train 3 ¾ miles and was rolling past Camp 6, a secondary loading area on to the way mine cluster of miner’s cabins and tent, when the dynamite blew.  He was killed instantly, just days short of his 24th birthday.  Twelve workers at Camp six were also killed, but hundreds probably would have died had the explosion happened in Nacoazri.  The explosion was heard 10 miles away, debris rained down over a wide radius, and most of the glass windows in Nacozari were shattered.
Remarkably Engine #2 was not destroyed.  It was later repaired and sold to the Mereci Southern Railroad in Arizona.  

One of the most impressive of the many monuments to Jesús García
García was proclaimed a hero across Mexico.  Nacoazri dedicated a monument to him in its central Plaza in 1909.  It was just the first of many.  Others can be seen at Hermosillo  where the Héroe de Nacozari Stadium was home to the Coyotes de Sonora fútbol [soccer] team, Mexico City, Zacatecas, Veracruz, Tapachula, Guadalajara, Mazatlán, Naco, Aguascalientes, Ciudad Obregón, Empalme, San Luis Potosí, and Tierra Blanca, as well as in other countries—Cuba, Guatemala, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
But all the accolades in the world were not enough for his fiancé María who was said to have died of a broken heart only a year after the love of her life.
The State Congress of Sonora changed the name of the town to Nacozari de García as it is known to this day.  He was named a Hero of Humanity by the American Red Cross.  In 1944 the Mexican Federal Government declared November 7 would become the Día del Ferrocarrilero [Railroad Worker’s Day.]  He has also been commemorated on Mexican post stamps,
After the old narrow gauge railroad ceased operation in 1949 its last locomotive, #501 was moved to the Plaza of Nacoazri next to his monument and re-named Jesús García.

Believed to be a publicity illustration for the 1935 film El Héroe de Nacozari.
García has inspired numerous works of art, novels, non-fiction books, film, and song.  The 1935 film El Héroe de Nacozari directed by Guillermo Calles is considered a classic of Mexican cinema.
The best known of many songs is the Corrido de la Máquina 501, sung by one of the country’s greatest singing stars,  Pancho “el Charro” Avitia.  The title mistakes the engine on display in Nacoazi with #2 which García actually drove.  Below are the Spanish words followed by a loose English translation.

Corrido de la Máquina 501

Máquina quinientos uno,
la que corrió por Sonora,
por eso los garroteros
el que no suspira, llora.

El fogonero le dice:
“Jesús, vámonos apeando,
mira que el carro de atrás
ya se nos viene quemando.”

Era un domingo, señores,
como a las tres de la tarde,
estaba Jesús García
acariciando a su madre.

Jesús García le contesta:
"Yo pienso muy diferente,
yo no quiero ser la causa
de que muera tanta gente."

Dentro de pocos momentos:
“madre tengo que partir,
del tren se escucha el silbato,
se acerca mi porvenir.”

Le dio vuelta a su vapor,
porque era de cuesta arriba,
y antes de llegar al seis
allí terminó su vida.

Cuando llegó a la estación
un tren ya estaba silbando
y un carro de dinamita
ya se estaba quemando.

Desde ese día inolvidable
tú te has ganado la cruz,
tú te has ganado las palmas,
eres un héroe Jesús.  

Engine 501

Engine 501
    rolls through Sonora.
    And the brakeman
    who won’t sigh will cry.

    One fine Sunday, gentlemen,
    ‘round three o’clock,
    Jesús García sweetly
    caressed his mother.

    “Soon I must depart,
    kind mother,
    the train whistle
    draws the future near.”

    Arriving at the station
    a whistle blew shrill.
    The wagon with dynamite
    menaced with its roof afire.

    The fireman says,
    “Jesús, let’s scram!
    that wagon behind
    will burn us to hell.”

    Jesús replies,
    “That I cannot own—a
    this conflagration
    will kill the whole town!”

    So he throws it in reverse
    to escape downhill
    and by the sixth mile
    into God’s hands he’d arrived.

    From that unforgettable day
    You’ve earned the holy cross
    You’ve earned our applause.
    Jesús, you’re our hero.

    Engine 501
    rolls through Sonora.
    And the brakeman
    who won’t sigh will cry.                                                               

No comments:

Post a Comment