The Day the Steel Rails Reached Tucson His Holiness, The Pope was notified–or so some thought.

Tucson Railway 1880's True West
Tucson Railway 1880’s

The building of the transcontinental railroad along the 32nd Parallel was a major milestone in Arizona history. Up to then the main means of transportation to bring people and supplies into the central part of the vast territory was by stagecoach or wagon. So naturally there was cause for great celebration in Tucson on March 20th, 1880 when the Southern Pacific rolled into town marking the end of those hot, dusty stagecoach trips across barren deserts.

Those little iron-bellied steam locomotives moved at a snail’s pace; folks called them “coffee pots” and “peanut roasters” and it was said a reasonably sober fat lady could outrun one of them in a downhill race.  But they did the job. Travel time for passengers going to Los Angeles was reduced from five days to less than one with the cost dropping by two thirds. Freight shipments that previously took three months now arrived in four days.

The town of Tombstone presented the Tucson with a silver spike in honor of the occasion. After a day of spirited celebrating, speech-making, ballyhooing and drinking, self-congratulatory telegrams were sent to dignitaries from New York to San Francisco. The “Old Pueblo” had arrived and they wanted everybody to know about it. A few of those who’d overindulged in strong spirits took it upon themselves to send a telegram to Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican which read as follows:

To His Holiness the Pope of Rome in Italy:

The mayor of Tucson begs the honor of reminding Your Holiness that the ancient and honorable pueblo founded by Spaniards under the sanction of the Church more than three centuries ago, and to inform Your Holiness that a railroad from San Francisco, California now connects us to the entire Christian World.

Signed R. N Leatherwood, Mayor

 

Before the telegrapher could send the message some of the more discreet citizens advised him to reconsider. Not wanting to cast pall over the celebration by having the Pope ignore Tucson’s coming out party, it was said they slipped him a few bucks to “can” the message to allow them to write a reply for the celebrants.

That being done the telegrapher carried the message over to the assemblage where Mayor Leatherwood was holding court. Without bothering to preview the Pope’s “reply” the mayor called the crowd to attention and read aloud:

“His Holiness the Pope acknowledges with appreciation the receipt of your telegram informing him that the ancient city of Tucson at last has been connected by rail with the outside world and sends his benediction, but for his own satisfaction would ask, where the hell is Tucson?”

What do you think?

Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian, board president of the Arizona Historical Society and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen; History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu