Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 21, 2019

With Wyatt and Doc at Tucson Train Station

Back in 1881, U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp, the infamous Doc Holliday, and some number of men stepped off the train at Tucson, Arizona.

Wyatt and the boys had just come from the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, south of Tucson. They were bound for Los Angeles, escorting Wyatt’s brother, Virgil, who’d been shot in that encounter. Already dead was another Earp, Morgan, and some number of other men.

Accounts of that episode in the history of the Wild West vary. None of them reflect much credit on the bloody and vicious America of the day.

Although he was a duly licensed law enforcement official, Wyatt was not one to stand on ceremony regarding points of law. He dispensed his own form of frontier justice, and didn’t always allow “due process” to take its course.

Disembarking at the Southern Pacific station in Tucson, Wyatt got word that Frank Stilwell, one of the men suspected of shooting both his brothers, was nearby. Wyatt and his posse chased down Stilwell and shot him dead on the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks near the station.

There, in a nutshell, is the Wild West of American legend.

Today, you can visit the Tucson Train Station on the eastern edge of downtown Tucson, although it’s not the wooden building that was standing in 1887. The current structure was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1907.

Tucson Station Brad Nixon 5864 680

On the track side of the station, you can see Wyatt and Doc, immortalized by Tucson sculptor Dan Bates as they set off for their version of either justice, revenge or what have you.

MV C5315-LR Earp and Doc H Tucson train depot 680

According to contemporary reports, Earp favored a shotgun. That, then, must be Wyatt on the right, Holliday on the left, loading what might be a repeating rifle: both deadly weapons, used near that spot in what can only be called an assassination of Stilwell, sans indictment, trial, judge or jury.

Things are more civilized at today’s Tucson Station. Freight and passenger trains still roll through. You can catch an Amtrak train heading between Los Angeles, New Orleans and points east, or Chicago, 1,000 miles to the north.

The waiting room still retains a bit of its historic vibe, but has been updated with new lighting and vending machines, neither of which Doc or Wyatt could imagine.

Tucson depot Brad Nixon 5846 680

Part of the sprawling depot complex is occupied by the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum.

In the American southwest, “transportation” meant railroads. On display is a Mogul 2-6-0 steam locomotive #1673, built in Schenectady, New York in 1900, which in its day pulled trains for something like a million miles across southeastern Arizona.

Tucson locomotive Brad Nixon 5809 680

Engage the museum docent in a minute of conversation, and he’ll take you up into the cab to see how the engineer and fireman operated a steam locomotive. Engineer stands to the right, fireman to the left, watching the large steam pressure gauge. Pressure gets low? Shovel in coal! The engine as it now exists was, like most locomotives, converted to diesel fuel, and the firemen had to learn an entirely new set of operating procedures to keep the boiler at pressure.

Tucson locomotive Brad Nixon 5817 680

If you show any interest, the docent will let you pull that cord on the upper left, and ring the bell. Trust me, it’s loud! You can’t blow the whistle, which requires the boiler to be steamed up, and it’s been a lot of years since #1673 had steam pressure.

The Moguls were workhorses of their day, and you’ll encounter them in museums all over the west.  Not the largest or most powerful engines, but what transportation relied on in that era.

The depot building you’ll see on your visit reflects a modernization of the 1907 structure carried out in 1947, in Spanish Colonial style, and then spiffed-up in about 2004. It’s a bit of a museum, itself, including something I’ve never seen:

Railroad dispatch Brad Nixon 5839 680 copy

That’s a CTC — Centralized Traffic Control board, from about 1960: an analog display which allowed a dispatcher at the Tucson station to manage rail traffic.

Railroad buffs know that railroads were, in a way, pioneers in traffic management, courtesy of the low-wattage direct current that ran through the rails and powered the signal system and switches (“points,” in the UK and elsewhere). The presence of a train on the rails showed up as a light on the CTC panel, and let a dispatcher notify engineers about other traffic. That’s oversimplifying, but you get it.

Railroad dispatch Brad Nixon 5842 680

Out in the waiting room, those wooden benches are fixtures you’ll see in depot waiting rooms from Seattle to Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and beyond.

Tucson depot Brad Nixon 5844 680

Back in 1907, Southern Pacific commissioned an up-and-coming western artist, Maynard Dixon, to paint four lunettes to decorate doorways in their new station. Dixon went on to become one of the masters of western American art. After the 1947 remodel, the lunettes were put in storage, spent decades gathering dust in a Tucson storage room, and one was completely lost. Three survive, and are on display in the waiting room.

The Apache:

Dixon mural Apache 5855 680

The Cattleman:

Dixon mural Cattleman 5852 680

The Prospector:

Dixon mural Prospector 5849 680

You’ll only get a small piece of the old west at Tucson’s train station, but you’ll get at least a slice of it. And where else can you stand next to Wyatt and Doc, larger than life, as they should be?

Wyatt Doc 5834 680

Practicalities

The Tucson station is at 400 North Toole Ave. Admission is free. There’s parking in an adjacent lot, just north of the complex.

The Southern Arizona Transportation Museum is in the same complex at 414 N. Toole Ave. It’s open every day but Monday, hours vary. Check the website link for details.  Locomotive 1673 is on open view, and you can climb into the cab during hours the museum is open. Thank your local volunteer as you ring the bell.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Some photos © M. Vincent 2019. Used by kind permission. Millard Dixon lunettes © Arizona State Museum.


Responses

  1. Somehow, my visit to Tuscon did not include this! Thanks!

    Like

    • Can’t see everything. You’re welcome.

      Like

  2. Very informative. Good job

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Movies of the famous “lawmen” always show them dressed that way. I wonder why one would wear heavy black full length coats in 110 degree-plus temps with little or no shade. Hope they carried really big canteens!

    Liked by 2 people

    • O.K. Corral was Oct. 26, 1881. Cooler weather.

      Like

      • Cute. I think you’re pulling my leather vest.

        Like

      • It gets cooler there. Plus, those coats are called “dusters,” in order to try to keep some of the trail dust out of one’s clothes. Or, if you’re riding a steam train, coal dust.

        Like

  4. There’s lots to enjoy here: the lunettes, the trains, and the history. Too bad Houston’s train station doesn’t have as much class as Tucson’s — one inviolable rule for using the Houston station is “Do not park your car anywhere in the neighborhood, and especially not at the station.”

    I can flesh out that phrase “some number of men” just a bit. One of that number was Warren Earp, the youngest of the Earp Brothers. He was born in Pella, Iowa, just 30 miles from my home town. He either was or wasn’t in Tombstone on the day of the famous shootout, but he didn’t participate, although he did ride with Wyatt and the others when they went after Stilwell.

    Here’s the best part. Warren’s family stayed in the Pella area, and about sixty years after his death, I kissed his great-grandson, also named Warren, in the cattle barn at the Jasper County Fair. Living history, as they say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I was unaware of Warren Earp, but I’m not too well-versed an a lot of the history of the area. Nor did I know about the later Warren, but you obviously do. I’m certain he remembers the incident as well as you. Delightful.

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      • High school in the midwest. That also was the year I got dunked headfirst in a cattle trough at that same fair. Good times.

        Like

      • All the city kids are jealous now.

        Like

  5. A really cool article!

    Liked by 1 person


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