November 7, 2007, marks the centenary of the death of Jesús García, the “Hero of Nacozari.”
The small town of Nacozari occupies a valley nestled in the foothills of the Western Sierra Madre (Sierra Madre Occidental) in the state of Sonora.
A hundred years ago this month, a young locomotive driver had to make a desperate decision: save his own life or try to save the lives of hundreds in his home town? Choosing the latter, he drove his dynamite-laden train away from the town but it finally exploded, killing him instantly. He was only 50 meters from safety. Just 50 meters further, and he could have abandoned the locomotive to its fate and jumped off the burning train to save his own skin.
His actions saved the town. Jesús García became a national hero. In his honor, November 7 is celebrated each year as Día del Ferrocarrilero (Day of the Railroad Worker).
By the end of the nineteenth century, Nacozari (the name means “abundance of prickly pears”) was a lively frontier town of about 5,000 people. A worldwide copper boom promised to be the town’s path to future wealth. Copper was needed for engines, motors, power plants, telephones, telegraph, pipes, rods and wire; demand was rising rapidly. Workers flocked in.
In 1895, Nacozari’s copper mines were owned by Moctezuma Copper Corporation, a subsidiary of Phelps Dodge. The following year, an important copper reserve was discovered nearby at Pilares. The company enlarged the town, building homes, stores, workshops, warehouses, furnaces and ore concentrators. All the supplies had to be brought in by mule train; most items came from Arizona or California. Ore was packed out of the mines, also by mules.
In 1899, the company built its own 8-kilometer-long narrow gauge railway from the mine at Pilares to Nacozari, for easier transport of ore to its concentrators. The elevation difference along this line is considerable, more than 600 meters (2,000 feet) from mine to town. Following concentration, the ore was taken to Douglas, Arizona, for smelting. These exports of ore became much easier in 1904 when a standard gauge railway line from Agua Prieta was extended to Nacozari.
Jesús García had been born Nov 13, 1883 in Hermosillo, Sonora. His mother moved with her eight children to Nacozari in 1898. García started work with the company railroad as a waterboy, quickly winning promotions to switch man, brakeman, fireman, and finally, by the age of twenty, to maquinista (engine driver). His work ethic was much appreciated by his employers. In 1904 they paid for García and seven colleagues to attend the World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.
García drove locomotive number 2, transporting mineral ore and supplies between the loading yards in the town and the mine. The hazards faced by locomotive drivers included stray donkeys wandering onto the line, saboteurs tearing up the rails, and brake failures. In October 1907, García had managed to halt a train whose brakes had failed by reversing the wheels and dumping lots of sand on the line. The train finally ground to a halt only four meters from the end of the line.
García was a popular young man and engaged to María de Jesús Soqui. He serenaded her regularly, hiring the best local bands each time, and is reported to have done so on the night of Wednesday November 6, 1907.
The following day, García was working as usual, and had several return trips scheduled to the mine. The mining company had three locomotives, all made by Porter of Pittsburgh. García operated a 0-6-0 locomotive built to order in 1901. The engines relied on wood for fuel and had to carry copious supplies of water and also sand (to increase the friction between rails and wheels).
When García arrived for work, he was told that the train’s usual conductor (a German named Biel) had been admitted to hospital, so he would have to manage without him. By mid-day, García had completed two trips down from the mine with dozens of loaded ore cars. While other workers tended the engine and loaded the cars for the next trip, García had lunch at his mother’s house. Neighbors later confirmed that his mother shared her premonition of doom with him as they ate.
Just after 2 p.m., García set off again towards the mine. Locomotive number 2 was pulling several cars, the front two of which were open cars containing 70 boxes of dynamite, detonators and fuses. This was strictly against company regulations which stated that dynamite must be carried only in the rear cars. Other cars that day contained bales of hay. As they pulled out of the lower yard, stray sparks from the train’s chimney stack were blown back onto the first cars, causing a box of dynamite to begin smoking. Railway workers aboard the train desperately tried to douse the smoke, but their efforts failed, and the box caught fire.
García realized that if the train exploded near the lower yard, the resulting detonations of the company’s dynamite stores and gas tanks would almost certainly destroy most of Nacozari. He also realized that if he jumped from the train, it might run out of steam and roll backwards towards the town before exploding. He ordered everyone else off the train and opened the throttle wide, hoping to put a small ridge between him and the town, and perhaps reach Camp 6, a secondary loading area en route to the mine. If only he could pass Camp 6, he must have thought, he could safey leap from the train and the train would continue on into uninhabited wilderness.
By 2:20 p.m., García had driven the train six kilometers out of the town and was entering Camp 6 when the cars exploded. García was killed instantly by the massive blast. He died barely a week before his 24th birthday. At least 12 bystanders were also killed in the resulting carnage. Amazingly, the engine remained on the tracks; it was later sold to the Mereci Southern Railroad of Arizona.
The blast was heard up to 16 kilometers (10 miles) away. It shattered the glass in many of Nacozari’s buildings. Twisted metal was hurled through the air, to rain down several kilometers away.
But at least García’s quick thinking and brave actions had saved the main part of town. Within days, he was being hailed as a hero.
Two years after the accident, the town unveiled a permanent memorial to Jesús García, the Hero of Nacozari. Sadly, his fiancée did not live to see this; she died broken-hearted less than a year after García. On November 9, the state congress decreed that Nacozari would henceforth be known as Nacozari de García. García was awarded, posthumously, the American Cross of Honor.
Ten years after the train explosion, García’s ashes were reinterred close to his monument in Nacozari. In 1944, the federal government declared that the National Day of the Railroad Worker would be celebrated every November 7.
Jesús García became a national hero, after whom numerous streets, schools, bridges and parks have been named. There are monuments to him in many towns, including Hermosillo (the Héroe de Nacozari Stadium was home to the Coyotes de Sonora football 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 both near (Cuba, Guatemala) and far (United Kingdom, Germany).
Several popular songs or corridos were written about him. The best known is Máquina 501. The composer of this corrido took a little poetic license with the engine number. As we have seen, García drove locomotive number 2; 501 was the number of the last locomotive ever operated by the mining company. When it was eventually retired to Nacozari’s main square, it was renamed the Jesús García.
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.
Garcia’s brave actions were turned into a movie El Héroe de Nacozari (1935), directed by Guillermo Calles, and have been the subject of several books, including Kate Tuthill’s award-winning “Hero of Nacozari”.
The Moctezuma Copper Co. suspended its operations in Nacozari in 1949, but the discovery in 1968 of new copper reserves 20 miles south east of the town has led to a revival. Mexicana de Cobre, a state-run company, built the infrastructure for open-cast mining which began in 1980. In 1988, the mines were bought by a group of investors from Mexico, Canada and Europe. Nacozari de García has had more than its fair share of economic ups and downs, but remains a pleasant mid-sized town. The 2005 inter-census count puts Nacozari’s population at 10,090. The town is still sustained largely by copper mining and cattle ranching.
Nacozari is on Highway 17, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Hermosillo and 100 kilometers (65 miles) south of Douglas, Arizona.
- Don Dedora and Bob Robles. Goodbye García Adiós: the true and powerful story of one of Mexico’s authentic heroes. Northland Press. 1976.
This great bilingual book is well researched, with excellent photos and a glossary.
- Peter Laux. Famous Mexicans on their Stamps: Jesús García, The Hero of Nacozari. Edited by Michael D. Roberts.
This article is Chapter 21 of Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique (Sombrero Books, 2016). Rita Pomade’s detailed review of this book is on MexConnect.
Text © Copyright 2007 by Tony Burton. All rights reserved.