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One of the great market places and intersections of multiculturalism

Entrepreneurs thought little of Nogales, considering it only a pass through to elsewhere. In 1882, Cyrus Holiday founder of the Santa Fe Railroad, built the first railroad along the west coast of Mexico from Benson to Guaymas to link markets in Chicago through to the anticipated great trade from the Orient. Twenty-first century Nogales entrepreneurs who developed  industries and trade including produce, maquiladoras and transportation viewed northern Mexico as a supplier and consumer to elsewhere. It all began in 1862 when Pete Kitchen, the first border settler established the local pathways to world commerce, by selling produce and livestock from his El Potrero Ranch just north of the border to Magdalena and Tucson.


The Santa Fe named their first wooden rail depot straddling the border after the original 19th century land grant ranch, Rancho Nogales de los Elias.  The name applied only to the depot, not to the  scattered buildings of a  community which had the tenuous name of Issacson  and  Line City.  Without ceremony or fanfare, U.S. and Mexican residents slowly adopted  Nogales as their community’s name.

Echo of History author and historian Axel C F Holm

Holiday’s vision of  Far Eastern trade with the U.S. never came, but New York railroad baron Edward Harriman anticipated the economic potential of the west coast of Mexico.  In 1906, Harriman established the Pacific Fruit Express as a joint subsidiary of both his rail companies, the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads.   The PFE provided ice-reefer rail cars to transport fresh vegetables by rail from distant farmers to U.S. and Canadian population centers.  In 1909, during a trip to Nogales and Culiacan, Harriman saw for himself the opportunity to include the west coast of Mexico as part of his north American fresh produce system.  Soon, PFE icing stations from southern Mexico through Nogales to Tucson and beyond facilitated the transportation of Mexican fresh vegetables throughout North America.

Former U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania, Morgan Wise, saw opportunity in southern Arizona and settled in what is now Rio Rico, providing the opportunity for his son Joe Wise to become a well known Arizona and Mexico cattleman and businessman.  One of the earliest settlers in the late 1870s, Col. Charles P. Sykes attempted to develop the old Spanish settlement of Calabasas as an economic center for border trade, including the first hotel the Santa Rita Hotel opened in 1882.  Calabasas didn’t grow for 100 years, and then under the contrived name of Rio Rico.  Nogales entrepreneur Edward Titcomb in 1883 recognized Arizona and Mexico’s mining opportunities and by the 1890s made his headquarters in Nogales to supply mining equipment and industrial supplies.  Today, the names Sykes, Wise and Titcomb survive generations later, as southern Arizona’s first and original Euro-American settlers.

Not all commerce was on a grand scale.   Some, like Harry Karns, local historian, entrepreneur (Mayor of Nogales 1927-1933), began in 1907 with two vehicles providing a taxi service from Santa Ana, Sonora to nearby mines. A half century apart, two German barbers, George Januel and Albert Gute traveled west from Europe eventually finding a comfortable place at Nogales to practice their trade.   Unable to find work for women in New York, widow Lucretia Roberts kept moving west to find someone willing to hire a woman, eventually finding work as a ranch hand in Sonoita.   Not long after, Mrs. Roberts, in what began a joke to humiliate her,  was elected the first female deputy sheriff in the United States.  A prosperous mercantile trade was established in Nogales with names like Bracker, Berk, Beatus, Savitt, Levy, Marcus, Chernin and Capin who found opportunity in the burgeoning international business at the pass through of Nogales.   But these Jewish merchants were only but a few, with others from the middle east, like Karam and Kory and Greece, like Kyriakis, Karam and Panasoupolis and others from just about anywhere else who in time found Nogales. Some became wealthy, like Wirt Bowman, who arrived in the 1880s to Nogales to find work on the Santa Fe’s Sonoran Railway.  Bowman (Mayor of Nogales, 1918-19),  became a custom broker and entrepreneur in real estate, banking, hotels, businesses, ranching and gambling casinos in Mexico.   Doctors like Chenoweth, Gustetter, Smelker, Noon, and Houle established practices in Nogales.   Lawyers like Duffy and Hardy became the first legal counselors.  New York brothers Leander and James Mix with eastern financial connections found investment opportunities in Nogales with Roy and Titcomb and the Saldamando’s International Drug Company.   James Mix was Nogales first mayor in 1893 and later Collector of Customs.   Captain Leander Mix, (Nogales Mayor, 1912-1916) a promoter and advocate of Nogales and Arizona persuaded the U.S. Navy to name a new battleship, the U.S.S. Arizona.    In a tragic irony, the destruction of the U.S.S. Arizona on December 7, 1941, led to more residents per capita from Santa Cruz County to serve in the U.S. military than any other county in the U.S.   Nogalians from all wars from WW1 and WW2 and through Korea and Vietnam served the United States and continue to serve today.  Some died, and many chose to live elsewhere post WW2 in what was perhaps the greatest outflow of Nogales residents.  But their contributions in war, also produced opportunities for new residents and a new generation of entrepreneurs as Nogales in recent years developed a substantial Korean population.

The beginnings of Nogales began a surge of entrepreneurs continuing for decades and supplemented by the establishment of the U.S. Army Camp Little along Western Avenue from 1910-1932 and the permanent residence of former army personnel,  including “buffalo soldiers,” a generation of black soldiers who established their own community within Nogales.   Today, the population is an ebb and flow of natives leaving, some returning, and new people arriving.   The population of Nogales, Sonora has exploded to a near half million people, making the combined Nogales the third largest population center next to Phoenix and Tucson.   What remains after generations of people coming and going and building and creating is a substantial international trade between the U.S. and Mexico.  However much newsflashes and sound bites remind the world of illicit traffic along the border, the steady drum beat of over 130 years of continuing commerce and culture continues to identify ambos Nogales of the vast international trade that has grown between the U.S. and Latin America.   The efforts of hundreds of entrepreneurs turned what seemed a few scattered buildings into one of the great market places and intersections of multiculturalism. Echo note: Holm is an state and local historian.

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