Ambos Nogales Face Across the Border
After the Spanish conquest of Pimeria Alta, the road from Tucson south became an important economic link for the pueblos, missions and ranchos in the Santa Cruz River valley. One fork in the road headed southeast for Arispe the provincial capital. Another fork went southwest for the seaport of Guaymas. The road to Guaymas left the Santa Cruz River at Calabasas and followed Potrero Creek to a walnut grove (los nogales) in a pass through the hills. In 1841, the Elías family received a land grant from the Mexican government to establish a ranch at Los Nogales. Following the 1853 Gadsden Purchase from Mexico of Tucson and all the surrounding country south of the Gila River the boundary survey party placed a monument marking the border at Los Nogales in 1855.
Twenty years later, as two transcontinental railroads prepared to cross the Territory of Arizona, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe made plans for a rail connection with Guaymas. William Ray Morley surveyed a route through Los Nogales in 1878 and the following year the Sonoran Railway was formed in Mexico as a subsidiary of the ATSF. In 1880, San Francisco merchant Jacob Issacson built a trading post in Nogales pass. The Santa Rita Hotel opened nearby a few years later. Within days of the hotel opening, October 25, 1882, the young daughter of surveyor Morley drove the last spike linking Guaymas with the Southern Pacific Railroad at Benson. It was the first rail line linking the US and Mexico. A Post Office was established in the Issacson store for the community of “Issacson,” sometimes also called “Line City,” right on the border. But when the railroad built its depot there it chose to name the stop Nogales.
In those days, the railroad depot, stores and saloons were built straddling the border. If one lived in Nogales, Arizona or Nogales, Sonora it made little difference socially. Twin bilingual communities grew up along the railroad with lively business districts. However, the matter of land ownership and political borders were of great importance to the courts and government. Ambos (“both”) Nogales was a problem for nearly everyone, it seemed, except those who lived there. A significant portion of government revenue at the time came from charging customs duties on the passage of goods between foreign countries and the US. And eventually citizens of one country would be denied the right to live and work in the other country. Smuggling of goods and persons was the natural reaction, bringing a never-ending series of violent episodes to bracket each period of relative peace. As 2010 ushered in the second decade of the second millennium, the so-called “border wars” have again flared where once only walnut trees swayed on a warm breeze.
Even before railroad construction was complete, Mexican residents in Arizona and American railroad workers got into a brawl over women, fueled by mescal “smuggled across the line” according to The New York Times (25 May 1882). There were powerful economic reasons for building saloons astraddle the border. A customer could move to the south end of the bar and enjoy duty-free liquor. Illegal immigrant labor was also a government problem in the 1880s as Chinese crossed at Nogales to work at lower pay for the railroads and mines. Politicians came to the rescue in 1882, passing the federal Chinese Exclusion Act to outlaw most Chinese immigration to the US. Nevertheless, twenty years later Treasury Department special agents arrested Nogales customs officials for allegedly allowing Chinese to pass in return for bribes (NY Times 25 August 1901). Later, Mexico would try to expel its Chinese, forcing them to flee to the US. All Chinese entry into the US was eventually outlawed until 1943. Meanwhile, smuggling of cigars, liquor, firearms and cattle continued unabated until the Border Patrol was created in 1924.
International Avenue was born running east and west after the federal governments of Mexico and the US ordered the dual towns of Nogales divided along the border and buildings cleared for 60 feet on both sides. This view, looking west, appears to have been issued about 1915, after the production and sale of alcohol had been outlawed in Arizona. There was no fence down the middle of the street until the following year, only a line of power poles. But residents were still required to cross at two entry points, one in the foreground at Morley Avenue and the other farther west at Grand Avenue. The publisher of the postcard has drawn a line following the un-trod dirt in the middle of the street, but in reality the line existed only in people’s heads.
This is Morley Avenue viewed from the public park looking south about the same time as the view above (this postcard was mailed in 1916). Morley was the main business street in Nogales in those days. Grand Avenue would join it in a few years. The International Hotel is at left; by the 1930s it had been replaced by the El Paso Store. And the Kress building had replaced the gable-end storefront. The two-story brick building on the left side of the street became J. C. Penny’s. The Santa Cruz Valley Bank & Trust is on the corner of Morley and Park Street, one of three banks in town at the time.
This fine schoolhouse was provided for pupils in the US and another larger school served the more populous Mexican community. The first public school in Nogales, Arizona, Elm Street School, opened in 1883. This building by the same name, located at the north end of Terrace Avenue, was built in 1899 but burned in 1915. It was replaced by a one-story mission style Elm Street School that survived until very recently. The location is now a parking lot for Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The older church building is visible behind the school. This “PCK Series” postcard was printed in Germany about 1907 for International Drug Store, doing business for many years in the International Hotel building on Morley Ave.
In 1885, Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African-American graduate of West Point chose Nogales, Arizona as home, a refuge from his bad experiences in the army. Within a few years he found himself defending the deeds in court of all landowners in Nogales against the Mexican land grant claims of the Elías and Camou families. Nogales residents won their case in a Tucson court in 1893 and then again in the US Supreme Court. But Congress exercised its authority over land ownership along the border in 1897, when it ordered a 60-foot strip along the border in downtown Nogales cleared of all structures to suppress customs fraud. Mexico cleared its side and International Avenue was the result, a wide street running contrary to geography, diagonally across the railroad and the main north south streets of ambos Nogales. A delicate process transferred baggage of train passengers under the watchful eyes of customs inspectors. First Class passengers could ride across while those in coach left the train to walk across and board again after passing through customs. The Nogales District customs service had been established in April 1880, with the office in Nogales supervising all crossings in Arizona.
Still, the community prospered. An electric power company and ice plant opened in 1892. The city was incorporated in 1893. In 1897, the Southern Pacific leased from the ATSF the New Mexico & Arizona Railroad which had reached Nogales from Benson. Santa Cruz County was created in 1899 and a courthouse built in Nogales (1902-4). The first hospital also opened in 1899. In 1904 there were 122 telephones in town. But political unrest in Mexico escalated until revolution broke out in 1910, the first of several revolutions over the following dozen years. A survey to build a fence down the middle of International Avenue began that year and troops were quickly sent to Nogales, Naco and Douglas. A full-scale border war commenced.
This small but stately courthouse was constructed of granite, facing Morley Avenue with Court Street at right, using drawings by architect James Vandevort. Astrea, goddess of justice, tops an aluminum-clad dome (statue is out of view). Pictured here about 1939, it eventually became one of the oldest courthouses in Arizona still in use before it was turned into a museum.
Revolutions in Mexico to free the enslaved peons from wealthy landowners and provide them with ownership of their farms led to unrest along the border. The US Army established Camp Stephen D. Little just outside Nogales in 1910 and stationed troops there until 1931. The camp was officially abandoned in 1933. When this postcard was issued, maybe about 1914, there was still no fence in the middle of International Avenue, but soldiers on both sides marched up and down to maintain the boundary marked by the obelisk monument. The view is toward the east, at the Morley Avenue crossing, with Mexican buildings at right. The Mexican soldier is probably one of the revolutionaries that occupied Nogales, Sonora at the time.
Early in 1913, rebels attacked Mexican federal troops in Nogales, Sonora forcing the soldiers across the border into Arizona as bullets broke windows on the US side. The Sonoran town remained under revolutionary control until 1916 when Pacho Villa’s army took it. Villa’s threat to also attack the Arizona town prompted a gun battle with US troops that left many Mexicans dead. Mexican officials reported several killings of Mexican citizens by US soldiers and customs officers late in 1917 and into early 1918. In August 1918 a US Customs guard killed an alleged Mexican smuggler crossing the border fence. American and Mexican customs guards began shooting at each other. This was followed by a five-hour firefight between armed civilians on both sides of the border. Mexican and US troops arrived that night to join the fray. A US cavalry charge across the border killed a US Army Captain. The Mayor of Nogales, Sonora was killed. Of course, accounts of the whole incident differ. A few days later an armistice was declared and Arizona Governor Hunt met his counterpart from Sonora the following month to agree on a permanent armistice. Peace slowly returned to ambos Nogales from 1919 on, disturbed only by a regional rebellion in 1929 that saw Mexican government airplanes bomb Nogales, Sonora. Many middle and upper class Mexican families temporarily moved to Arizona to avoid the conflict.
During the prosperous 1920s, Nogales continued to host American tourists crossing from the “dry” USA to “wet” Mexico for libation. “Across the street is Mexico,” trumpeted the advertisements. Tourists knew what that meant. Patients with lung disease also found some relief in the dry climate at local sanitariums. Cattle and produce shipments from Mexico continued to cross the border, along with mining machinery and finished goods from the US. Then the economy collapsed, plunging ambos Nogales into severe depression in 1930. The situation was made worse by new tariffs imposed on all foreign goods aimed at protecting American jobs. The Mexican government had to respond in kind. With the coming of World War Two, however, Mexico became a valued ally and the border practically disappeared. The US still required Mexicans to get a visa to cross but Americans could go south freely, often to get gasoline or tires and any other commodity in short supply or rationed in the states. Following the war, US customs inspectors adopted a policy of “greeting guests” to the US that put a nicer face on enforcement. They were unarmed from 1948 to about 1968 and there were no deaths of customs inspectors during that period.
This birds-eye-view seen from a hill in Mexico was published in Mexico as a postcard in the late 1930s. Looking west down International Avenue with its chain-link fence, the two border crossings were still relatively simple constructions. A third reopened in 1956 farther west at Sonoita Avenue. Just beyond the Grand Avenue crossing is the new US Customs Service building (1934), replacing offices located in the Post Office federal building since 1924.
The Resort Hotel Esplendor opened in 1928 on a hilltop a few miles north of Nogales. The following year the economy collapsed into the Great Depression, leaving the resort to change hands several times in the following decades. This postcard shows the place about 1952. I think the hotel became the Sheraton Rio Rico Resort in the 1960s, and then the Rio Rico Resort and Country Club. If so, it benefited from a $5.5 million renovation completed in 2004 and now looks nothing like it once did. It’s now the Esplendor Resort at Rio Rico, located 12 miles north of Nogales.
All during this time while residents of ambos Nogales kept close ties and cooperated almost as a single city, living conditions on the US side of the border improved more than in Mexico. Poverty and access to goods and services came to differentiate life on either side of the line. Still, commerce benefited. In the 1950s duty collected at the border passed $1 million for the first time and then rose to $55 million by 1980. Truck traffic across the border first exceeded rail traffic in 1958 after the Sonoita Avenue gate reopened to handle increased cattle and produce shipments. Rail passenger service had ended in 1951 but a modern highway to Guaymas had been completed in 1935. When Nogales celebrated its centennial in 1980, it had become the largest port of entry for vegetables in the world. In addition, American corporations set up a “twin plants” system of maquiladoras to exploit cheap labor just “across the street.” Manipulation of currency markets led to several devaluations of the peso to sweeten the mix. A growing list of illegal drugs kept smugglers in business. The result can be seen today. Ambos Nogales are connected by long lines of trucks transferring produce, and secret drug tunnels under the street, but also divided by heavy military and civilian policing of an iron fence with increasing loss of life on both sides.
This view probably from late in 1959 (that’s a 1960 Chevrolet Impala at right) shows the still thriving business district on Morley Avenue, looking north at the intersection with International Street (formerly Avenue). Many old buildings constructed before 1925 are still in use (and survive today), Franklin’s, S. H. Kress & Company, J. C. Penny, J. J. Newberry. Directly across the street from Newberry’s is the Ephraim building (1905), site of an early mercantile company and still owned by the family. The La Ville de Paris building (1901) at right is covered over by a modern slab façade. The trees way down the street on the left side are at the park.
This aerial photo was taken above Nogales Sonora with International Street and the border running across the center. The Mexican port of entry is the white tent-like concrete structure (International Arches, 1962, designed by Mario Pani’s firm, with architect Hilario Galguera supervising). In contrast, the rectangular US entry building spans the street. The older US Customs Service office is to the left. At far left is the Sonoita Avenue crossing for trucks. Two streets head away from the main gates, Arroyo Boulevard (left) and Grand Avenue (right), diverging farther north. To the right of these streets is the double-track railroad crossing the border and passing by the park. Next on the right is the older commercial district on Morley Avenue. At upper left is the old Nogales High School, and the courthouse with aluminum dome is just to the right of upper center. (click on picture for full size to see these details.)
Many visitors to Nogales in the 1960s will remember the curio shops in Mexico, filled with velvet paintings, colorful serapes and sombreros with dingle balls. Tony’s was the “Center of Quality” at 85 Obregon Avenue according to this postcard published by Petley Studios of Phoenix.
Alberto Suarez Barnett, “Nogales” website http://www.municipiodenogales.org/English/history/history.htm
Allen T. Bird, Resources of Santa Cruz County (1916-17) Univ. of Ariz., Bureau of Mines Bulletin No. 29
Jane Eppinga, Nogales: life and times on the frontier (2002)
Pimeria Alta Historical Society, Voices From the Pimeria Alta (1991)
Alma Ready, A Very Small Place (1989) Santa Cruz County bibliography
Miguel Tinker Salas, In the Shadow of the Eagles (1997)
Alan Weisman & Jay Dusard, La Frontera (1986)
Sonoran Desert field trip guides
5 years ago