A’AGA Something to be told or talked about
April 05, 2019
By Billy Allen
In the not so distant past, the railroad seemed to border our reservation on all sides. Today, the steel rails and the wooden ties are all gone, but some elders remember the routes. As youngsters they saw the train chugging through the community. In Casa Blanca/Vahki when we used to sleep outside at night, I have a memory hearing the train whistle but keep in mind; my memory and hearing aren’t what they used to be. For some tribes railroads were extremely destructive to their way of life. In an attempt to save their way of life tribes sabotaged construction, launched attacks against crews and settlements along the rail route. But the O’otham and Piipaash farmers took the construction in stride, for the most part and saw the railroad as another opportunity to make life better and maybe make some money.
On the last day of September in 1877, while the calendar said it was fall but the temperature was stuck on summer, a construction train crossed the Colorado River into Yuma, Arizona. Within a few years the railroad reached Gila Bend/Hila Ben. Following an old wagon road/vohg which ran along the southern edge of Sierra Estrella, construction inched towards Maricopa Summit, then continued down to the new town site of Maricopa/Malikohba. Malikohba would serve as a hub with connections to Tempe and eventually to Phoenix and Prescott. The laying of the rails made enough of an impression upon the O’otham and Piipaash that the event was notched upon a calendar stick as the railroad inched towards Tucson in 1878-79. Railroad construction began in California and the workforce was primarily Chinese. The O’otham and Piipaash felt serving as scouts for the army was a better way of supplementing their income. When the railroad ran north towards Tempe, it skirted what was then the western edge of our community’s boundary. In an effort to maintain good relations, Southern Pacific allowed Natives to ride free on freight trains. Many O’otham and Piipaash saw this as an opportunity to tap into other markets and boarded trains with the idea of getting a better price for their crops. In his annual report, the Indian Agent noted that the practice of “riding for free” was really a ploy to have the Natives serve as lookouts for washouts and damage along the rails. (Maybe you can ask an elderly relative if they know more about this.) In 1885, the Thirteenth Arizona Legislature, also known as the “thieving thirteenth” appropriated monies for a rail link from Phoenix to the Southern Pacific line in Malikohba. Construction began in Malikohba and when it reached the Gila/Akimel, the O’otham and Piipaash refused to grant permission to cross our reservation. Arizona’s delegate in Congress worked to get a “right-of-way” bill passed. The railroad decided to pay, in silver, for the route through the reservation. Twelve Natives whose Sacate/Sacati fields lay in the path were paid $707.90 for land and crops. (My research couldn’t make sure if individuals or the whole group received this amount, and I couldn’t find out the names of the O’otham and Piipaash landowners. Another opportunity to ask an elderly relative if they know more about this.) The Maricopa and Phoenix Railroad reached Phoenix on July 4, 1887.
In the mid-1920s, a Southern Pacific (Arizona Eastern) line was laid to connect the Santan and Olberg stops. Fourteen miles south of Chandler and below the Santan Mountains, a large corral and loading ramp was built. No surprise, it was entirely constructed of railroad ties. This facility was known as Dock or Dahk. “Dock” worked as a place for loading or unloading of cattle, and it was used for that from the late 1950’s until 1964. Initially it was O’odham and Piipaash cattlemen who utilized Dahk but during my lifetime off-reservation cattlemen shipped in herds to graze in our fields. Early spring and fall were the busy shipping in and out times. I remember upper and lower walkways to load cattle onto railroad cars with two decks. “Dahk,” is an O’otham word meaning nose, it worked because of the nose-shaped peak due east that some knew as Miligan Dahk. Another explanation was an American settled near the peak and built a house which gave rise to that name. It seems like O’otham have a habit of naming mountains for body parts. In addition to Dahk, the Santan range also has a Cougar Head/Mavit Mo’o and north of Olberg, there is a lone peak some have envisioned resembles a female breast and is laughingly called an old woman’s … you'll know it when you see it.
Information was taken from The First Transcontinental Railroad and The Abandoned Rails websites; The Pima Indians by Frank Russell; Peoples of the Middle Gila by John P. Wilson; Harry J. Winters Jr.'s 'O'odham Place Names: Meanings, Origins, and Histories, Arizona and Sonora; and Arizona Place Names by Will C. Barnes.