Editor’s note: During the 1950s, El Paso historian Cleofas Calleros wrote a regular column on the area’s early history. Here is the 15th article from that series.
April in Paris is beautiful, but then April in El Paso isn’t so bad, either. The March sandstorms have subsided, the trees begin to bud, the sun is warmer, pretty cotton frocks appear on the streets, the gentlemen lose their hearts, and the season is generally delightful.
However, the business of living goes on as usual. City Council continues to wrangle, the high cost of living becomes higher, international relations get worse instead of better, people nearly kill themselves in careless accidents, and the social whirl spins.
It will be so this April as it was in April of 1896.
The City Council had animal trouble. A sizeable menagerie in San Jacinto Plaza (consisting of one alligator, one eagle and “some” rabbits) presented feeding difficulties. The animals lacked food and care, there was no Humane Society as such functioning, the size of the rabbit families increased with alarming rapidity, and something had to be done.
After a long and weighty debate in the government chambers, the city authorized its parks commissioner, a Mr. McGlennon, “to buy breakfast” for the beasts and not to spend over 15 cents a day. Why no provision was made for their lunch and dinner, no one knows. Probably the council was hoping the spectators would feed them. It was decided that, in order to alleviate the large rabbit population, they would be given away. It would have been wiser, it seem to me, to have fed the alligator and eagle some rabbit stew.
More:Freedom Train arrives in El Paso, thousands see historic documents: Trish Long
High cost of living deplorable
The high cost of living was deplorable. Fred J. Feldman, a pioneer photographer, was advertising De Luxe Portraits for $1 a dozen. They were nice pictures, but most studios in El Paso were making the same offer for 90 cents.
The tremendous expense of city operation was causing serious labor controversy. The city fathers felt that the payroll for the year 1895, which was $65,236.10, indicated that there were too many city employees; flagrant waste of time; not enough efficiency. What if labor had been asking eight hours a day, five days a week; two-week vacations, pensions, etc.? Then there would have been more than a controversy!
On the local-international scene. Mr. Buford, the American consul in Juárez, in a diplomatic statement to the newspapers, made it quite clear that he didn’t want any more bums in his office. Rolling stones would come to El Paso, find the climate pleasant and decide they wanted passports in order to live in Juárez. The trouble: “No tengo dinero.”
There was some international irony that spring. On April 21, 1896, Gen. Hernandez, commander of the Chihuahua Military Zone, brought his bands to San Jacinto Plaza to present a concert. It was not until later that someone realized that “here were two Mexican military bands entertaining on — of all days — San Jacinto Day.”
U.S. Immigration Inspector Hampton was having a hard time deciding who was a pauper. At that time, under immigration law, if a laborer did not possess one dollar, he was deported across the river. Consequently, there were a great number of “renganche” agencies which contracted laborers for the railroads, giving each one a dollar in cash so that he could prove himself “responsible — not a pauper” to immigration officials. These “renganchistas,” labor agents, were complying with what today is known as the Alien Contract Labor Law.
On April 1, the Mexican central railroad inaugurated Pullman service in Mexico. Among the first El Pasoans to take advantage of the service was Gus Momsen Sr., who, alighting from a passenger coach in the Mexican central station in Juárez, fell and badly injured his lame leg.
Another accident occurred when Louis Morehead, a student at the old Franklin School, and his friends Victor Tobin and Frank del Vasquez found some blasting cartridges on the school ground. They started playing with the cartridges, which exploded, and it was necessary to amputate Morehead’s thumb and index finger.
The social event of the month was the party Alfred Courchesne gave for members of the Texas Press Association. Don Alfredo, the patriarch of the Upper Valley, was known as a genial host and his hacienda was the setting for many lovely affairs in early El Paso social history.
Trish Long may be reached at [email protected] or 915-546-6179.