El Paso in 1886
Throughout its history prior to 1881, El Paso-area business had been dominated by its location on the north-south Camino Real that connected Mexico City with Chihuahua and Santa Fe. With the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in May 1881, however, the city got a direct rail connection with the West Coast, and when the Southern Pacific connected with the Texas and Pacific at Sierra Blanca the following December, the city literally became a continental crossroads and gateway to Mexico. Judge Allan Blacker, who officially welcomed the railroad to town, recalled that the governor of Texas had told him El Paso was “the best and last place in the United States to make a fortune in a single lifetime.” City Marshal James B. Gillett observed, “Bankers, merchants, capitalists, real estate dealers, cattlemen, miners, railroad men, gamblers, saloon-keepers, and sporting people of both sexes flocked to town…. There was [sic] not half enough hotel accommodations to go around, so people just slept and ate at any old place.” These railroads, along with the Southern Pacific-controlled Galveston, Harrisburg, San Antonio Railway; the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe; and the El Paso, St. Louis and Chicago (White Oaks)—and the tents of the newly arrived settlers—are prominently illustrated in Augustus Koch’s 1886 view of El Paso.
Looking slightly east of north, from an imaginary perspective south of the Rio Grande, Koch depicted a city in transition. The railroads ring the downtown area, with the new town center developing around the intersection of San Antonio and El Paso streets, served by two mule-drawn trolleys. El Paso soon developed a reputation as “Sin City,” with saloons cropping up in almost every block, complete with gambling halls, a tenderloin district along Utah (Mesa) Street, and opium traffic introduced by some of the Chinese who arrived with the railroad crews and remained to populate the city with restaurants and laundries. The elegant Grand Central Hotel (C on map), including the structure to the left, is shown facing St. Louis (Mills) Street and overlooking the Public Park (named San Jacinto Plaza in 1903). It was reported to be the largest hotel in the state.
El Paso was without a church building of any kind in 1881—even Catholics had to cross the river to El Paso del Norte (renamed Ciudad Ju