Time Machine: Trains bring Mexican immigrants to Cedar Rapids

Many were housed in cramped rail cars

A frost on the trees on Jan. 26, 1963, prompted Dee Horwedel, then of Marion, to go to the sixth floor of St. Luke's Hos
A frost on the trees on Jan. 26, 1963, prompted Dee Horwedel, then of Marion, to go to the sixth floor of St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids to take a picture of the Little Mexico neighborhood.

CEDAR RAPIDS — In the middle of May 1910, a train pulled into Cedar Rapids’s Union Station on Fourth Avenue and Fourth Street downtown. The strangely dressed, dark-haired, dark-skinned passengers who disembarked caused passer-bys to stop and stare.

The visitors were the first of several train loads of Mexican laborers to arrive in Cedar Rapids over a period of several weeks. They were hired by the Rock Island Railroad to work as section hands, members of a crew assigned to maintain a railroad section.

The year before, the Bureau of Labor of the federal Department of Commerce and Labor had released a report that said, “As recently as 1900, immigrant Mexicans were seldom found more than a hundred miles from the border. Now they are working as unskilled laborers and as section hands as far east as Chicago and as far north as Iowa, Wyoming and San Francisco.”

The Mexican immigrants who arrived in Iowa were brought from Mexico’s farms and mines to work on the railways in northern Mexico. They were soon aware that they could make more money across the border in the United States.

But in Cedar Rapids in May 1910, the crews from Mexico were an oddity, “heretofore never seen in this part of the country,” according to a Gazette story heralding their arrival. “People paused in their conversations as the strange visitors walked on the station platforms with their bundles of baggage on their backs, and there is always some questioning as to who the strangers are.

“During the first few days that these new individuals were seen, no one seemed to have an idea as to what nationality they belonged to, until a few persons who have been in the west recognized them as Mexicans. The Mexican laborer has seldom been seen in Iowa, and his unexpected appearance took everyone by surprise.”

They were described as wearing tri-colored vests, bright blue shirts, light trousers and western hats.

The new arrivals were here to replace contract laborers from Greece who had quit when the company refused to improve the railroad cars in which they were assigned to live.

A Gazette reporter discovered the other railroad company paid 25 cents more per day, but the rail cars, although furnished with windows, tables and bunks, were still “repugnant to anything near modern taste.”

Those rail cars were the first homes of Cedar Rapids’s new Mexican residents.

In 1918, a severe shortage of unskilled laborers led Secretary of Labor William Wilson to lower the bars to immigration from Mexico. He ordered exemptions from the head tax, literacy test and contract labor provisions.

Labor imported under the new rules only could be used in agriculture, coal mining and railroad-section maintenance. The regulations also required employers to pay prevailing wages and provide good housing and sanitary conditions.

Those regulations, however, were not policed well. Low wages were blamed for the living conditions of Rock Island Railroad employees in 1923, when their plight was taken to Cedar Rapids health authorities.

Elizabeth Johnson of the Public Health Nursing bureau submitted reports from five visits to the yards to Mayor C.D. Huston and Rock Island officials. The reports revealed that 39 children were housed in the shacks and boxcars.

One of the cars held six children and four adults, with only three beds and no screens. They recorded the death of a baby that was being prepared for burial with seven people, four of them children, looking on in a tiny, crowded room.

Three people had tuberculosis, and four more had died from the disease.

“In some places, men were living in filth,” the report stated. “Many of the shacks do not have screens; disease carrying insects are infesting the inhabitants. In other cases tubercular illness has been caused by the poor living conditions.

“One person who lived in that district has been sent to Oakdale for treatment. Sleeping conditions also are inadequate. In some of the hovels, which house five or more persons, there are only two beds.”

Despite the conditions imposed on them, the Mexican laborers steadily worked to provide for their families, managing to save enough eventually to buy some of the nearby houses built in the 19th century by brewery workers.

The area soon became known as “Little Mexico.”

When, in 1944, a fire destroyed the Cargill soybean feed mill on Sixth Street SE, and flames shot 50 feet in the air, fire crews searched downtown Cedar Rapids for spot fires. They were able to save two nearby homes on Dewey Avenue in Little Mexico.

The area was a close community, preserving the culture of its Latino residents. Its neat little houses and lawns spanned an area between St. Luke’s Hospital and the railroad tracks, encompassing A, B and C Avenues NE.

When plans were made to route Interstate 380 through the area, Little Mexico began to disappear. The first houses were razed in 1967, and over a year and a half of demolition, its residents were dispersed throughout the community and Iowa.

To help keep the community together and sustain friendships after their neighborhood was gone, the Los Amigos Club was formed, first meeting in 1972.