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The Origins of Pearson, Chihuahua: A Photographic Essay

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 59-70 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0002

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The village that we know today as Juan Mata Ortiz came into existence under very different circumstances. The brilliant American electrical engineer and entrepreneur Fred Stark Pearson established the Mexico Transportation Company, Ltd., in Canada on February 17, 1909. Within a few months the company name was changed by a special act of parliament to the Mexico North Western Railway Co. (Ferrocarril Noroeste de México). Four railroad systems were acquired to create the Mexico North Western. The largest was the Rio Grande, Sierra Madre and Pacific, which ran from Ciudad Juárez to Terrazas south of Nuevo Casas Grandes. The Chihuahua and Pacific ran from Chihuahua City to Miñaca, while the Sierra Madre and Pacific ran from Temosáchic to Madera. Also acquired was a subsidiary of the Rio Grande, Sierra Madre and Pacific, the El Paso Southern, which owned a bridge across the Rio Grande and track to its terminal in the United States, thus providing access to the entire railroad system of North America via El Paso.

In addition to the railroad system the company acquired substantial timber rights to the forests of the Sierra Madre. Approximately 2.4 million acres, including a lumber mill in Madera, were obtained from the Sierra Madre Land and Lumber Company. An additional 200,000 hectares known as the Murphy Tract were acquired from the Development Corporation of America, bringing the total to approximately three million acres of timber.

Pearson then renovated the Madera Mill, enhanced its capacity, and extended the rail line south to Madera. While work on the line was beginning in late 1909, construction of what was reputed to be the largest lumber mill in North America was started in a town that came to be named Pearson.

Acquisition of timber rights, construction of lumber mills to process the logs, and creation of a rail transportation system to bring the lumber to the United States was a corporate strategy that seemed destined to succeed almost immediately. The problem, of course, was that the Mexican Revolution began at the same time and company operations were persistently disrupted. The Pearson Lumber Mill eventually shut down in late 1921, never to reopen.

The name of the former mill town was changed to Juan Mata Ortiz in 1924, but locals continued to call it Pearson for decades. The town then became a repair facility for the Mexico North Western Railway. This large repair facility, termed La Redonda, was located on land north and south of the store currently owned by Jorge Quintana. Work continued at La Redonda until the early 1960s, when repair of the trains was transferred elsewhere and La Redonda was dismantled. Economically, the town suffered severely from lack of employment opportunities.

The village of Mata Ortiz as we see it today appears completely different from Pearson. The large mill, with all of its various components, and the railroad are now gone, as is La Redonda. An excellent way to see the differences is to compare photographs of Pearson and Mata Ortiz.

Richard D. O'Connor  

Richard D. O'Connor is a physician in San Diego, California, and is the director of quality for Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. He is a connoisseur of Mata Ortiz pottery.


I wish to express my gratitude for invaluable assistance provided by Marta Estrada and Claudia M. Ramirez of the Border Heritage Center, El Paso Public Library; by Claudia A. Rivers and Laura Hollingsed, of the C. L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, University of Texas, El Paso; and by Ruth Jackson, Special Collections and Archives, Tomás Rivera Library, University of California, Riverside. An overwhelming debt of gratitude is owed to Walter Parks, whose book documents the phenomenon of Mata Ortiz. He has persistently encouraged my interest in the history of northern Chihuahua and together we visited all the various research libraries and institutes. Mata Ortiz would not be the same without his involvement.

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Figure 1. 

Pearson as it appeared shortly after construction of the mill and railroad one hundred years ago. (Reproduced with permission of the Border Heritage Center, El Paso Public Library, Otis A. Aultman Photo Collection)

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Figure 2. 

Mata Ortiz in...

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