Some of the first people in the Bay Area were Native Americans – members of the Ohlone tribe, who settled around what is now the city of Richmond. Beginning in the 1920s, another group of Native people found their way to the Bay Area. They were migrants from the Acoma and Laguna tribes of the Southwest. When they arrived, they took up an unusual living arrangement: in boxcars, parked on the dead ends of the city’s railroad tracks.
This year marks three decades since the last boxcar-dwellers left their homes. Their experience has been preserved by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. KALW’s Holly Kernan sat down with Sam Redman, of the library’s Regional Oral History Office, to find out more about life on the rails.
SAM REDMAN: In the late 1860s of course the Transcontinental was finally completed. But from there, these networks sort of continued on and continued building, and the Santa Fe Railroad in the early 1920s wanted to pass through to pueblo villages, in particular the Laguna Pueblo and the Acoma Pueblo…
HOLLY KERNAN: These are Native American villages?
REDMAN: Yes, that’s right. And in order to do that, they had to reach a verbal agreement with some of the tribal elders, that in exchange for the right to build the rail line through their villages, that they would be offered jobs working for the railroad. And the terminus for the rail line was in Richmond, California.
KERNAN: So what happened? Why did they live in boxcars?
REDMAN: The idea was that they’d stay on these temporary boxcars for a short period of time and then eventually tract housing would be built for them near the same site in Richmond.
KERNAN: And is that what happened?
REDMAN: That’s indeed what happened. But for quite some time, people did live in the boxcars, which were of course quite different than what they had grown up with. Not only by the fact that they were now living in a boxcar rather than a house that they’d been living in in New Mexico, but they also were surrounded by this massive growing industry situated right between Standard Oil and soon a new, rapidly-growing war industry for World War II.
KERNAN: So let’s dip into our audio archives and hear from Bertha Hicks, whom you recently interviewed. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about Bertha.
REDMAN: Bertha Hicks – it was a great experience sitting down with her. She still lives in Richmond and still works at the national park, the Rosie the Riveter/World War II American Homefront National Park.
KERNAN: Let’s hear from Bertha Hicks.
BERTHA HICKS: My dad never told us that we were gonna be living in boxcars. I was a young child, so I didn’t really – even if he mentioned it, I don’t remember. But I do recall that as soon as my mom and I got off the train at the depot, it was foggy. And I’m not sure if it was the early part of the year or towards the end of the year because Richmond would get a lot of fog. I remember getting off the train and I didn’t speak English; I spoke my language. And so my first question to my dad was, “What is this? Where am I?” And my dad says, “Well, I’ll explain everything. Right now this is fog.” And I had no idea what fog was. And so I was kind of flabbergasted at that time. I didn’t know what had happened!
KERNAN: Sam, she says that they picked up their stuff, hopped aboard a train and went to California. What kind of jobs did they get?
REDMAN: Well, it’s interesting. In that era … railroads today are quite safe, we take that for granted. But in those eras, there were a few more rail accidents and things of that nature, and anytime that would happen, you’d need laborers to straighten out the steel and fix the rail lines and general maintenance, things of that nature. They also needed people to paint rail cars, so they had a station where they could do labor like that and maintenance and upkeep on the rail line.
But many of the stories that we have are from a child’s perspectives. And it’s an interesting aspect to this because we’re looking at traditional reservation-based life versus coming into this rapidly industrializing world…
KERNAN: Yeah, and she seems to talk about kind of a culture shock, culture clash.
REDMAN: What’s fascinating to me is that you’re seeing the culture shock to be sure, but you’re also seeing something that’s defined by the environment that people had been raised in and the opportunities that they’d had before then. And here’s this, in some sense, a new opportunity during the midst of the Great Depression when times are toughest and especially hard on the reservations, where there are so few opportunities to have a decision presented to you as a family. Bertha’s father came out for this job opportunity and then eventually brought his family. That was the case with many of these inhabitants of the boxcar village. There were probably between 20-30 single families at any one time living in these boxcars. But then there were also some single men as laborers as well.
We can get a better understanding of what village life was like from Emily DeCory, who was interviewed by a colleague of mine named Elizabeth Castle.
EMILY DECORY: The Acoma people were living on the south side, and the Laguna people were living on the north side. And our homes were different colors. The Acoma people had red homes, painted red, not really bright red but kind of a burgundy. And our homes were painted grey. Our homes were different colors, and we lived in the north side, but the whole village was connected – there was no gap in between. There were no fences to separate the homes. It was all one village. That’s the way we were set up. And the Acoma people and the Laguna people got along very well.
KERNAN: Sam, how long did this boxcar village of Richmond last?
REDMAN: The verbal agreement was reached in 1922, and the village really grew through the end of World War II. And then life really did change following World War II for Native Americans. In the 1950s, there was a lot of renewed tribal activism that eventually in the 1960s and ‘70s, mirroring the Civil Rights Movement and then the Black Power Movement, really got going a Red Power Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the American Indian movement would come to define later Native American life. But during this time a lot of people were just moving back to reservations. Eventually the Santa Fe Railroad chose to shut off power to the village in 1982…
KERNAN: People were still living there in 1982?
REDMAN: A number of people were still living there in 1982, yes.
KERNAN: And so when they shut off the power, that was the end of it...
REDMAN: That was that. So you still have a few little remnants of the village and certainly individuals that still live in the Bay Area that grew up here. But mostly it’s a memory, and that’s the great thing about oral history, is that in order to have access to this, not everything was written down, not everything was photographed. And sometimes you have to go and learn from actually talking to people who were there and lived and experienced this firsthand.