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The Glory Years, 1865-1899

CHAPTER ELEVEN: The Train That Finally Came

The progress of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad revived in San Diego the hope of becoming a transcontinental terminal. The Santa Fe, with far less subsidies than its rivals, had built slowly across the mid-country and through Kansas, where it fattened on the hauling of cattle. The Santa Fe looked around for an outlet on the Pacific Coast and began building toward El Paso with a view to terminating at Guaymas in the Mexican State of Sonora on the Gulf of California. It also inched a line westward across Arizona toward The Needles on the Colorado River. The powerful Southern Pacific already had thrown out a line into the Mojave Desert to turn back any rival approaching Southern California by way of The Needles.

A few San Diegans, and in particular Frank Kimball, had kept in touch with the various railroad promotion schemes in the East, and had met nothing but discouragement. But now Kimball and a few others met secretly at the home of Ephraim Morse and decided to make a new effort. At the meeting were Kimball and Elizur Steele, representing National City; Morse and J.S. Gordon, representing San Diego; John G. Capron, the stageman, M.A. Luce, an attorney, and several others. Kimball was sent East in June of 1879. At Philadelphia he found there was nothing that could be done about the Texas and Pacific. In New York he learned that the intentions of the Southern Pacific had not changed. The Santa Fe seemed to be San Diego’s best hope.

In Boston, Kimball conferred with Thomas Nickerson, president of the Santa Fe, and other officers and directors of the company on the advantage of terminating at San Diego. He spoke convincingly, and after many meetings and periods of waiting, the Santa Fe agreed to build eastward from San Diego to Yuma and then northeasterly to join the Santa Fe at Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the first section of forty miles to be constructed within eight months, and predicated upon San Diego raising $10,000 in cash, to pay for rights of way, and a promise of 10,000 acres of land in National City and any of the railroad lands that could be won back from Scott and the Texas and Pacific. The fact that the terminal was to be at National City was not made public, and San Diegans quickly subscribed the money requested. Horton contributed only $250. Santa Fe engineers arrived and spent three months making their own surveys.

The legal suit over the 8800 acres of land which had been granted to the Texas and Pacific railroad was settled, with Scott and his company retaining half and with the rest put in trust for public use of San Diego, which in this case meant railroad uses. San Diego was ready for final negotiations with the Santa Fe.

The other 4000 acres were deeded by the Texas and Pacific to the Los Angeles & San Diego Railroad Company in 1883, a paper subsidiary of the Southern Pacific and its parent, the Central Pacific, and they were promptly sold off.

Another newspaper, the San Diego Sun, which had been started by Mrs. Charles P. Taggart, wife of the city attorney of the tidelands issue, in 1881, commented on the sale of the lands as follows:

“The railroad history of this town is a history of debt, delusion and despair — the Central Pacific, the great highwayman of our coast — has gobbled up 4000 acres of the 8000 acres we so crazily gave Tom Scott without consideration.”

But the story had not yet ended. The Santa Fe joined hands with the Pacific and Atlantic Railroad which had been building west along the 35th parallel, from St. Louis into the Oklahoma Territory, and which had gone bankrupt despite a land subsidy of 43,000,000 acres. The Santa Fe abandoned the idea of a southern route and proposed to cross the Mojave Desert and enter Southern California through the Cajon Pass. This, in all likelihood, would mean the terminus would be at Los Angeles or even San Francisco. The following letter from Nickerson, quoted in part, tells the story:

“Decided to build under the Atlantic & Pacific charter to the Colorado River. When money is raised to cover the construction, then it will be decided whether the next move will be extended to San Diego or some other point or points on the Pacific Coast … Whatever you think about that route (Yuma-San Diego), we are satisfied that it is too intensely hot and dusty ever to be a favorite route for passengers.”

Frank Kimball was sent back to Boston and this time he had to argue with officials of the Atlantic and Pacific as well as those of the Santa Fe. In the end, and after many days of seemingly fruitless conferences, the two companies and their banking interests agreed to the organization of a separate railroad line, to run from San Diego by way of Colton, to connect with the Santa Fe. It was promised, however, that the terminus of the entire line would be at National City, on San Diego’s Bay.

From Kimball they obtained a pledge that the 10,000 acres he had promised to them would be placed with a syndicate to be controlled by the railroad and its officers and that he would sell to it additional land worth $100,000. Altogether, the Santa Fe obtained from San Diego and National City 17,000 acres of land, including valuable rights of way and waterfront privileges, as well as 485 lots and $25,000 in cash. Kimball returned by steamer in August and was welcomed by a large group of citizens. However, the belated revelation that the terminal would be at National City dampened much of the enthusiasm and there were no fireworks nor firing of cannons in San Diego. The California Southern Railroad was chartered on October 12, 1880, to construct a railroad from National City to San Bernardino, with Benjamin Kimball of Boston as president, M.A. Luce of San Diego as vice president, Thomas Nickerson as treasurer, and Frank Kimball as one of the directors. A large part of the railroad lands returned by the Texas and Pacific was immediately delivered to the new company.

The route selected ran forty-six miles up the coast to the present city of Oceanside, then northeast up the Santa Margarita River Valley through Temecula Canyon and northward across the highlands to Colton, south of San Bernardino. The choice of Temecula Canyon as the gateway through the coastal hills was a surprise. However, it opened up into the Temecula Valley which was on the old immigrant wagon route between Yuma and Los Angeles by way of the San Felipe Pass and Warner’s Ranch.

Ground was broken on December 20, 1880. By March of 1881 the roadbed had been graded between National City and San Diego, by following the edge of the bay, crossing creeks and tidelands by low bridges or dirt fills, and the first rail was laid on June 17. Shops, a round house, yard and water tanks were begun in National City. A business center arose just as quickly, with four hotels, the Railroad, the Reed, the Palmer House and the National.

In the next weeks San Diego’s waterfront was alive with activity that hadn’t been experienced since the Gold Rush. Schooners and brigs arrived with equipment and railroad ties. Large work forces of Chinese were brought down from San Francisco, and while work was proceeding at San Diego, at least a thousand were also put to work carving a roadbed out of the rock walls of Temecula Canyon. Five more ships brought iron rails from Antwerp, Belgium. The bark James A. Wright sailed from New York with three locomotives and thirty flat cars. Another locomotive came out overland and at San Francisco it was hoisted onto the brig Orient and unloaded at the wharf in National City on July 9. It was named the “Urus,” the mythical ox, and the engineer, A.D. Xander, described it as a “monster and powerful machine.” The honor of giving rein to Urus fell to Frank Kimball and a short ride on the first rails to be laid was a thrill to the San Diegans who had worked and hoped for so many years. By late August the rails had reached the foot of Fifth Street in New San Diego, and this caused The San Diego Union to issue a dire warning:

“When the locomotive reaches the wharf, accidents and runaways will occur every day. There is not a horse in the city that ever saw one.”

The California Southern inched northward, with hundreds of Chinese toiling with pick and shovel and removing dirt in baskets and carts, crossing the bed of the San Diego River on piling driven into the sands by steam power, passing Mission Bay and going up Rose Canyon, from Elvira to Soledad Hill, then down into Soledad, or Sorrento, Valley, and following up the coast to Oceanside, forty-six miles from San Diego. There were sixty bridges and trestles spanning a river, creeks and tidewater lagoons. By December, the tracks had bridged the San Luis Rey River and engines and loaded flat cars were making two trips a day between National City and the point of progress.

The tracks went inland at the entrance to the Santa Margarita River, north of Oceanside, and followed the river across the Santa Margarita Rancho, which later became the United States Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton. The valley narrowed and grew deeper as the roadbed approached Temecula Canyon. Here the line disappeared from view as it wound and climbed six miles between high and rocky walls. Ignoring the advice of area residents, the engineers built the line as close to the bed of the river as possible, and it crossed and recrossed an innocent-appearing stream of running water many times before it emerged from the canyon at the southwest point of the Temecula-Elsinore plain. At Temecula the Santa Margarita River becomes the Temecula River, and at the entrance to the canyon it also receives the winter flow of two other streams, the Murrieta and the Pechanga.

The line reached Colton on August 14, 1882, a distance of 127 miles from National City, and service was begun with a fare of $6.00 one way and $9.00 for the round trip, and the National City Record commented:

“The person who would begrudge $9.00 for a round trip from National City might be compared with the Southern Pacific Railroad — without a soul. The scenery in Temecula Canyon is well worth the price of the trip.”

Station stops were established along the line in San Diego County. The main passenger and freight depot in San Diego was near the foot of Twenty-second Street, with another passenger depot at the foot of Broadway. Next was the Old Town stop, a block north of the Plaza, near San Diego Avenue and Taylor Street. Selwyn was at the top of Rose Canyon and Cordero in the center of Sorrento Valley. The Del Mar and Encinitas stations were at their present locations. Stewart’s was the next stop on the line, and later became known as Farr. Carlsbad and Oceanside stations were near their present locations. Next was Ysidora, four and a half miles north and east of Oceanside on the banks of the Santa Margarita River. De Luz stop, also on the river, was southwest of the present community of Fallbrook. Fallbrook station was near the mouth of Temecula Canyon, about three miles from Fallbrook. Next was Ranchita in Temecula Canyon between the Fallbrook station and Temecula.

At Colton, however, the Southern Pacific refused permission to the California Southern to cross its lines and lands in order to reach San Bernardino. A court action followed and the California Southern won. The first train, with the locomotive decorated with flowers, stalks of corn and round squash, pulled into San Bernardino on September 13, 1883. It would be sometime, and after a major disaster, before a connection could be made with the Santa Fe to form a new transcontinental railroad.

All interest was in the railroad. The automobile had not yet appeared on the American scene. San Diegans paid little attention to the unusual son of a local attorney, Zachary Montgomery, who had a large ranch home, “Fruitdale,” in Otay Valley. Though John J. Montgomery had a master’s degree in science he also served as foreman of his father’s ranch. In his spare time he conducted many scientific and engineering experiments, studied the characteristics of seagulls, and began the construction of a glider, or flying machine. One machine with flapping wings failed. The second, with aerodynamically designed fixed wings, was taken out before dawn in August of 1883, placed on a bed of hay in a wagon, and packed up to Otay Mesa. John seated himself in the glider and waited until midmorning for the wind to rise. Then his younger brother, James, took hold of a tow rope and ran down the slope of a hill. The glider, with John controlling its flight by a rudder and shifting the weight of his body, soared 600 feet. This was the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air machine in the history of man. Though his father was to become an assistant attorney general of the United States, and John was to continue his scientific experiments in flight, more than a half century would pass before this exploit on Otay Mesa would be known and recognized.

In the Christmas period of 1883 stories in the newspapers described the breath-taking beauty of the sunsets with their curious shades of blood-red, orange and yellow, which had begun to appear following the volcanic explosion of the island of Krakatoa in the Strait of Sundra, Indonesia. Most of January was clear and sunny, but on the 24th, it began to rain. By February 4, San Diego had received 4.22 inches. El Cajon measured three inches in one day. Julian was paralyzed by four inches. Corral de la Luz, the railroad station near the Santa Margarita Ranch house, measured thirteen inches in fourteen days. Campo and Laguna had ten inches in five days.

The San Diego Union reported:

“The heavy rain of the past few days has interfered greatly with travel by rail. The train which left here last Saturday night (February 2), returned on Sunday night, not being able to get through Temecula Canyon, and the train coming south, which should have arrived here Saturday night, did not arrive until 2 o’clock this morning. About six miles of track in Temecula Canyon were rendered practically impassable on Saturday by landslides and rocks rolling down on the roadbed.”

Construction trains were sent out with repair crews to shore up the weakening roadbed by “cribbing” it with extra ties and timber. At the Cordero station in Soledad Valley two huge landslides covered the tracks and they had to be dug out, but new slides occurred almost as fast as the others were cleared away.

The last train got through on February 14, with the water still rising in Temecula Canyon. Every road in San Diego County had been washed out. On Friday, February 15, the California Southern tried to send through another northbound train. At the Fallbrook station, a washout forced the crew to back the train up to Ysidora, while repairs were made, and finally it started through the canyon once more, only to encounter new washouts, this time behind them as well as ahead of them.

One of the passengers, Charles A. Wetmore, a San Diego businessman bound for San Francisco, and the engineer, walked to the coast and found most of the underpinning of the San Luis Rey River bridge had been washed out by a raging torrent of water, and in Soledad Valley most of the tracks had disappeared. The hike from the train to San Diego took six days. The fate of the “lost” train had been unknown.

Aboard the stalled train, which was slowly sinking into the river, W. H. Atwater, a Wells, Fargo agent, and the others left behind got up steam in the engine and managed to drive the train a hundred yards ahead to higher ground. There they killed and prepared gophers for food, and finally Atwater built a raft, tied his clothes in a bundle, and floated down the muddy and turbulent river, dropping over two waterfalls, and, after three miles, drifted onto a bank where a sheepherder threw him a rope and pulled him ashore.

The San Diego Union’s Temecula correspondent, who signed himself as “C. Senor,” reported that every bridge from Temecula to Colton was washed out; timbers, ties and telegraph poles were strewn for miles along the river banks, and several miles of track were completely gone. One entire bridge from forty miles upstream at San Jacinto came riding down the current of the Santa Margarita. Parts of the railroad were reported sighted twenty-five miles at sea. As the flood temporarily subsided, the train was left high and dry in the canyon.

The rains continued intermittently. A cloudburst at Smith Mountain delayed attempts to repair the railroad. At San Diego, Chollas Creek was running 120 feet wide and the flood waters of Switzer Creek through the city park carried away the railroad bed near the waterfront. Early in April the Sweetwater River Bridge collapsed when some ranchers tried to drive a herd of cattle over it. And on April 5, the sloop Brisk sailed with ten tons of provisions in an attempt to relieve settlers isolated at Oceanside and Encinitas. It was unsuccessful. The sloop spent most of ten days seeking shelter from a gale in the lee of Santa Catalina Island. The railroad began running trains again as far as Oceanside on a “cribbed” track of temporary repairs. Heavy rains continued every day in some part of the county. The heaviest rainfall measured was at Mesa Grande, where on April 17 it was reported that the season total had reached seventy inches. At Ballena, George M. Stone recorded a season total of forty-nine inches.

The slackening downpour of the next three days encouraged The San Diego Union to announce that “Spring has come.” Nearly every road in the county was washed out; Julian was isolated; telephone lines were down between Julian and Banner; most of the cattle in the county were belly deep in mud; the railroad was barely able to operate as far as Oceanside. But the water in the rivers and creeks was falling and the county chain gang was working daily to repair ruined streets in the town, and the sun began to shine. The San Diego Union noted that the town dandies had begun to turn out in the latest fashion of plug hats, tight-legged trousers and “needle-pointed” shoes.

By April 23, melting snow in the mountains sent new freshets down the slopes. Four days later, the rain started all over again. The Casa de Fitch adobe in Old Town collapsed. The California Southern Railroad announced that its damage had reached $250,000, and that it had no money left for repairs. Food became short in the backcountry early in May, and reports from outlying areas noted that the rain had nearly wiped out the gopher and field mouse population, and had brought on a plague of scorpions, rattlesnakes, cutworms and caterpillars, and later an army of grasshoppers appeared.

The same storm wrecked a Southern Pacific train at Seven Palms in the desert, and the railroad bridge over the Colorado River was carried away at The Needles. By the second week in June the rains began to die away, and by July 1, the rainy season was over. The city’s official recorded rainfall for the 1883-1884 season was 25.97 inches, the heaviest on record. More than inconvenience and monetary loss was involved as it was now obvious that the Temecula route could never become a major railroad artery, though the Santa Fe agreed to further financing for the California Southern. The Temecula portion was rebuilt with Chinese labor and service was resumed on January 6, 1885.

The Southern Pacific now was facing determined opposition at The Needles gateway to California and the threat of competition by sea with a Santa Fe terminus at Guaymas on the Gulf of California. The Southern Pacific sold its 242-mile line between The Needles and Mojave to the Santa Fe and received in exchange rights to Santa Fe’s line from Benson, Arizona, to Guaymas. The Santa Fe conquered Cajon Pass, and by way of another subsidiary, reached San Bernardino.

In New York the Daily Graphic proclaimed a future in which San Diegans themselves had begun to doubt:

“The last spike on the extension was driven on Monday, November 9, 1885, which completed the link connecting San Diego with the entire East via the Atlantic & Pacific and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe.

“Today the people of San Diego are celebrating the event in a manner that proclaims the awakening of the city to new life, from which, as long as the sun shines, under no matter what rulers she will never again slumber until ages have filled her lap with the wealth of nations.”

The first through train left San Diego on November 15, 1885, from a small frame depot costing $300 at the foot of D Street, or Broadway. The National City terminal was a two-story building. San Diego set Wednesday, November 18, as a day of celebration.

The aging Alonzo Horton was named chairman out of respect for his founding of New San Diego. But the end for him, as a man of power and influence, had come four years before, when the mortgage on the Horton House had been foreclosed by a San Francisco investment firm. An invitation to attend the observance was sent to all leading citizens, and read:

“You are respectfully invited to be present at the Celebration of the Opening of the Through Railway Line of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe System to the Pacific Ocean, at the Port of San Diego, to be held in this City on Wednesday, November 18th, 1885.

“The completion of this line, establishing a Fourth Great Highway between Oceans in the United States, is an event whose importance, not alone to this City, but to the State and Coast, cannot be over-estimated. The people of San Diego, with persistent energy and steadfast faith, have for a long period of years, looked forward to the day that is now so close at hand. They will cordially greet you at their jubilee.”

The town was gaily decorated and there was a parade with brass bands and marching units of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Knights of Pythias. There were many speeches and expressions of welcome to visiting railroad officers at a public gathering in a gymnasium which had been converted into Leach’s Opera House. It was on D Street, between First and Second Streets.

The first transcontinental train to arrive reached San Diego on November 21, in a driving rain. About a hundred persons were on hand to greet the sixty passengers. Somehow, for all the bands and speeches, the great hour when San Diego at long last was connected by rail with the East seemed to be an anticlimax to the thirty years of struggle running back to 1852, before many of those who were present at the train’s arrival had ever heard of the town. The day of the stagecoach and the mule freight trains was vanishing. Business in San Diego increased, with the greater possibilities for trade between towns and regions, and the quiet years were over. But the wharfs and warehouses did not fill with the goods of the world. The big cargo ships never came, and the Santa Fe was determined to push on from San Bernardino directly into Los Angeles and leased the tracks of the Southern Pacific. But a boom such as San Diego could not anticipate lay just ahead. It would not be the result of a flow of commerce but of a passenger rate war between rival railroads.