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Gold in the Sun, 1900-1919

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Southern California and the Gold Nobody Noticed

The goal for which several generations of pioneers had worked finally appeared to be at hand. The Utah Construction Company began laying railroad tracks from both ends of Carrizo Gorge to accomplish what so many had considered impossible. But to do it, the San Diego & Arizona virtually had to make its own mountain pass.

Jacumba Valley is on the dry side of the mountains and the storms have surrendered much of their rain before reaching it. From there the country dries out rapidly to the harshness of the desert. The approach to the gorge from Jacumba rounds a conical black lava hill and follows the green bed of Carrizo Creek, passing Arsenic Spring, Lone Tiger Spring and Camp Sizzle Spring.

At its entrance the gorge falls away sharply into a deep and striking V-shaped trench at places a thousand feet deep and over which hangs a primitive silence. Along its bottom is a hairline of green and a few native palm trees growing out of gravel swirled and rounded by the violence of the flash floods of the desert country. There is little else except rocks. It is like a great dumping ground for Nature’s building materials. One has never seen so many rocks–piles upon piles left over from one age seem to await another.

The war and the scarcity of materials were given as the reason for the abandonment of the original engineering plans to make the descent through three long straight-line tunnels, which would have provided a much easier gateway to San Diego, and there were always those who wondered about that. Instead, the track was laid on a narrow bench cut out of the steep and sharply curving walls of the gorge, at one place 900 feet above the bottom and here and there supported by sidehill trestles where one rail rested on solid earth and the other on wooden supports. Wood was used instead of steel because of the problem of the summer heat. Work went on during the summer of 1919 and the heavy sunlight seemed to reverberate between the mountain sides.

Even though the plans for the straight-line tunnels had been miles from San Diego, they were fifty feet below sea level. The average grade on the west slope of the mountains was 1.4 percent and on the east slope, 2.2 percent. Though the drop in the gorge was only 1.4 percent, the curves of as much as twenty degrees meant a slow and cautious pull and continual oiling of the wheel flanges and sanding of the rails.

Tracks were never laid beyond Seeley. From Seeley the trains used the tracks originally built by the Holton-Interurban Railway which were later taken over by the Southern Pacific and leased to the San Diego & Arizona. El Centro was the end of the line. It was still a long way across the desert and the sand hills to the Yuma crossing of the Colorado River. From El Centro railroad tracks reached like arms of pincers around the ends of the sand hills. The rails of the Southern Pacific subsidiary, the Inter-California Railway, ran north from El Centro to Niland, 127 feet below sea level, to meet the main line near the eastern side of the Salton Sea and above the north end of the sand hills. To the south they ran to the sea-level border towns of Calexico and Mexicali and then through fifty miles of Mexican territory, following in part the line of the Imperial Canal, to round the bottom of the sand hills and reach Yuma.

This was not the transcontinental line that pioneers had envisioned so long before. The San Diego & Arizona was only a short haul line servicing the main Southern Pacific route from New Orleans to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it had shut the last door of the port of San Diego to any other railroads, as Harriman had known it would do when he secretly entered into the arrangements for Spreckels to appear as the builder.

These facts were small things at the moment. From Spreckels there was no hint that circumstances and the mountains had defeated him, nor that the line would never realize all that had been hoped for it.

On Saturday, November 15, 1919, at Carrizo Gorge Station, Spreckels drove the symbolic golden spike that marked the completion of the San Diego & Arizona. It had taken twelve years and $18,000,000. The section through the gorge alone had cost $4,000,000 which was near the original estimate of the cost of a road all the way to Yuma. A thousand persons were on hand to witness the event. In paying tribute to Spreckels, Mayor Wilde said:

“You have often heard the remark that San Diego is a one-man town. Personally I feel proud to live in San Diego when it is referred to as a one-man town…this afternoon you can’t give our great leader enough glory.”

Sixteen days later, on December 1, the first train pulled by Southern Pacific engines arrived at San Diego as the climax of a week-long celebration. Spreckels was cheered by crowds lining the streets when he led a military and fraternal procession to the Santa Fe Station which was to be used by both lines and was renamed the Union Depot. There were some who could recall a similar day in 1885 when the first transcontinental train arrived over the Santa Fe line. The Santa Fe had headed west from New Mexico and crossing the Colorado River at Needles reached Southern California by the Cajon Pass and skirting San Diego’s mountain barrier entered the county from the northeast through Temecula Canyon. Floods washed out the line in the canyon and the Santa Fe abandoned San Diego as a terminus in favor of Los Angeles. San Diego was left at the end of a branch line. It had been a long struggle since that time and no one knew it better than Spreckels. At a banquet that evening in Hotel del Coronado, Spreckels said:

“It is fortunate that in undertakings of this kind men do not see all the difficulties and obstacles that will arise when they begin enterprises of such magnitude as the San Diego & Arizona Railway. If we could see all of the obstacles we had to surmount before we could reach the completion of the enterprise, then surely there would be many undertakings that would never begin.”

He said it had been his principal aim in life for a number of years to make San Diego a city of the first class and he had never lost his faith in its future:

“Our climate, our harbor and our backcountry, supported by Imperial Valley, one of the most remarkable and prolific producers of nearly everything that can be grown on land with the aid of sunshine and water, must mean prosperity for San Diego…and this railroad opens up a wide field for enterprise…in Arizona, New Mexico and through the Middle West to the Atlantic Coast.”

Southern Californians could be forgiven if they did not fully appreciate the advantages of their climate and foresee their place in the age of flight. The names of later years meant nothing then. Charles A. Lindbergh was an unnoticed college freshman in Wisconsin who already had failed as a farmer. The man who was to create the basic design of the airplane which Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic Ocean, T. Claude Ryan, was studying engineering at Oregon State College but was to give it up to take pilot training at March Field.

Death already had taken the man who built the first airplane in San Diego County. He was Charles F. Walsh, who had been born in Mission Valley in 1877. He had become fascinated by the daring feats of the pioneers of flight and put together two airplanes, only one of which flew. He abandoned manufacturing in favor of barnstorming and crashed to his death in Princeton, New Jersey, while on a practice flight in the airplane in which he was scheduled to take president-elect Woodrow Wilson on a sightseeing flight.

During World War I, Reuben Fleet, a former real estate salesman and legislator in the State of Washington, served at North Island and became a major in charge of flight training for the Army Signal Corps. He witnessed so many unnecessary crashes he vowed that when peace came he would build a safe airplane.

Population was approaching the 74,000 of the exposition days though few new homes were being built, and those who were arriving had visited or heard of the exposition and were more interested in climate than in industry or warehouses or railroad shipments. Attempts to attract industry to Southern California cities by advertising in the East had not been productive but Oscar Cotton, the land developer, recalled his experience in the early 1900’s in trying to sell lots by advertising the glories of San Diego in national magazines. He didn’t sell any lots but received many requests for information about San Diego. They wanted to know about San Diego as a place in which to reside or to retire. Perhaps the emphasis had been misplaced all these years and it just wasn’t a problem of trying to attract factories and occasional tourists. Perhaps the military had come to San Diego for reasons not fully appreciated.

It was Cotton who suggested that an organization be formed to advertise San Diego as a place to live. Even the geranium growers wanted factories, he told San Diegans at a mass meeting in the Isis Theater, though most of them would prefer to see them located where they would not be objectionable, but it was obvious factories would not come until there was more capital in the area, as they followed money and people. He said:

“The outstanding opportunity that San Diego has to offer today is the opportunity to the man who has earned his pleasure and ease. To him we offer at minimum cost, the greatest abundance of riches, the most charming place to live, of any city in the United States…it is then to the man or woman of established income that we shall appeal; to the man or woman who wants a home. The states from which the great bulk of our homesteaders have come in the past…(are) the great Middle West states because they lack the things we have to sell.”

Thus was formed the San Diego-California Club, the forerunner of all California community advertising organizations. In San Diego the geranium growers were winning out after all. A wealth that barely had been tapped, in attracting settlers of established means as well as seasonal visitors, and supplemented with a newer generation in search of opportunities in a more open and kinder land, were to enrich California beyond the most extravagant forecasts. In the 1920’s more than 2,000,000 people were to move into California in another one of history’s great migrations, and nearly three quarters of them were to find homes and gardens and fruit trees in Southern California. The first great wave to California in 1849 had torn at the mountains in search for gold. In Southern California there was gold in the sun.