SAN DIEGO’S FIRST RAILROAD
January 1, 1956
By R. A Middlebrook and R. V. Dodge
Everything in New San Diego started with “Father” Alonzo Horton. The first railroad was no exception. After he had chosen the best location for the city, subdivided it, and begun his attempts to dispose of it, he set about the first and more important task in the development of a port town, the building of adequate wharfage facilities. Old Town, it will be remembered, had nothing but a beach.
In 1868 Horton commenced construction of a wharf near the foot of Fifth Street that extended about six hundred feet to the channel in the bay. It was completed in 1869 at a cost of $45,000. Until that time steamers of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company had been using the old Culverwell Wharf at the foot of F Street, but all activity was then transferred to the new pier. Tracks were laid on it before 1872, and four iron dump cars, which had been brought down from the North by steamer, were being used to haul coal from ship to shore. Horses were the original motive power; steam came soon after. The San Diego Union for May 24, 1873, slyly remarked that “The engine on the railway track of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s wharf ran off the track Thursday near the shore end and was not found until Saturday.”
In 1881 the California Southern started to build San Diego’s first outside rail connection. a line from National City to Colton. It “crossed Fifth Street” on a fill about fifty feet out from the shoreline of the bay, where a crossing was made with the railroad on the wharf; the wharf itself had to be lowered six inches to meet the grade of the California Southern. The first crossing accident occurred soon after when a California Southern engine collided with a horse-drawn car full of coal. The horses escaped but the coal car was knocked into the bay.
Early in 1882 the wharf, by then the property of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, was completely rebuilt. The tracks were re-laid at standard gauge. Three “dummy” steam engines were purchased from Masshat & Cantwell’s National Iron Works at San Francisco. They were named Captain Goodall, Senator Perkins, and William McKinley, and were placed in service in June of that year. Several four-wheeled flat cars were also bought, and an interchange track with the California Southern’s road was added.
When Babcock and Story, in 1886, purchased all the land that now comprises Coronado and started construction of the hotel on the beach, ferry service had to be instituted. At first it was provided by the launch Della and the tug Rover, towing barges. The steamship company built a passenger car to take passengers from shore to ferry and return. The service was abandoned when the present Coronado Ferry Company was organized and the steam ferry Coronado started operating from a slip only a short way out on the wharf.
Pacific Coast Steamship Company engines were used at various times on other local lines. Probably one was in service on the San Diego & Old Town Railroad between the time when that road’s original Henry electric car was transferred to the Fourth Street line in 1887 and the arrival of its new Baldwins in 1888. Another was used on the National City & Otay Railroad in the hauling of rail and material for construction.
Billy Carlson also used one. Before he became mayor of San Diego he was chiefly known as a railroad and real estate promoter; he fathered several paper railroads. He actually did build a steam motor line from Roseville to Ocean Beach, a total of three and a half miles, and leased one of the Steamship Company’s engines for $25 a day. Getting it to Roseville, where his railroad could use it, was the next problem. It could not be transported across the bay, for there were no barges here big enough to take it. Carlson was forced to dismantle the engine so that it could be hauled around the bay by wagon. The wagon mired itself down in the mud flats near Old Town, so the engine arrived at Roseville several days too late for the scheduled opening of the road. The first train actually pulled out for the Cliff House at Ocean Beach on April 17, 1888.
Carlson next started construction of the Roseville & Old Town Railroad, of which one mile was built. Another of his roads, the San Diego Union Terminal Company, and the San Diego Eastern Terminal, a later outfit, were to build along Atlantic Street, following the bay shore and crossing the mud flats where the Marine Base now stands, to a connection with the Roseville & Ocean Beach. Some rails were put down on this project also. A right-of-way dispute developed with the California Southern, which resulted in a track crew of the California Southern throwing the Carlson tracks into the bay, along with a bath house keeper. Meanwhile, the Steamship Company had attached the rails of the Roseville & Ocean Beach Railroad, for a rental claim against the engine for $1,800. Carlson could not pay, so a steamship crew tore up the rails which were later sold at auction. They were bought by the Los Angeles, San Diego, and Yuma Railroad, another Carlson promotion. Though he bought back the rails, he always claimed they had been stolen.
During 1887 the Steamship Company constructed a new office and terminal building at Fifth and L Streets. It was sixty by two hundred feet, with ten-foot platforms and tracks serving both sides. Twenty-pound “T” rails were spiked directly to the pier planking for additional track. The new switches were of the stub variety, which required the movement of two entire rails rather than just two movable tongues. Lightness of the track was illustrated later, when a Santa Fe crew tried to drop a car in on the wharf’s interchange track. They either dropped it too fast or the car was too heavy for the light rail, for the rail turned over and the car overturned into the bay.
The Pacific Coast Steamship Company Railroad did a large volume of both freight and passenger business. An additional coach of the open type was purchased from the Coronado Railroad. Sunday was a gala day for the town belles and their escorts. You could ride from the terminal at the foot of Fifth Street out to the end of the wharf and back for five cents, and many a pleasant afternoon was spent in this manner. Some of the elite were even allowed to ride on the engine.
Sometime after the turn of the century a new engine was purchased. It was of the 0-4-0 type, which means it had four drive-wheels and that was all. It was given the number “I”. The old “dummies” were stored in a shed near the end of the wharf. In July of 1913 another 0-4-0 engine was bought from the Rogers Locomotive Works. It became Number Two. About 1914 Number One and the William McKinley and Senator Perkins were sold for scrap. Disposition of the Captain Goodall is unknown.
San Diego built a new pier at the foot of Broadway in 1912. The old Fifth Street wharf was dismantled during World War I. The terminal building was cut in half in 1919 to make room for the tracks of the San Diego & Arizona. The one remaining engine was sold to a hog farm at Fontana. The part of the old terminal building that still stands is all that remains of the once powerful Pacific Coast Steamship Company’s operations in San Diego.
See our photo-album of San Diego’s cable-cars and streetcars.