By M. A. Luce
Editor’s note: The late Judge M. A. Luce (1842-1933), a veteran of the Civil War, was prominent in the affairs of the growing city for half a century, following his arrival here in 1873. The following memoir, from the files of the Junipero Serra Museum, was written in 1932.
It has often been asked why Thomas Nickerson, who was president of the California Southern Railroad Company, built the railroad to San Diego Bay by way of the Santa Margarita River and Temecula Canyon through the Riverside Country to Colton and San Bernardino.
With Nickerson visiting San Diego was their attorney, Benjamin Kimball of Boston, but he did not wish to locate here. Two of the directors of the railroad, Wilbur and Pratt, had been living in San Diego for a year or so, and they, with Kimball, agreed they would prefer me as an attorney to anyone else to represent their interests. The road was engineered as to route by these parties, together with their engineer, Osgood. Mr. Nickerson, president of the road, informed me that the reason they laid out the road as they did, with its terminal on San Diego Bay was as follows: Australia was mining coal at that time for one dollar a ton, delivered at the mine, a little way from the landing. Nickerson said he could sell that coal so that it would pay at least $2.50 a ton at San Diego, and he could ship it to parties in the East and make it pay. He proposed several lines of steamers for passengers and freight. One line was to go to South America, another line to Honolulu and Australia, another to Yokohoma and Tokyo, and yet another to Hong Kong. San Diego would have been a busy port indeed. Our Boston men, with others, were governed largely by Nickerson’s advice, as he had made his wealth in sea commerce at Boston. But the miners struck in Australia and coal went up there to three or four dollars a ton, and the whole scheme fell through. We could not then buy coal and ship it through San Diego and make money at it. Afterwards Nickerson retired from the company. He was quite old at the time of his retirement. They talked no more of a great commerce to be established at San Diego when he was gone.
The railroad was laid out with the station two miles and a half from the city of Riverside. The citizens and Chamber of Commerce of Riverside prepared a banquet, and invited Nickerson to be. there. They wanted to know why he had laid out the railroad so far from the town and wanted him to change the line, which he afterward did, by way of Elsinore and South Riverside. They described to him their orange products at a big fair and addressed him in many ways, urging him to go through Elsinore and South Riverside to San Bernardino. That is why he did not build into Los Angeles. Nickerson then stated that he much admired Riverside and its products, but with all of them he could not change his line a single foot or increase its value by going out of the present line between San Diego and San Bernardino. It surprised many people who did not understand the real reason.
The California Southern Railroad feared a big fight against them when they planned to extend their road up the Cajon Pass to where it at present connects with the Southern Pacific at Barstow. I served as attorney for the road in obtaining the line built through the Cajon Pass, as the Southern Pacific claimed to own the right-of-way. I visited San Francisco to see the directors of the Southern Pacific, but confined my interviews mainly to Leland Stanford, who was president of the company. In my first discussion with him he was opposed to giving up a lease at a fair price for the land we needed for our right-of-way. I took the position that the Southern Pacific could not ask to hold the odd sections because they had not built the railroad through the pass, and he could not stop us carrying through our line. I said to him, “Your title is poor. It cannot be saved. You have only a claim and for that claim we are willing to pay what we would pay anyone else to go through the pass.” It was several days before I saw him again, and when I went to his office at the Southern Pacific Depot in San Francisco I met his attorney, Judge Sanderson, of San Francisco. He was present with Stanford in his office, and they at once agreed that we could have the right-of-way through the pass and that they would make no fight for the land. They were fearing a fight, and disclosed many reasons why they should not enjoy the benefit of the subsidy of the railroad from Albuquerque west to its final destination. The railroad was built through the pass without having even to pay for the land in dispute, as it was condemned as government property. What I have said will explain why the railroad was built to Barstow by way of Colton and San Bernardino and not built to Los Angeles until afterward.