The Journal of San Diego History
January 1961, Volume 7, Number 1
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

  • pint-sized trolley-cars that frightened
    horses — and at times the passengers . . . . . . .
  • the smoke-stack and the whole front end
    of the “One Spot” glowed, cherry-red . . . . . . .
  • gasoline interurbans with nice acetylene
    lights, but not too much power . . . . . . . . .
  • they carried baling-wire and empty
    tobacco-cans, for engine repairs . . . . . . . . .
  • . . . . . . . such was life on

The High Iron to La Jolla

By R. P. Middlebrook

Images from this article

Rapid transit between San Diego and Old Town was just around the corner when George Neal and James McCoy organized a corporation for the building of the San Diego & Old Town Railway, and were granted a franchise in August of 1886. Three months later a stockholders’ meeting was called, to discuss the feasibility of constructing an electric line — one of the first electric roads in the country.

Before any dirt was moved, a contract was signed with the Henry Electric Company for electric “motors” to draw trailers on this definitely pioneering venture. In less than a month, actual construction began, and our blocks of track were put down on Arctic Street (now Kettner Boulevard), while a depot was started on D Street (now Broadway), and plans were drawn for a powerhouse and car shops at Arctic and Kalmia.

The line was built out Arctic from D to Bean Street, where it turned southwest for one block into California. Its route then began to sound like a roster of forgotten street-names: north to Pierce, northwest into Third, northward from just beyond Flamstead into Garden Street, past the Whaley House and on into the Old Town Plaza. Pierce Street now is Andrews, Flamstead is a continuation of Couts, and San Diego Avenue has swallowed up both Third and Garden Streets.

Before the tiny electric cars arrived, a steam “dummy” was purchased from the National Iron Works of San Francisco; it arrived on October 3, 1887, and was appropriately designated No. 1. It was a coal-burner, with a small water-tank on the back platform, and with a headlight at each end, so that it could operate in either direction.

Trial runs were made over the new roadbed in October, using another dummy borrowed from the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, and a coach from the National City & Otay Railroad. The following month the electric motors were given a trial, and the road was officially opened for traffic on November 21, 1887.

The electric motors took their current from a “troller” which was drawn along two parallel overhead wires by a length of cable attached to the car roof. The troller, incidentally, had a nasty habit of jumping the wires and banging down onto the roofs of the trailer cars. There was also a great display of fireworks between the wheels and the rail, which served to frighten all the horses along the street.

Electric operation on the San Diego & Old Town Railway was of short duration, the electric cars being withdrawn and placed in service on the new Fourth Street line. By December the experimental wires were taken down and the poles removed, the road being steam operated from then on.


Pacific Beach then was being boomed as a summer colony to rival Coronado, and a new corporation was formed April 21, 1888 to build a railroad from Old Town to Pacific Beach. It was to be known as the San Diego & Pacific Beach Railway, and a contract to build the road to Pacific Beach was taken by Babcock & Story. One hundred and twenty tons of 35-pound steel rails, and nine new cars were ordered.

Pending placing of the crossing with the California Southern Railroad (Santa Fe) at Old Town and the construction of a bridge across the San Diego River, an interchange track was put in at Morena, and the San Diego & Pacific Beach Railway was constructed from Morena to Pacific Beach; the Pacific Beach trains used the California Southern tracks between Morena and San Diego. Track construction followed the edge of False Bay to a point near the old American Driving Park, then turned west into Grand Avenue, through Pacific Beach as far as Ocean Front or Braemar. With the completion of this construction the San Diego & Pacific Beach Railway and the San Diego & Old Town Railway were combined as the San Diego, Old Town & Pacific Beach Railway.

Two 24-ton steam driven “box motors” arrived from the Baldwin Locomotive Works and were numbered 2 and 3. They were of the 0-4-2 wheel arrangement, built to operate in either direction. Through passenger service between San Diego and Pacific Beach was inaugurated in May of 1888, with four scheduled trains a day. On the second day of operation one of the motors collided with and demolished a garbage wagon at the Ivy Street crossing. Living up to its new transportation, Pacific Beach built an elegant dance pavilion and the cornerstone was placed for the new American College of Letters. Round-trip fares were 15c to Old Town, and 25c to Pacific Beach.

Floods in December 1889 completely wiped out the race track and washed out much of the railroad at the mouth of Rose Canyon, and Master Mechanic W. 0. Wilson of the Pacific Beach line was drowned while overseeing repair work. In March of 1893 more floods plagued the railroad; two hundred feet of the approaches of the San Diego river bridge were washed away, and Rose Canyon creek took out the tracks from False Bay to the Asbestos Works. Trains again had to be switched to the Santa Fe tracks to reach San Diego.


The owner of the San Diego, Old Town & Pacific Beach, J. Malcolm Forbes, of Boston, opened bids in January of 1894 for an extension of the road to La Jolla. Right-of-way trouble was experienced in La Jolla, as no franchise was ever granted for the line to build on Prospect Street. Under threats of an injunction, work was commenced Saturday evening after court had closed; by Monday morning the tracks were down on Prospect to a point near Grand Avenue where a flimsy, shed-like depot was constructed.

With the completion of the road on May 15, 1894, its name was changed to San Diego, Pacific Beach & La Jolla Railway. On the formal opening day a grand celebration and picnic was held in La Jolla, special excursion trains leaving San Diego every hour from nine in the morning until two thirty in the afternoon. The Elks Lodge, dressed in its best uniforms, went out in a body, escorted by the City Guard Band.

A timetable of June 1894 lists the following stations and running time.

Leave San Diego  9:10 AM       Leave Morena           9:35 AM
      Middletown 9:20 AM             Race Track       9:40 AM	
      Old Town   9:25 AM             College Station  9:45 AM	
      Hardy's    9:30 AM             Pacific Beach    9:50 AM
                Arrive La Jolla 10:10 AM

In 1899 the road came under the control of the Babcock interests, who also owned the Coronado Railroad, and there seems to have been quite a bit of exchanging of engines and cars between the two roads. La Jolla motor No. 2 went to Coronado in exchange for the Coronado No. 5, a former New York Elevated saddle-tank motor which was given the number 2 of the San Diego, Pacific Beach & La Jolla. The original San Diego & Old Town dummy, being too light to maintain schedules, was withdrawn from service in 1897 and stored in the shed at Ocean Front.


Arnie Babcock, having secured a contract for extension work on the bay jetty, bought the original La Jolla motor No. 2 from the Coronado Railroad, in addition to an old Northern Pacific switch-engine named Captain Jadwin for the construction work. The No. 2 was given an extensive repair job, the cab being cut down to regulation size and a large tender from the Coronado No. 9 was added in place of the small water and fuel tank it formerly carried.

During summer peak rush periods, it was not unusual for the San Diego, Pacific Beach & La Jolla Railway to borrow or rent cars and engines from the other short-line railroads operating out of San Diego.

Sometimes it would be a Coronado engine or a Cuyamaca coach, or perhaps a steam motor from the National City & Otay Railway. The Cuyamaca coaches created a problem in that they were standard height, with automatic couplers; the La Jolla line used link-and-pin couplers and their cars were nearly a foot lower than the Cuyamaca cars, necessitating the use of a long curved link that would fit into both couplers.

A brisk freight business was handled between San Diego and La Jolla, hauling lumber, coal and merchandise. There was a packing house at Pacific Beach that shipped lemons in carload lots. Pacific Beach also had an asbestos factory, the asbestos being hauled in from a mine at Elsinore. In fact, any freight that was offered was accepted. William Palmer once loaded three houses on flat cars, for movement between San Diego and La Jolla. Enroute, one car turned over, but the other two made the trip safely.

In 1901 the engines were altered to burn oil instead of coal for fuel. Motor No. 3 was given a face lifting, its box cab being cut back like that of the Coronado No. 2. The No. 3 was then renumbered 1, which number it kept until the end. Within the next year the original La Jolla No. 2 along with the Jadwin was back. The Jadwin was stored at Ocean Front and the No. 2 placed in regular service. When it was decided to build a cutoff into Pacific Beach, bypassing the old race track site, the Jadwin, numbered 3, was dragged out and used on the work train.

The Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway was created April 1, 1906, purchasing both the San Diego, Old Town & Pacific Beach, and the San Diego, Pacific Beach & La Jolla, the two roads never having been merged. E. S. Babcock was president, with E. A. Hornbeck as general manager. This name held until the road was abandoned in 1919.

The railroad wished to obtain a right of way up Connecticut Avenue (Silverado) in La Jolla to a new station to be built at Ivanhoe Street, but was prevented from doing so by two property owners who owned sixty feet of the proposed right of way, where an old artesian well had been. The railroad considered the asking price, about seven hundred dollars, as much too high. Tactics similar to those used on Prospect Street were employed; one midnight a large gang of men turned out, and had the track down before any protest could be made.

With the coming of the gas cars tracks were extended to Prospect Street, and down to a connection with the old track, forming a loop; the gas cars used the Cabrillo Hotel for a station and the steam trains used the station at Ivanhoe and Silverado.

About 1905 the terminal was moved from D Street to Arctic and C Streets. The West Coast Lumber Company office at India and D Streets was purchased and moved to the new location, where it was made into a passenger and freight terminal; a large shop building also was erected, and a turntable put in. In 1914, when this land was taken over by the Santa Fe for the construction of a new passenger station, the La Jolla station was moved to Arctic and A Streets, the shop building was dismantled and the turntable pit filled in. The engines were never turned after this, but ran backward in one direction and forward in the other, although there was a Wye and roundhouse shed maintained at La Jolla.


In 1905 an electric feeder line was constructed up C Street to Sixth, then down Sixth to M Street and across the mud-flats parallel to the Santa Fe track to Eighth Street, where it turned east to the Cuyamaca Station.

A power house was built at the corner of India and C Streets, using a gasoline engine to run the generator. Babcock had purchased a large double truck combination electric car for the Coronado Railroad, which

was stored at Coronado; this car was brought around the bay and placed in service between the depot and uptown, and was given the number 1. Another street car, a single truck open type with cross benches, was purchased from the Pacific Electric in Los Angeles. When it first arrived it was numbered 48, but was soon renumbered 2. A third car, No. 7, this one a single truck “California type” with outside seats and also a closed portion, was bought from the San Diego Electric Railway; it was repainted La Jolla green and re-numbered 3. Another San Diego Electric Railway car had been leased for a short time, but was returned to the owners with the purchase of the No. 7.

When a street car wished to take the siding, the motorman would stop and reach down with a long switch-iron and flip the switch point. A semi-automatic switch was installed on C Street near Third. Car No. 2 was equipped with two foot-pedals on each platform. If the motorman wished to take the turnout, he pressed the right-hand pedal, which caused a dog to engage a long bar attached to the switch point; if the switch was lined for the turnout and he wished to go up the straight track, he pressed down on the left pedal. This switch was not too much of a success, and was soon taken out.

Two storage-battery electric cars were tried out on the electric division. These were rather small, single-truck affairs with batteries stored under the inside longitudinal seats. A power take-off was installed at the India Street power house, so that the batteries could be recharged between trips. One or both of these cars later were shifted to the Mexico & San Diego Railway, between Palm City and Imperial Beach; they also were used as trailers for the small gasoline car. Until about five years ago one of the storage battery car bodies was used as a shed just north of Old Town, along the Santa Fe track.


According to some authorities, the first really successful gasoline motor cars were the McKeen cars. These cars were designed by William R. McKeen, Superintendent of the motive power of the Union Pacific Railroad, and the earlier models were built by the Union Pacific in their Omaha shops. As more orders for the cars came, McKeen resigned and formed the McKeen Motor Car company.

The Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway purchased two of these cars from Omaha. They were fifty-five feet in length, seating fifty-four passengers and were powered by a 200-horsepower distillate, six-cylinder engine. The cars were streamlined with a pointed front end, round “port hole” windows and a center entrance door for passengers. Because of the shape and color they were soon nicknamed “Submarines” or “Red Devils”. All McKeen cars were powered on one axle only, which restricted tractive effort and limited them to pulling one trailer. The engine was mounted on the power truck and drove the 42-inch driving wheels by means of a drive-chain, a two-speed gear box and an air operated clutch. They would average about three miles to a gallon of fuel. The first cars were lighted by acetylene, but were later equipped with electric lights and batteries charged from a chain-driven generator fastened to the engine frame.

Gasoline car No. 1 arrived March 20, 1908 and No. 2 April 23, 1908. As soon as the trial runs were completed, they were put into service in addition to the steam trains. A 1909 timetable shows the following schedules:

Leave Arctic & C Streets

Steam 7:10 AM Gas 9:10 AM Steam 10:00 AM Gas 11:00 AM Steam 1:15 PM Mixed Gas 2:15 PM Gas 4:10 PM Steam 5:20 PM Gas 6:35 PM Gas 9:15 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: Running time both for steam trains and gas cars was about 45 minutes; what slowed down the gas cars was the long pull up the hill from the vicinity of the present Crystal Pier. On special runs, however, the “submarines” have made it from La Jolla in to San Diego in 25 minutes. Years later, when the San Diego Electric Railway put on its La Jolla interurban service, the time was cut to 41 minutes — which is about what the buses take today. A full account of this later line is included in Richard V. Dodge’s Rails of the Silver Gate.

A regular combination car or coach was towed as a trailer until two new steel, roller-bearing double-truck trailers came. I remember that on High School picnics to La Jolla some kid would wind up the hand brake on the trailer, causing the motor to bog down to a walk, boil, and spout like a whale. These two motor cars were disposed of somewhere around 1914. In 1917 a small gas motor was constructed at the Ort Iron Works on Tenth Street. It used the chassis of a Mack truck with a built up car body; flanged tires were placed over the truck rear wheels, and a light four wheel leading truck was used at the front. It was numbered 51, but was not in service over a year.

The gas cars ran up C Street to Sixth and down to F Street, and back up Fourth Street to C, and they loaded on the east side of the Grant Hotel. There was also a Wye at Fourth and C Streets so that the cars could back into Fourth instead of making the loop.

So much mechanical trouble developed with the gas cars that the road bought adaitional steam engines to enable them to give proper service. The Captain Jadwin was dragged out of storage at Braemar, given a hydrostatic test and some mechanical repairs, and put on the road. An 0-4-4 Forney type engine was purchased from the Holton Interurban in the Imperial Valley, where it had been in service between El Centro and Holtville for several years. Prior to coming to the “Hook and Eye” it had worked on the Los Angeles Terminal and the Salt Lake Railroads. This was the No. 4 and it gave good service as long as the road operated. The last engine purchased was No. 15 from the San Diego & Southeastern Railway, a high wheel 4-4-0 type with a big steamboat whistle, that formerly had been on the California Southern and the Cuyamaca Railroads.


Engine crews were required to do all their own running repairs, wash the boilers and keep their engines in serviceable condition. When a rod or crank-pin would become worn and start to pound, the brass was taken out and filed to a closed fit, but when brasses became so badly worn they could not be reduced, strips were cut from “Prince Albert” tobacco cans and inserted between the pin and the brass. This bushing generally would last for only two or three round trips, and it was almost a nightly duty for the crew to rebush rods and pins.

Baling wire was another indispensable item that was always carried on the engines. It was used in wiring pipes together, securing brakebeams to car bodies and mending bell-cord, and the crews said that if it were not for wire and tobacco-cans the road would have to close down.

Saturday nights an extra “Theater Train” would leave La Jolla, bringing the people into San Diego to attend the evening shows and returning to La Jolla after the shows were out. This extra theatre train was the highlight of our lives. The engineer would allow a couple of us kids to ride the engine to La Jolla on the 5:20 P.M. trip, and back on the theatre train. I remember that when the little “One spot” would be backing up to La Jolla and clipping along by Hardy’s and Morena the whole front end and smoke stack would get cherry red from the hot fire. One evening we missed the 5:20 and were heartbroken, but on that trip the tender of the No. 2 jumped the track and turned over at Bird Rock, so that put a stop to our riding. We never did like to ride on the Captain Jadwin. It bounced around so much we were afraid it would jump the track.


The La Jolla Line had a remarkable safety record, considering the conditions under which it was operated. I have been unable to find any mention of a passenger fatality in any accident.

Derailments were quite common and were taken as a matter of course with the crews. The light rail, dirt ballast and the speed at which the small motors were operated, all seem to point to a higher ratio of accidents than that which actually occurred.

Two wrecks were outstanding. One occurred on January 16, 1908 which resulted in the deaths of the engine crew. Train Number Four left the C Street station at 1:45 P.M. with motor No. 1, a combination car and two coaches. Although this was the regular mixed train, no freight cars were in the consist. At a point near Winder Street, just beyond where the 60-pound rail ended and the 35-pound began, there was a slight curve. The inside rail on this curve pulled loose from the spikes, allowing the rails to spread. The whole train derailed and bounced along the ties for three hundred feet, before the engine turned over on its side at right angles to the track and slid down a small embankment. None of the cars turned over and none of the thirty passengers received more than a shaking up. Engineer Thomas H. Robertson, who had been with the road since it opened, was pinned under the reverse lever and scalded to death. Fireman Thomas F. Fitzgerald was thrown out of the cab into a clump of cactus. He was badly scalded and died ten days later. Superintendent Hornbeck was at a loss as to why the rails had spread, this particular piece of track having been worked on just three days before the accident.

The second wreck took place June 30, 1917 at a point just north of Rosecrans Street in Old Town. At this point the La Jolla line crossed the Santa Fe tracks. Santa Fe trains having the right-of-way, all La Jolla trains were required to stop before entering upon the crossing. The La Jolla train, consisting of engine No. 4, a combination baggagesmoker and one coach, made the usual stop at Hardy’s, but failed to get stopped for the crossing and was struck by a Santa Fe freight train pulled by engine No. 1990, in charge of Engineer Gerald Milliken. Engineer Arthur L. Doyle of the La Jolla train claimed his brakes refused to work. The Santa Fe engine struck the baggage end of the combination car, throwing it and the coach to the right, while the engine, undamaged except for a bent axle, stood on the left of the crossing.

A young Spanish girl, Nethemia Rodriguez, who was going to leave the train at Old Town, was standing on the front platform of the coach when the collision occurred. She received a broken left hip and knee, and her right foot was badly crushed, causing her to lose one of her legs. Of the fifteen men in the smoker, three were cut and bruised, requiring medical care. It could have been far worse, for included in the consist of the Santa Fe train was a carload of dynamite.

Many minor mishaps were treated rather lightly, a typical report reading “Cow on track derailed train — no damage to equipment”. Damage to the cow was not stated.

By the time that World War I came along, the line was really feeling its age and its dwindling revenue. Everything was costing more, and fewer people were riding the trains. About the beginning of 1914 the first La Jolla “bus” line — a seven-passenger open touring-car which operated from a stand in front of the Pickwick Theater — went into service. The automobile no longer was a novel toy, and more and more La Jollans now had their own transportation. At a hearing which went into the allegedly declining quality of the service, it was hinted that the owners would be willing to take $175,000 for the $400,000 which had been sunk in the venture. The handwriting was on the wall.

Abandonment of the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach was approved in January 1919. All the rails, along with engine No. 15, were sent to Japan for scrap. The Jadwin was scrapped sometime before the road closed down, and its tender was used on the No. 2 after the Bird Rock wreck. Engines 1 and 4 were scrapped on Terminal Island.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For the benefit of those unfamiliar with railroading terms, perhaps it should be explained that a “motor”, as well as being an electrical or internal-combustion machine for providing power, also can be a small locomotive driven by steam or electricity. A “box motor” is such a locomotive, whose cab encloses the entire boiler; so, for that matter, is a “dummy”. A “hydrostatic test” is when they fill an elderly locomotive’s boiler with water, under pressure, to find out if they still dare to make steam in it. A “consist” is a list of the cars in any particular train — a train “consists” of such-and-such cars. When cars have “automatic couplers” you just slam them together, and there they are. With “link-and-pin” couplers the cars were gently backed up to a standing car while a switchman lifted the big link into position with one hand, and dropped the coupling-pin into place with the other — a procedure which explains why a switchman did not always have a thumb and four fingers on each hand.

“Wheel arrangement” is a simple code which identifies a locomotive by the number of each kind of wheels — the pilot truck (sometimes called “pony” or “bogie” wheels) and the drivers and, last of all, the trailer truck under the cab or rear-end. So, the symbol 4-6-0 indicates four pilot wheels, six drivers and no trailer. It was the immortal Captain Jadwin’s 0-4-0 wheel arrangement which caused the frolicsome little engine’s wild ways at high speed. Having neither pilot nor trailer truck, and only four drivers, the engine slewed wildly from side to side, causing people to wonder if it was going to jump the track to the right or to the left.

The “high iron” is the main line, with its big, high rails. Perhaps using the term for the La Jolla line’s modest 35-pound rails will offend the purists — but may we not add that small touch of dignity to the memory of a nice little railroad which was beloved by San Diegans?