Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
San Diego & Arizona: The Impossible Railroad. By Robert M. Hanft. Glen-dale: Trans-Anglo Books, 1984. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 225 Pages. $34.95.
Reviewed by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., Department of Afro-American Studies, San Diego Slate University, author of several articles on railroad topics.
Visionary capitalists, robber barons, and local boosters promoted railroad lines throughout the West, motivated by greed, corporate warfare, geo-political dominance, and dreams of metropolitan greatness. This last factor particularly inspired the San Diego and Arizona Railroad.
San Diego possessed one of the West Coast’s three magnificent natural harbors; why should it not, like San Francisco and Seattle, be the terminus of a transcontinental railroad? Geography notwithstanding, the Southern Pacific laid rails from El Paso to Los Angeles, dooming San Diego to commercial insignificance. But who was John D. Spreckels to accept that verdict? Possessing wealth, corporate connections, and a seeming lapse of fiscal prudence, the sugar baron broke ground in 1907 for the San Diego and Arizona. With the death of E.H. Harriman in 1909 the Southern Pacific withdrew from joint financing, at which point Spreckels rashly decided to bankroll the line himself.
Railroads elsewhere included miles of straight trackage, but even the easiest gradient and route for the SD&A dictated 140 miles of spaghetti, including three miles each of tunnels and bridges. A route over the mountains through Julian was shorter, but wisdom decreed a longer line south from San Diego to Tijuana and eastward through Mexico; it recrossed the border near Campo, then hugged the east side of the Carrizo Gorge before descending to El Centro. Engineering obstacles, natural disasters, and the Mexican Revolution delayed completion until 1919.
Would the new line amortize its $18 million cost, or even turn a profit? Passengers now rode directly to Chicago, gamblers’ specials carried horseplayers to Caliente, while freight revenue came from gypsum mines in the desert and the Tecate brewery. But by the 1930s red ink covered the ledgers, and the Spreckels heirs bailed out to the Southern Pacific. The spectacular vistas through the Gorge drew fewer and fewer tourists as commercial aviation expanded, and costly passenger service ended in 1951. Replacement of worn out steam engines with diesels brought modest profitability through the Sixties, but Hurricane Kathleen in 1976 demonstrated that San Diego could easily exist without its now-severed rail link to the east.
The railroad’s present posture more resembles a transplant patient on respirators than a reborn phoenix. True, the San Diego Trolley burnishes the rails to the border. But the El Cajon branch brings only marginal profits to a contract operator, and weeds cover the embargoed main line. Will trains again traverse the magnificent curved trestle in the Carrizo Gorge? Likely only under the auspices of the Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum, whose headquarters at Campo is home to the only surviving San Diego & Arizona steam engine as well as Spreckels’ private car.
Author Hanft is not a professional historian, as his disjointed text, con-fusing chronologies, and sometimes colored opinions demonstrate. More significantly, he failed to research extensive corporate archives housed in the San Diego History Center. But for rail fans and local history buffs, the book is a photographic treat depicting nearly every facet of the line’s shortline predecessors, construction, motive power, operation, and near demise. Someday another writer may mine the company records to assemble a more coherent corporate history, but this book will be an enduring visual treasure. And who knows; museum volunteers may yet stir the phoenix from the ashes, if only to haul tourists behind antique steam power through the Carrizo Gorge.