by James N. Price
There’s something special about train stations. These buildings somehow transcend the brick, wood, and glass that define their structure. To the communities they serve, train stations represent the railroad, with its attendant nostalgia on the one hand and no-nonsense business on the other. While many fine stations have met the wrecking ball and bulldozer across the country, we are fortunate in San Diego County and the neighboring border cities of Tijuana and Tecate to have 18 buildings that serve or have served as train stations. A strong sentiment plus action and money have saved a number of these symbolic buildings. Communities have banded together to find funds to buy and physically move three stations from trackside to streetside locations. And at least a half dozen others have been spared thanks to historical preservation efforts. Only one train station has been razed in San Diego County in the past twenty-five years — Fallbrook.
The stations in San Diego, Del Mar, and Oceanside still bustle with daily Amtrak and freight activity. Many others lead productive second lives — from offices and museums to restaurants and gift shops. The buildings range in architecture and size from the elegant mission-style station in downtown San Diego to tiny woodframe edifices, such as La Mesa, that held little more than an agent and serviced only a handful of passengers. But they all represent the railroad in America, and they have each seen countless arrivals and departures of both trains and the people who have ridden them.
Come, then, whether an armchair traveler, a Sunday afternoon explorer, or an eager railfan to visit San Diego County’s reminders of both the past and present of railroad travel. You’ll be impressed and surprised as I was at the number and beauty of the railroad stations that we can still enjoy today.
Compared to other major California cities, San Diego’s first railroad was a long time coming. The famous Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah, ceremonially driven in 1869, marked the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States — the Central Pacific (CP), with its west coast terminus in San Francisco. The selection of San Francisco was no accident — the CP’s “Big Four” financiers Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins made it happen. Later they organized the Southern Pacific (SP), which reached Los Angeles in 1876, thus creating a stranglehold on railroading in California.
San Diego, stubbornly represented by Frank Kimball, fought for its own rail terminus and finally succeeded in striking an agreement in the late 1870s with the then fledgling Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. To help swing the deal, Kimball offered vast quantities of his land, much of present day National City, for Santa Fe’s yard and offices. In July of 1881, the newly organized California Southern began building a line from San Diego to San Bernardino, via Oceanside and Fallbrook, which neared its destination in September of the following year. But the “Big Four” interfered — they weren’t about to let San Diego’s upstart line cross their SP line at Colton. So, only local trains ran between San Diego and Colton, until a few years of acrimony later, on November 26, 1885, the first transcontinental train arrived in San Diego. The powerful San Francisco group finally had some competition.
With the coming of the railroad, sleepy San Diego boomed, its population doubling to 40,000 in a few years. Local opportunists saw potential in having more rail service in the area, and the period from 1885 to 1890 saw the organization and construction of no fewer than five independent railroad lines: the Central California; the National City & Otay; the San Diego, Old Town & Pacific Beach; the Coronado; and the San Diego, Cuyamaca and Eastern. In addition, Santa Fe built a new link from Oceanside to Orange County — the “Surf Line,” and San Diego’s first horsedrawn trolleys began to ply the city’s streets. Several other “paper railroads” such as the San Diego & Gila and the Texas & Pacific were designed but never constructed.
For a variety of reasons San Diego’s boom quickly went bust. First Santa Fe built a line from San Bernardino to Los Angeles and by 1890, moved its headquarters from National City to Los Angeles thus leaving San Diego on a sidetrack. Later, a general depression hit the U.S. in the early 1890s, and San Diego’s population halved during the decade, not reaching its 1880s peak again until 1910. Any remaining strength in the small independent railroads literally flooded away in the winter of 1916 when virtually all lines washed out and many were never rebuilt. The operators of these lines were devastated, and consolidation after consolidation occurred so that by 1917 San Diego County’s railroads were Santa Fe and John Spreckels’ San Diego & Arizona, and no others.
Spreckels, one of San Diego’s major champions of development, already had rail firmly entrenched in his sizable empire since he owned San Diego Electric, the city’s street car line. He also dreamed, as others had before him, of a direct transcontinental link to San Diego. He formed the San Diego and Arizona in 1901 and began construction in 1907. The line’s tortuous course wound through mountains and canyons in both Mexico and the U.S., including the spectacular Carizzo Gorge. Progress was slow for many reasons, not the least of which was the Mexican Revolution, but finally on November 15, 1919, Spreckels drove a Golden Spike near Jacumba on the last transcontinental railroad built in the U.S. San Diego then had direct rail service to the East, linking up with Southern Pacific in the Imperial Valley.
Rail service flourished through the 1920s and 1930s; in fact 1924 was the peak year of trolley trackage in San Diego, but the automobile began to make severe inroads in passenger service. Line by line that service was discontinued: La Mesa in 1928, Escondido in 1945, the SD&AE line in 1951. Tracks were pulled up, some depots abandoned, destroyed or moved, and railroading became primarily a freight business up to the present day. As points of nostalgic trivia, the last run of the original San Diego Electric trolley was April 24, 1949, and the last steam train left San Diego for Los Angeles on August 23, 1953.
San Diego today is served by Amtrak, which stops downtown, in Del Mar, and in Oceanside. In addition, Santa Fe operates daily freight to Los Angeles on the same tracks. Meanwhile, the SD&AE line, later operated by Southern Pacific, washed out below Carrizo Gorge in 1976 and has not been rebuilt. The San Diego and Imperial Valley operates the line from San Diego to the border and into Mexico, sharing track resources with the San Diego Trolley. The Trolley is expanding to El Cajon using little-used former SD&AE railbed and tracks. And if all goes well, the Trolley will clang its way into other parts of San Diego County.
The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association (PSRMA) must be mentioned as a factor in San Diego’s rail history as well. This railfan organization has operated a museum in the old La Mesa Depot for several years and is developing a large facility at Campo in the East County. Rail enthusiasts can already ride a steam-powered train for a few miles from Campo and the eventual dream is to operate a tourist railroad through Carrizo Gorge.
Railroading in San Diego for the foreseeable future will consist of freight service to, from, and within the city; potentially upgraded passenger service to Los Angeles and points north; an ever-expanding Trolley system; and a considerable railfan operation run by PSRMA. The city will never again see the hundreds of miles of railroad and streetcar tracks that overlaid it in the early 1900s. But rail is far from dead in San Diego, and, thanks to Amtrak, the Trolley, and PSRMA, it is enjoying considerable rebirth as both viable transportation and an enticing, nostalgic hobby.
The railroad stations of San Diego County evoke some of that nostalgia. Fortunately eighteen such buildings stand today as bridges from the past to the present.
A brief history of each of San Diego’s railroad lines, both historic and present, is needed to understand the genesis of each railroad station in the county. Numbers for each line listed below correspond to the maps on pages 128 and 131.
(1) The CALIFORNIA SOUTHERN was organized in 1880 by Tom Nickerson following Frank Kimball’s successful negotiations with AT&SF. California Southern built a yard and station at National City in 1881 on Kimball’s donated land and construction on the rail bed commenced in July of that year. The first train between National City and San Diego ran a month later. Tracks reached Fallbrook in January of 1882, Temecula in March, and the ultimate objective of San Bernardino in September. As noted previously, however, the “Big Four” blocked California Southern operations at Colton where it needed to cross their Southern Pacific line, and then in 1882 the line washed out in Temecula Canyon. Santa Fe took control of California Southern at this point, rebuilt the line, completed negotiations with SP, and achieved full transcontinental operation in late 1885, following completion of a rail line over Cajon Pass east of San Bernardino. The Temecula Canyon portion of the line washed out again in 1891 and was never rebuilt; instead the “Surf Line” was built (see 3 below) for traffic from San Diego to the North. A spur line from Oceanside to west of Fallbrook still exists for occasional freight service as does the northern portion of the original CS line from San Bernardino to Perris.
(2) The CENTRAL CALIFORNIA, a Santa Fe subsidiary, built a spur line from Oceanside to Escondido via Vista and San Marcos in 1887. The line was optimistically planned to be a transcontinental link in its own right, but Escondido was and is the terminus.
(3) Santa Fe completed the “SURF LINE” from Oceanside to Orange County in 1888, thus providing a more direct link between San Diego and the rapidly growing Los Angeles area.
In 1889, all three lines (the California Southern, the Central California, and the “Surf Line”) became the SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA RAILROAD, wholly owned by Santa Fe. The lines carried only the Santa Fe name after 1906.
Today Amtrak uses the southern portion of the original CS line (Ocean-side to San Diego — line 1b) and the “Surf Line” (line 3) for its daily service between San Diego and L.A. Santa Fe uses all of its trackage, including the spurs to Fallbrook and Escondido, for freight. All in all, the Santa Fe operation in San Diego County has been and is a robust concern, and Santa Fe has considerable development plans for its properties in the county.
Over the years, Santa Fe built depots in National City, San Diego, Del Mar, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos, Escondido, and Fallbrook. All but the San Marcos and Fallbrook depots exist today, serving varied purposes from restaurants to Chambers of Commerce to Amtrak stations.
As noted earlier, the construction of the California Southern in the early 1880s caused a huge boom in San Diego, and rail lines proliferated. It may seem odd today that anyone would have tried to profit by building a rail line from San Diego to Lakeside or La Jolla. But at that time those towns were outposts a half-day horse ride away from the “city” — hence the development of several short lines, each with its own dreams and realities.
The diagram [at right] shows the development and mergers of these various independents into the John Spreckels empire. Spreckels also owned the San Diego Electric street car system; consequently, by 1917 he owned all the trackage in San Diego County except for that owned by Santa Fe.
(4) One of San Diego’s first non-Santa Fe lines was the SAN DIEGO AND OLD TOWN which began operation in 1887. The name of the line changed as it progressed toward La Jolla over the years: it became the SAN DIEGO, OLD TOWN & PACIFIC BEACH in 1888; and the SAN DIEGO, PACIFIC BEACH & LA JOLLA in 1894. In 1906 when the line’s owners planned connecting service to the north, it became the LOS ANGELES & SAN DIEGO BEACH RAILROAD, but it never went farther north than La Jolla. Affectionately known as the “Abalone Limited,” the line continued service until 1917. Two years later the tracks were taken up, but this independent indirectly became a part of Spreckels’ holdings when he built a San Diego Electric line to La Jolla in 1923 using much of the same rail bed.
Two other non-Spreckels lines existed for a brief time in San Diego’s early days. In the 1880s, the BALBOA PARK BELT LINE provided an almost trolley-like passenger service from downtown to the northern side of the park by way of the park’s east edge. The POINT LOMA RAILROAD provided similar service to what is now the Loma Portal/Ocean Beach area in the early 1900s.
(5) & (6) The NATIONAL CITY AND OTAY began with operations between National City and San Diego in the summer of 1887. In the next year, lines were built to Tijuana to the south and Sweetwater Dam to the east. Portions of the line were electrified in 1907 as part of San Diego’s growing street car system.
(7) The CORONADO RAILROAD, the so-called Belt Line, was put into operation in 1888, going around the southern end of San Diego Bay from National City to the then shiny new Hotel del Coronado. Passenger service continued until 1896. Later some of the line was electrified and made part of the San Diego Electric.
In 1908 the non-electrified remnants of NC&O and Coronado merged into the SAN DIEGO SOUTHERN which operated rail services between San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, Coronado, Sweetwater, and the border. The tracks of the Belt Line portion of the Coronado road remained until 1970!
(8) The SAN DIEGO, CUYAMACA & EASTERN was also built during the boom days of the 1880s. Formed with the optimistic notion of making a transcontinental link via Riverside, the line reached from San Diego to Lakeside in 1889 and a year later to its ultimate destination of Foster near today’s San Vicente Dam. There, passengers could link up with horsedrawn stage service to Julian. The name of the line was later shortened to the San Diego & Cuyamaca to reflect the realities of the post-boom 1890s. Railroad station buildings at Lakeside and La Mesa provide historic links to SD&C’s heyday.
In 1912, further decline in passengers and operating revenues forced the merger of the San Diego Southern with the SD&C to become the SAN DIEGO & SOUTHEASTERN. This consolidated rail company operated all of the non-Santa Fe trackage in San Diego County except that belonging to the LA and San Diego Beach. Times were not good, however, and a devastating flood in 1916 wiped out several portions of the tracks. Abandoned forever were the lines from Lakeside to Foster and from National City to Sweetwater. Capital poor, the SD&SE owners sold out to John Spreckels in 1917, thus ending the era of San Diego’s independent short lines. As noted earlier, the “Abalone Limited” ceased operation the same year.
(9) John Spreckels formed the SAN DIEGO & ARIZONA in 1901, his dream for a transcontinental railroad directly to San Diego. Work began in 1907, with tracks reaching Tijuana in 1910. Construction through the mountains and canyons of both Baja California and San Diego County was tortuously difficult and slow. The Mexican Revolution in 1912, World War I, and major flooding in 1916 complicated progress even more. Spreckels dug deeply into his pockets many times to keep his dream alive. Progress was indeed made, and passengers could travel as far as Tecate by 1914 and Campo by 1916. Carrizo Gorge provided the final hurdle — a sweltering hot, rugged, deep chasm with the rails chiseled into the canyon walls. But somehow Spreckels’ “Impossible Railroad” was completed, and he drove the Golden Spike in his transcontinental railroad link near Jacumba on November 15, 1919. The route contained 23 tunnels and 14 trestles upon completion.
The Mexican portion of the line carried the moniker of the TIJUANA & TECATE RAILROAD, and long distance travel on the SD&A was always subject to the vagaries of passing through two border check points. For that and other reasons (including the dust and heat over much of its route), passengers dubbed the SD&A as “Slow, Dirty, and Aggravating.” Still, the line served San Diego well with both passenger and freight service for several decades.
John Spreckels died in 1926, and in 1933 all stock in SD&A was sold to Southern Pacific. The line then became the San Diego and Arizona Eastern on which passenger service continued until 1951. Freight service to and from the Imperial Valley struggled along until the tracks were severely damaged by Hurricane Kathleen in 1976. SP attempted to abandon the line, but several small operators have run the line in the 1980s. San Diego’s Metropolitan Transportation Development Board (MTDB) now owns the right-of-way. The current leaser, the San Diego & Imperial Valley Railroad, hauls freight from downtown San Diego into Mexico, sharing the U.S. portion of the line with the San Diego trolley. Reinstatement of service to the Imperial Valley and points east will be a matter of economics — much trackage requires replacing as do several tunnels and trestles. Meanwhile PSRMA, as noted previously, operates a tourist railroad on SD&AE tracks from Campo while the San Diego trolley is expanding eastward to El Cajon on old SD&AE railbed.
The railroad station legacy of SD&AE consists of buildings at Chula Vista, Tijuana, Tecate, Campo, and Jacumba, which are used today for a variety of purposes.
A few points about railroad station architecture need to be made before the story of each San Diego County train station is presented. First, a technicality: the building is actually called a “depot.” The term “station” refers to the depot plus the surrounding yard, side tracks, other buildings, etc. Thus the buildings discussed in this book are really depots.
As noted in the introduction to this history, there is indeed something special about train stations. This is no less true when it comes to the architecture of these buildings. In 1875, the magazine Building News said: “Railway termini and hotels are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century. They are truly the only real representative building we possess. . . . Our metropolitan termini have been leaders of the art spirit of our time.”
The architects who designed train depots had much to consider in the layout of the buildings. They had to accommodate for such diverse factors as the relative position of the building to the tracks, pathways for arriving and departing passengers, allowances for trains going in both directions, and covered passenger waiting areas. The major rail lines seemed to have standardized on three basic concepts for station design.
The country station was generally a very small one- or two-room box that provided little more than a part-time office for one person. There are no examples of that type of depot in San Diego County. What we do have are many examples of the “combination” station, usually a three-room structure for passengers, the office, and freight, respectively. The office often had a bay window or at least some trackside protrusion. Excellent examples of combination stations are Carlsbad, Del Mar, and Vista.
Most of the grandiose depots in the U.S. are “union” stations. This term means that the building serves more than one railroad line. San Diego’s depot was a union station through at least the 1920s, 30s and 40s when it provided passenger and freight service to both the Santa Fe and the San Diego & Arizona Eastern. The mission style downtown depot serves only Santa Fe today, but it’s no less beautiful or functional than in earlier days.
What was inside a San Diego County train station? Take a trip back in time for a detailed description of the Escondido depot’s interior by Horace Gilbert, a freight and baggage man in the 1940s:
In the waiting room stood a telegraph desk in the bay window facing the track. The office of the agent was located back of the waiting room and contained the clerk’s desk, a large iron safe, and a long counter with two ticket windows facing the waiting room. Two ticket racks were placed between the windows and held tickets printed with destinations of San Marcos, Vista, Oceanside, Fallbrook, San Diego, and Los Angeles. In the waiting room, located against the north wall, sat a long bench divided into eight places by iron arm rests. Two doors in the room were labeled “entrance” and “to train.” The traditional station clock hung on the wall between the office and the record room.
And let’s visit each of today’s and yesterday’s railroad depots in San Diego County.
No one’s view of the future can be as perfect as a view of the past. However a few events and trends relative to San Diego’s railroad future seem apparent.
First, the Amtrak run between San Diego and Los Angeles is one of the very few portions of that system that virtually pays for itself. With a high growth rate in all of Southern California virtually guaranteed for the foreseeable future, rail service within and between San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties will make more and more sense. A very high speed bullet train has been discussed previously and could be a reality in the early 21st century.
The San Diego Trolley will expand to as large a system as economics will support. The initial trackage between the U.S./Mexican border and downtown San Diego paid for itself more rapidly than anticipated, and several spur lines are under construction or in the advanced planning stages. It seems unlikely that San Diego will ever enjoy the kind of in-town rail service available earlier in this century, but a light rail system of 100 miles or more is a distinct possibility by the year 2000.
The old San Diego & Arizona Eastern line could be resurrected for at least freight service between San Diego; northern Baja California, Mexico; and the Imperial Valley. Several million dollars will be required to renovate the line in Carrizo Gorge, and it will always be expensive to maintain due to severe weather conditions in that desert area. Again, economics will provide the incentive. A “wild card” in guessing the future of this railroad is the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association (PSRMA) which could run tourist railroad services from at least Campo to the Imperial Valley and conceivably all the way from San Diego to the desert. Reaction to such ventures throughout the country and at PSRMA has been very positive, and when PSRMA is running relatively long-distance, steam-powered trains, the stage could be set for a profitably venture for weekends and peak tourist seasons.
Compared to travel by automobile and airplane, San Diego’s railroad future will pale; however it will not go away, and the trends of the 1980s suggest that money can be made, and hence will be, by carrying both passengers and freight by rail throughout San Diego County and, for that matter, throughout Southern California. This author would like to see, by the year 2000, a 200 + MPH passenger service between Los Angeles and San Diego; a 100+ mile San Diego Trolley system including North County and airport services; a tourist railroad running from Campo through Carrizo Gorge to the desert floor; and a continually profitable freight business to the rest of Southern California, into Mexico, and to the Imperial Valley. All these things are possible, and if San Diego County is very lucky, all eighteen train stations described in this history will still be around to enjoy, as well.
A number of people contributed to this book. Noted railroad author David Myrick, ghost town author and close friend Phil Varney, and fellow railfans Paul Pakus and “Chop” Kerr reviewed the manuscript in detail and provided valuable inputs. Eric Sanders, San Diego’s most respected railroad historian, provided guidance and several photographs. The Escondido Historical Society permited the use of Escondido train station description by Horace Gilbert. And my wife, Joan Sieber, provided inspiration for this project by traveling to all of the train stations, some several times, and entering much of the text into our word processor.
The following books and articles were used in the preparation and/or research for “The Railroad Stations of San Diego County, Then and Now:”
Depot Architecture and Nostalgia
Robert E. Pounds, Santa Fe Depots, Kachina Press, 1984.
H. Roger Grant and Charles W. Bohi, The Country Railroad Station in America, Pruett Publishers, 1978.
Randolph Bye, The Vanishing Depot, Livingston Publishers, 1973.
Julian Cavalier, Classic American Railroad Stations, A.S. Barnes Co, 1980 Carroll L.V. Meeks, The Railroad Station, Castle Books, 1978.
Edwin P. Alexander, Down at the Depot, Clarkson N. Potter Publishers, 1970.
Lawrence Grow, Waiting for the 5:05, Main St/University Books, 1977.
Edmondson and Franceviglia, Railroad Station Planbook, Kalmback Books, 1977.
General San Diego County Railroad History
Irene Phillips, The Railroad Story of San Diego County, South Bay Press, 1956.
Ward McAfee, California’s Railroad Era, 1850-1911, Golden West Books, 1973.
Keith W. Bryant, Jr., History of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe, Mac-Millan Publishing Co, 1974.
Robert N. Hanft, San Diego & Arizona, the Impossible Railroad, Trans-Anglo Books, 1984.
Donald Duke and Stan Kistler, Sante Fe. . . Steel Rails Through California, Golden West Books, 1963.
Richard V. Dodge, Rails of the Silver Gate, Golden West Books, 1960.
Nancy Ray, “Old Trains Are Gone but the Depots Still Clang Along,” Los Angeles Times (San Diego edition), November 18, 1985.
Craig MacDonald, “Depots: New Station in Life,” San Diego Union, March 28, 1976.
Douglas L. Lowell, The California Southern Railroad and the Growth of San Diego, Parts I and II, The Journal of San Diego History, Fall 1985 and Winter 1986.
Series of articles about San Diego Country rail history, San Diego Tribune, Floyd McCracken, 1954.
The Dispatcher magazine, published in 1950s and 1960s by San Diego area railroad enthusiasts (San Diego Railroad History Society, later the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association).
San Diego Union, April 11, 1965 (first and last steam trains in San Diego).