The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1988, Volume 34, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

San Diego’s South Bay Interurban

By Ralph Forty. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1987. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 95 Pages. $14.95.

Reviewed by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., Professor, Department of Afro-American Studies, San Diego State University, and restoration specialist, San Diego Railroad Museum, Campo.

Electric interurban railroads mushroomed across America in response to the growing desire of rural and suburban folk for cheap and efficient access to urban life. Interurbans generally operated on private rights-of-way, using larger, heavier, and faster vehicles than the trolley cars which ran on city streets. San Diego had only one true interurban line, which connected the metropolis with the new communities of National City, Chula Vista, and (briefly) Otay. But this was to be short-lived, as the system was absorbed by the city’s electric railway and operated as a trolley line until competing buses and jitneys doomed its profitability.

The author’s narrative follows a strict chronology, beginning with the initial southward route built in the 1880s by the National City and Otay Railway, a steam line later electrified, taken over by Spreckels interests, and renamed the San Diego Southern. Corporate changes led to its consolidation into the San Diego and Southeastern. 1915 was the interurban’s most profitable year, due to the crowds of visitors to the Panama-Pacific Exposition. But disaster struck the next year: following days of rain the Sweet-water Dam burst, severing the line. A new right-of-way enabled resumption of service only as far south as Chula Vista, and that was on San Diego Electric Railway streetcars. The larger interurban cars were sold to the giant Pacific Electric system in the Los Angeles basin, which was desperate for vehicles to haul war workers to San Pedro.

By the early 1920s, the South Bay line was unsuccessfully competing with private automobiles as well as San Diego Electric Railway buses. Management bravely inaugurated 20-minute express service from San Diego to National City, but ironically the ceremony celebrating this improved service featured a parade of automobiles. Declining ridership led to cessation of service from National City to Chula Vista in mid-decade, which did not, however, stem the flow of red ink. January 9, 1930, was the last day of streetcar operation to National City, with the buses triumphant at last.

The author concludes his narrative with a final chapter on the rebirth of light rail service to the South Bay. The present day San Diego Trolley, however, utilizes the San Diego and Arizona Railway route to the border, not the previous interurban and streetcar line.

Visually, this volume is a treat. Historic photographs are clearly reproduced, and, along with their captions, tell most of the story. Appendices give additional maps for the various downtown routings and a roster of the interurban cars and their subsequent histories. A chronology synthesizes corporate, timetable, and line changes.

As history, San Diego’s South Bay Interurban is a disappointment. Nowhere does the author summarize the history of interurban railway development in the United States, and place the South Bay line into its historical context. Nor does Forty provide sufficient information for the reader to understand the overall electric railway system and services in the San Diego area. Although there are several maps of the South Bay line, none show those passenger lines to the Point Loma and east county areas. Readers wishing even a cursory understanding of the electric railway phenomenon nationwide, or how the South Bay line contributed to an extensive transportation network serving county residents, will be shortchanged. The author has opted instead to fill his narrative with the minutiae of line changes, timetable alterations, special excursions and derailments. Rail buffs will enjoy the photographs, but even they will rue the lack of broader perspectives.