The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1989, Volume 35, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Baja California Railways.

By John A. Kirchner. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1988, Bibliography. Tables by P.Allen Copeland. Maps. Illustrations. Index. 349 Pages. $30.00.

Reviewed by T.D. Proffitt, III, Department of History, San Diego State University, author of a forthcoming history of Tijuana.

Baja California Railways, the newest of Dawson’s Baja travel series, is destined to become the standard work on its subject. The volume not only discusses railroads that were actually constructed, but also rail systems that never got beyond the planning stage. If it ran on rails, regardless of its motive power, it is discussed in Baja California Railways! Light rail, narrow gauge, mining trams, pier railroads; all are covered in this readable and well illustrated survey.

Chapter One details the role of land speculation and mining in the peninsula’s railway mania at the turn of the century. Chapter Two tells how some Mexicans feared that railroads would open Baja California to filibusters. Chapter Three gives insight into the history and problems of the Inter California Railways that operated on both sides of the border from Tijuana eastward across the Colorado River, chapter Four continues the story to the Gulf of California, Indeed, some of the most interesting reading concerns construction across the Colorado River.

With Chapter Five, the author makes a radical shift of mining railways. In that and subsequent chapters the reader is faced with a lot of technical information relating to mining, its geology, history, and politics. This is industrial history, not railway history. In a final chapter, Kirchner concludes with a pot-pourri which includes the “Tijuana Trolley.”

In Baja California Railways, Kirchner, who teaches history at California State University, Los Angeles, places Baja California’s railways within their historical and economic context; land speculation, filibusters, Mexican international and national politics, mining booms, and border ambience. By so doing, he highlights the geographical ignorance of early woudl-be pioneers who overestimated their ability to tame the rugged peninsula, and the idealism of Mexican politicians who believed that railways would make Mexico a major power. Indeed, by the time the problems of railroad construction were solved, the transpeninsular highway and United States Interstate Eight spelled the demise of long distance transpeninsular rail traffic.

Not only is Kirchner’s story well told, it is also well illustrated. Photographs and maps are well chosen and fit the text although some photographs in the third chapter need to be placed closer to their topics. The index is well thought out and the bibliography is thorough. In some cases, however, it is not possible to go from footnotes to the bibliography in order to obtain titles on primary sources or where they are located.

In layout, terminology, choice of photographs and captions Baja California Railways is comparable to other railroad books. Unlike Robert Hanft in San Diego & Arizona:The Impossible Railroad (1984), Kirchner does not go into detail on the seizure of the San Diego-Arizona Railroad by Mexican insurgents in 1911; nor does he note Hanft’s lengthy primary source description of the seizure.

For readers of this journal, the significance of Baja California Railwaysis seen in the prominence of San Diego and Tijuana in the plans and promises of railroad entrepreneurs. Although the author fails to recognize the Los Angeles-San Diego press rivalry, he does note their reaction to Baja California railways.

Despite its readability, however, the book fails to adequately reach its two main audiences: Baja buffs and railroad enthusiasts. It is unlikely that the former will be as conversant as the author with railway terminology (e.g., 2-10-23, which is not explained anywhere), or the latter familiar with Mexican politics. Nor for that matter can either be expected to be Knowledgeable concerning mining techniques or geology. Both may find long epigrams in Spanish and French annoying. At times, Baja California Railwaysis too technical for its intended audience.

Nonethless, Baja California Railways is an important contribution to the literature of Baja California and railroads. By showing how the railways facilitated the development of Baja California by typing it into the life and economy of Mexico, the work makes a significant contribution to historical studies of the peninsula.

Finally, it should be noted that the limited Dawson edition is expected to be supplemented by a subsequent edition from another more commercial press.