The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1995, Volume 41, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The San Diego Trolley.

By Gena Holle. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1990. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Index. 104 pages. $25.95.
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Reviewed by Karna Webster, M.A,. History, University of San Diego and author of Chula Vista Heritage, 1986.

In The San Diego Trolley, Gena Holle presents the fascinating history of San Diego’s modern electric train system. This interesting and well written book begins with a section about San Diego’s historic trolleys from their inception on July 3, 1886 to their demise on April 23, 1949. The author presents the reasons for the change at that time to buses. The modern train system, known as the San Diego Trolley, came about as a result of the insight of State Senator James Mills, the development of a metropolitan transit district board (MTDB), the destruction of SD&AE tracks by tropical storm Kathleen on Sept. 10, 1976, and the availability of funds at just the right time.

With the purchase of part of the SD&AE right-of-way and approval by the San Diego City Council and other agencies, work began in 1979 on the South Line linking San Diego and the border. Mayor Pete Wilson drove the official golden spike on June 4, 1980 to dedicate the first section of track in downtown San Diego. After a week-long celebration, the first train bound for San Ysidro started at 5:00 a.m. on July 26, 1981. Dubbed the “Tijuana Trolley” by many, the name for the entire system became the “San Diego Trolley,” despite opposition from James Mills who called it a “dumb name.”

Construction on the East Line to Euclid Avenue began on June 1, 1984. This line later extended to La Mesa and El Cajon with full operation over the entire line from San Diego to El Cajon starting in June 1989. This line is currently being extended to the City of Santee. The last chapter in the book and a map indicate the entire proposed system.

In addition to details about the construction of the system, the rail cars and operation of the trains, the author also provides a look at the glitches, horseplay, and incidents from a train operator’s point of view. She discusses such things as “sun kinks” in the rail and early trips, when train operators made animal noises and sometimes clucked when passing, causing some trains to be called “chicken trains.” She mentions unusual passengers such as the “roller skating grandma” and the “taco lady.” The book discusses accidents and crime also. The “granddaddy of accidents” happened on August 22, 1983, when a bus ran a red light at 12th & G in San Diego and hit a three-car train heading for downtown. The lead car jumped the tracks and crashed into the offices of Hang Ten’s attorney. Fortunately, there were few injuries.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps, cartoons, advertisements and postcards from the author’s personal collection, this book even includes labelled drawings and function charts of the train operator’s console and controls. Although researchers might wish for a more comprehensive index, this book will be a valuable addition to anyone’s local history library.


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