The Journal of San Diego History
Spring/Summer 2000, Volume 46, Numbers 2 & 3
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Video Reviews

The Impossible Railroad. Video.

Marianne Gerdes, Producer. San Diego: KPBS Television, 1999. 56:46 min. $24.95.

Reviewed by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr, who teaches African American history at San Diego State University and is writing a book on African Americans and railroads.

The most important chapter in San Diego’s railroad history — the story of the ill-fated San Diego & Arizona “desert line” to El Centro — receives fine visual treatment in The Impossible Railroad, a production of KPBS Television. Alternating historic black-and-white photographs and movie footage with scenes from the line today, it reveals John D. Spreckels” dogged determination to complete a 140 mile railroad through terrain often totally unsuited for that mode of transportation. It proved to be his one significant business failure.

The Impossible Railroad was made by a talented wife-husband team, producer/writer Marianne Gerdes and director of photography Michael Gerdes, with invaluable cooperation from the San Diego Railroad Museum, which operates excursion trains over portions of the SD&A. Michael Gerdes’ splendid shots of the museum’s vintage steam locomotive and passenger train in a variety of locales west and east of Campo show how scenic San Diego’s back country really is, and the footage of the 1,000-foot-deep Carriso Gorge only makes one want to experience it first hand. Mary Ann Gerdes has researched the railroad, Spreckels, and early San Diego history well to piece together the story of civic longing for a rail link to the east and the man who would make that dream a reality. Her narrative is enhanced by the insights of several experts, especially retired San Diego State University history professor Raymond Starr, author of San Diego: A Pictorial History (1986), and Bruce Semelsberger, a member of the San Diego Railroad Museum’s library staff and a fine amateur historian.

The San Diego & Arizona was America’s last transcontinental railroad link, finally completed in 1919. It was half a century too late. As Semelsberger comments, San Diego, with its natural harbor, could have been the West Coast’s second premier seaport were it not for the mountain barriers to its east. Unfortunately, when the Southern Pacific completed the first southern transcontinental line in 1883, its terminus was Los Angeles. Competitor Santa Fe then built a line that terminated in National City, but when a flood devastated the line through Temecula Canyon, it re-routed to Los Angeles, leaving San Diego dangling at the end of a branch line from that city.

Enter John D. Spreckels, a classic capitalist entrepreneur who had already created local monopolies in San Diego street railways, water, and electric power. What was good for Spreckels, he believed, was good for San Diego. Where his business acumen ultimately faltered, however, was in his agreement with Southern Pacific president E. H. Harriman to “front” the building of a line to Yuma so that the hated Southern Pacific — the “Octopus” — would not earn additional public disfavor in California. But on Harriman’s death in 1909, SP directors got cold feet and demanded the return of Harriman’s $3 million investment. By now Spreckels was doggedly determined to continue, and financed further construction himself.

Even though the San Diego & Arizona followed surveyor’s recommendations for the easiest route possible, the route presented formidable natural obstacles, first as it dipped into Mexico. The steepest part of the entire line was at Redondo, where a double horseshoe curve was constructed. But this was nothing compared to the Carriso Gorge portion of the line, eleven grueling miles requiring thirteen trestles and seventeen tunnels, some of which were blasted out of rock so hard that daily progress was measured in inches. Remarkably, only two men died of construction accidents, but many more perished during the influenza epidemic in 1919. The SD&A, which had already been christened “The Impossible Railroad” and was soon dubbed “Slow, Dirty & Aggravated” by its crews, took 13 years to build, at the enormous cost of $18 million. It proved as expensive to operate and maintain.

Hollywood discovered the Gorge’s spectacular scenery, but movie revenues could not stop the flow of red ink. Spreckels’ heirs (he died in 1926) sold the line to the Southern Pacific in 1933, at nine cents on the dollar. Renamed the San Diego & Arizona Eastern, it enjoyed prosperity only during the World War II transportation boom. Even when diesels supplanted the expensive-to-operate steam locomotives in the 1950s, profits were scarce. The completion of highway Interstate 8 in 1970 gave truck competition an insurmountable advantage, and the line was finally sold to the Metropolitan Transit Development Board in 1977, which used its urban trackage for the San Diego Trolley. Will the line to El Centro ever be re-opened to freight traffic? Not without commercial viability and political will, which so far have not been demonstrated. Sightseers, however, may soon be able to view the Carriso Gorge if the plans of a railfan group come to fruition.

Anyone interested in San Diego history, the career of John D. Spreckels, or San Diego’s railroad heritage (and future prospects) will be informed and delighted by The Impossible Railroad. Additional views of the railroad’s east end may be seen in the ” Tressel [sic]” segment of the Huell Howser’s California’s Gold program (which regularly airs on the San Diego KPBS-TV channel) recording a trip into the Carriso Gorge to see the famed 633-foot-long Goat Canyon curved wooden trestle, which rises 185 feet from the ground. The scenery is spectacular, but Howser’s “gee-whiz” narration is pedestrian. More informative commentary comes from SD&AE retirees and a San Diego Railroad Museum volunteer who accompanied him, but regrettably their names are not even mentioned. They deserve at least as much respect as the trestle.