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When it comes to making tracks, San Diego likes to dream the impossible dream.
Back when we were a backwater burg in the 1880s, local bigwigs tried to turn us into the western terminus of the cross-country railroad system and the top port south of San Francisco. It didn’t happen.
More than a century later, there’s talk of bringing a defunct cross-border track back to life.
What could have been? And did anything go right? The past tells the story, which comes complete with a couple wealthy villains, a nearly bloody battle involving an Earp brother and a beauty of a train station that almost became just a memory.
Here are four surprising tales about San Diego’s railroad history.
We Coulda Been a Contender
San Diegans wanted a railroad even before they became Americans.
Back in 1845, when railroads were in their infancy and San Diego was still part of Mexico, locals created something called the San Diego & Gila, Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. While it was only supposed to connect to Yuma (now in Arizona), its clunky name hinted at bigger aspirations: Our city could have become the end of the (rail)road in the West, the final destination for products heading to California and the start for goods from Asia.
It’s possible we could have been California’s top city instead of those pesky neighbors up the 5.
But nothing happened. “And so began a railroad cycle in San Diego County,” writes author Irene Phillips in 1956’s “The Railroad Story of San Diego County.” A cycle, that is, of dashed hopes.
Other plans collapsed over the next few decades. San Diego officials couldn’t even convince the fabulously wealthy railroad baron Jay Gould to create a railway line. “I don’t build roads. I buy them,” he replied.
A railroad finally connected to San Diego in 1885 during boom times for the city, and locals dreamed even bigger. San Diego, after all, is the only “good natural harbor” south of San Francisco, and “by all the rules, the great Southern gateway should be here,” writes author James Marshall in 1945’s ““Santa Fe: The Railroad that Built an Empire.”
But Los Angeles grabbed the prize through “fate, accident and politics,” Marshall writes.
Meet the Big Shot: National City (!)
When builder Frank Kimball came to San Diego County in 1868, he didn’t have much American company. He estimated that there were just 11 Americans in Old Town, an “old Indian, Spanish, Mexican, negro village,” and only a handful more within hundreds of miles.
He aimed to change that.
Kimball and his brothers bought the National Ranch, a big chunk of land south of San Diego known in Spanish times as Rancho de la Nación. Kimball created National City and developed — you guessed it — hopes for national influence.
In 1869, Kimball promised to provide plenty of land for a railroad terminal, and he helped put on a festival for the governor and other big-shots who were traveling through town. He schmoozed senators, even trying to buy favor by giving land to one of them and offered to let a railroad take over half of National City.
In 1870, news came of a congressional vote to help the Texas Pacific railway connect to the San Diego Bay. The city celebrated by firing a cannon and lighting bonfires, but more trouble came in the form of yet another unhelpful rich guy. This one’s name was Charles Crocker. A board member of the United Pacific railroad, he was a firm foe of Kimball’s flirtation with a competing railroad.
No railroad but Union Pacific would ever reach our city, Crocker declared. “We have our foot on the neck of San Diego, and it will stay there.”
National City would finally get its railroad in 1885, and two years later become the second city in the county to incorporate in the county. (San Diego was the first, and only the fourth in the state, in 1850.)
But National City would never become a major city, and its neighbor Chula Vista eventually outgrew it and eclipsed its influence.
The Railroads Played Rough
In railroad terms, a “frog war” has nothing to do with amphibians but everything to do with domination. A “frog” is a crossing contraption where two railroads meet. Without it, the newer railroad can’t operate because it can’t cross the existing track.
One of the biggest frog wars came in the early 1880s, when the upstart California Southern and dominant Southern Pacific railroads got in a fight over a segment of track in Colton, east of L.A. Southern Pacific didn’t want its rival to get a handhold on the Southern California market, so it refused to allow a crossing.
California Southern built a “frog” crossing device in National City anyway and tried to send it north, but legal threats got in the way. At one point, San Bernardino County sent a deputy to National City to seize the device and stop things once and for all. But he blabbed upon his arrival and then went to bed, allowing railroad workers to sneak the device up north on — yep — a train.
That’s not all: The railroad vs. railroad battle in Colton roped in the governor, the gunslinger brother of sometime-San Diegan Wyatt Earp and miffed San Bernardino residents who wanted the new track from San Diego to come their way.
Push came to shove in 1883. “On both sides of the tracks, men carried picks, shovels, shotguns and revolvers. Virgil Earp paced the gangway between cab and tender with his face toward the San Bernardino mob and his six-shooter in hand,” writes Wild West magazine.
Bloodshed was avoided and the railroads eventually cooperated, although it took until 1885 before anyone could catch a train in San Diego and travel across the continent.
We Almost Lost the Santa Fe Depot
Downtown’s Santa Fe Depot (also known as Union Station) is a modest but beautiful example of mission-style architecture. That’s no coincidence: It replaced a gothic-style station in 1915, the year of the Panama-California Exposition, which turned Balboa Park into a wonderland of Spanish colonial-revival buildings.
“The $300,000 depot would be a ‘union’ station, serving not only Santa Fe but also John D. Spreckels’ new railroad, the San Diego & Arizona,” writes historian Richard Crawford in a 201o San Diego Union-Tribune article.
Some six decades later, the Santa Fe Depot wasn’t stunning enough to bypass a brush with destruction. As Crawford writes, “Santa Fe nearly razed the depot with office towers and apartments in the 1970s. Public opposition squashed the development plans and led instead to historic preservation of the old depot.”
Call the station small but mighty. According to Amtrak, Santa Fe Depot served 708,934 passengers in 2011-2012, making it one of the 10 busiest train stations in the country.