'It's only water'
Train of Thought
November 12, 2022
Water is one of those things that many of us take for granted.
It's there when you turn on a faucet, makes your grass green, as well as your garden grow and every so often it even falls out of the sky. It has even been known to carve rather large holes into the earth while travelling its chosen course. At times it is a scarce commodity in California. This tale will tell how water took one major west coast town out of the booming transcontinental railroad picture.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad in May of 1869 opened the west to new opportunities in the shipping of goods, livestock and crops to markets in the east. The western terminus of the Central Pacific RR in Sacramento gave markets in the east access to the Pacific Ocean that eliminated the months long journey by ship around the tip of South America. Travel by train opened up the west to adventurous settlers and travelers looking for new horizons. If your town was located along this route, prosperity would surely follow.
During the decade after east and west were joined by rail, every major west coast city with a port to the Pacific courted, begged and bribed the railroads to terminate in their town. Completion of the Northern Pacific's line to Portland in 1883 created the second transcontinental line. The race was on for the building of a third cross country railroad to the south and every major city from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border threw their hats in the ring.
San Diego in the 1870s was a relatively small town when compared to larger cities, the likes of San Francisco or Los Angeles. What made it commercially attractive were its excellent natural harbor, ideal climate and southerly location.
The citizens of San Diego tried to coax the Southern Pacific to terminate there but to no avail. When Crocker and Huntington of the Southern Pacific refused them, San Diegans Frank and Warren Kimball, developers owning land just south of San Diego, contacted other railroad magnates, Commodore Vanderbilt and Jay Gould among them. Finally, in 1879, they succeeded in persuading the Santa Fe Railroad to terminate in San Diego in exchange for financial subsidies and generous land grants. After several thwarted attempts at deals that almost killed the project, a mutually agreeable arrangement was made with Santa Fe. Chartered in October of 1880, the California Southern would build northward toward San Bernardino. To the thrill of San Diegans, construction of the railroad began in the summer or 1881.
The railroad followed the Pacific coast north to Oceanside, turning east through what is now Camp Pendleton into Fallbrook, Temecula, Lake Elsinore, Corona, Riverside and finally arriving in San Bernardino in 1883. The Santa Fe had forced Southern Pacific to sell them their track from Needles to Mojave, giving Santa Fe unobstructed access into California.
The California Southern laid track up Cajon Pass out of San Bernardino and connected to the Santa Fe at Barstow in November of 1885, San Diego was now the terminus of the third and most southerly transcontinental railroad. Santa Fe located their shops in National City, just south of San Diego. Then came the water.
The route of the California Southern between Fallbrook and Temecula took it through Temecula Canyon, the chosen course of the Santa Margarita River on its way to the ocean. For the next two years torrential rains and flash flooding through the canyon washed the tracks out so many times that the Santa Fe, much to the chagrin of San Diegans, abandoned the line through the canyon in 1887. They moved their shops to San Bernardino and built west to Los Angeles, taking advantage of newly constructed harbors in San Pedro and Redondo, removing San Diego from the direct rail line to the east map for the next thirty years.
The San Diego and Arizona Railroad was completed to Southern Pacific's track in Yuma in 1918, once again connecting them directly to the east. Tropical storms in the 1970s caused massive flash flooding in the Borrego Desert east of San Diego and that line was eventually abandoned also.
In memory of Bruce Gripkey, who wrote the "Train of Thought" column several years ago, The Loop newspaper is reprinting some of his articles for those who haven't had the chance to enjoy his railroad-centered stories. This article was originally printed in our June 9, 2012 issue.