As we make our way to San Diego this week, let’s take our first look at some of the great railroads that have called California home. The city’s first railroads arrived in 1866. The first lines were smaller short lines which brought goods arriving by ship inland and carried produce and other products back from the local region to the coast. Among other things, the geography and topography of the surrounding region kept larger projects at bay for many years.
While San Diego had hoped to capitalize on the construction of the Panama Canal and become the country’s premier west-coast port, these natural barriers drove the major shipping lanes further to the north. While it never became the major freight hub it planned, the city remains an important and busy center for both freight and passenger rail traffic.
The California Southern actually entered the city from the north. The line, backed by the Santa Fe, commenced operations in 1882 between National City and Oceanside. In 1885, the railroad completed its link with the Santa Fe’s transcontinental mainline.
Construction of the surf line along the coast shortened the route between San Diego and Los Angeles and provided a scenic highlight for travelers. Today this route continues to host Amtrak and Coaster commuter trains along with BNSF freight traffic.
The Santa Fe station downtown continues to serve as a major travel center and an architectural landmark for the city.
San Diego and Arizona
The San Diego and Arizona was conceived as a connection to the transcontinental mainline of the Southern Pacific, giving the city direct access to the east-west line as opposed to diverting trains to the north. It was a relatively late link in the transcontinental construction movement. The charter was created in 1906 and construction wasn’t complete until 1919.
San Diego had been the proposed destination of the Texas and Pacific. But with its construction halted with a connection with the SP in western Texas, this new route became the next key link in that chain.
The Southern Pacific provided much of the funding to the company. Labeled the “Impossible Railroad,” construction and maintenance was exceedingly expensive. Adding to the complications was the fact that the railroad crisscrossed the U.S. – Mexico border. The railroad became part of the SP in 1932. It was renamed the San Diego & Arizona Eastern. SP operated the line until 1976, when natural disasters and vandalism closed portions of the line.
Today portions of the line survive as both commuter rail and local freight operations run by Rail America and the Pacific Imperial Railroad.