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  • Home News Local News San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway, the 'Impossible Railroad,'

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    August 12, 2013

    Ed Anderson took a stroll down memory lane as he paid a visit to the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in search of a “switcher,” the last engine his dead father operated as an engineer on the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway.

    “I heard they had it here and I came down,” the La Mesa resident said referring to the switcher, the engine used in the train yards to break down or connect train cars.

    “I got a picture of him in the cab, and I can’t find it, so, uh, I was just looking forward — I would just like to see the engine again, if it is the same one,” Anderson said.

    The visit dredged up many fond memories for Anderson, such as spending summers with his father on numerous train rides on the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway from Campo down to the Imperial Valley.

    “My dad let me ride on the engine with him and we would go down to El Centro,” Anderson said.

    He reminisced about a time when kids from Campo would sneak onto the train to spend the weekend in Imperial County.

    Anderson described the Carrizo Gorge and infamous Goat Canyon Trestle down the Desert Line as “breathtaking.”

    Regular passenger service on the SD&AE Railway came to an end in January 1951, as the breathtaking view was only visible to freight-train operators, said Richard E. Pennick, locomotive engineer for the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association Inc.

    Then, freight operations on the line stopped in western Imperial County in 1976, as passage was made nearly impossible by Hurricane Katherine wiping out most of the line along with fires set by vandals in the tunnels. Still, freight trains have never stopped running on the 44 miles of the line running through Mexico, from Tecate to Tijuana, according to Imperial Valley Press archives.

    Today efforts are underway by a company known as Pacific Imperial Railroad to revitalize the Desert Line, which would restore service from Imperial County to Mexico-based manufacturing sites, according to Metropolitan Transit System, the owner of the line.

    “We are encouraged by the progress this group has made to transform a historic rail line into a viable economic engine for the region,” said Paul Jablonski, chief executive officer of MTS.

    That encouragement comes in light of a $50,000 lease payment made to MTS for freight railroad rights on the 69.9-mile Desert Line between Plaster City and Tecate, according to the release.

    Although the line will service freight trains, Imperial Valley residents can still head west to experience the railroad of yesteryear at the Campo Museum.

    The museum attempts to preserve the rich heritage of the railway. It is one of the largest operating railroad museums in California, according to Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association Inc.

    Avid train lovers like Gabriel Rascon, 12, from El Centro and his family had the chance to experience a 12-mile train ride down the historic railway.

    “This will be my first time on a train,” Gabriel said. “I think it is going to be fun.”

    The historical railway originally built by John D. Spreckels, beginning in 1906 and completed in 1919, for a cost of $18 million, was dubbed the “Impossible Railroad,” mainly for the treacherous terrain and the lengthy process it took to construct the line.

    In 1902 Edward Harriman, an American railroad executive, saw an opportunity to build a line east of San Diego, in part due to the lucrative agricultural industry in the Imperial alley, Pennick said.

    Harriman approached Spreckels, who was known as “Mr. San Diego,” to be the front man that the public would perceive as the financier of the railroad, while Harriman would actually supply the funds, said Bruce Semelsberger, archivist for the Pacific Southwest Railways Museum Association Inc.

    Harriman, being the big railroad tycoon that he was, in control of Union Pacific Railroad and Southern Pacific Railroad along with other lines, was not well-liked by the public, Pennick said, so Spreckels needed to be the face.

    With a contract in place between Harriman and Spreckels, along with his brother Adolph, the plans to build the 145-mile line east became public.

    On Dec. 14, 1906, the San Diego Union displayed the headline: “Railroad from San Diego to Yuma is now assured,” evoking renewed confidence for the people of San Diego that the line would be built.

    Originally named San Diego & Arizona Railway, the line did not take on the name San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway until 1933 when it became incorporated.

    What seemed like one misfortune after another in the construction of the railroad began with the death of Harriman in September 1909.

    Countless catastrophes followed: The country suffered a short but severe economic depression; numerous small revolutions in Mexico broke out in 1911, causing many Mexican laborers to leave the job. In 1919 influenza killed many of the laborers working on the line, Pennick said.

    “Tunnels have collapsed and been washed out,” he said, “bridges have even gone out.”

    The Carrizo Gorge area required huge boulders in the construction of 17 tunnels necessary to head east.

    “You have this large mountain on the right-hand side and a drop-off on the left-hand side,” Anderson said as he described the Carrizo Gorge on the way down to Imperial Valley. “Sometimes you’re maybe only 6 feet from the track to the drop-off, and well, it would look like 1,000 feet. As you looked down into the gorge the bottom is all palm trees.”

    Pennick said the infamous Goat Canyon Trestle was not original construction.

    The 200-foot tall and 750-foot long trestle was built in 1932 due to damaged tracks during a landslide, it was used to reroute those tracks.

    “Nature just has a way of taking over,” Pennick said in regards to the countless disasters the railroad endured.

    The railroad was completed in 1919.

    On Nov. 15, 1919, John D. Spreckels, in front of local dignitaries and press, drove the last spike, made of gold, into the railroad.

    Spreckels had finally made the impossible, possible after 12 years, Pennick said.

    Contact:
    Alexis Rangel , Staff Writer
    760-337-3440