Flfty years ago, railroad companies liked to give a away free calendars to encourage passengers to travel on their lines. On the cover of the calendars there was usually a picture of some dramatic western vista, or perhaps a peaceful little town. In the middle of winter, the town of Jacumba still looks as though it belongs on one of those calendars. There’s the quiet valley with a frost-covered meadow and an icy creek meandering through it. There are the picturesque boulder fields of pink and brown. There are the surrounding mountains dusted with snow. And, of course, there are the railroad tracks.
Like many other towns in the American West, Jacumba’s fate hinged first on the railroads and later on the freeways. Jacumba was fortunate in the first case. The San Diego and Arizona Eastern passed through town, stopping long enough to deliver tourists to the once-famous and elegant hot-spring spa. But in the second case the town was not so lucky. In the early ’70s, when Interstate 8 was built two miles north of town, Jacumba’s businesses were cut off from the free-spending travelers who rush in their cars flinging dollar bills out their windows. Though the town’s solitude thrived, its economy starved, and people in Jacumba are still wondering if that was a decent trade.
The town’s economy continued to sour. The railroad had stopped carrying passengers, the spa burned down, and now the railroad has stopped running at all. Like towns and industries all over the West, the handsome little town of Jacumba, which had once been home to more than 10,000 people, had become the victim of boom and bust.
Like the town of Jacumba, the railroad that runs through town has gone through its own boom and bust cycle — though it was only one small boom, and bust after bust after bust. Part of the decline of the SD&AE was simply economics. After World War II, railroads all across the country have had a hard time competing with air and truck freight haulers. But a bigger part of the SD&AE’s decline was a matter of geography. The 11 miles of railroad tracks between Jacumba and the desert floor to the east pass through some of the most godawful-rugged and wonderful terrain any railroad has ever had to traverse.
Before the construction of those tracks through the Carrizo Gorge, many people called the task impossible. After the tracks were completed, people called it a miracle. Since then the railroad company, now known as the San Diego and Imperial Valley, has seen more calamities than miracles. “This railroad was completed in 1919, and ever since then there have been problems,’’ the ; company’s general manager, Dick Engle, says. “There have been fires in the tunnels, there have been floods, rock slides, there has been snow.”
It’s been nearly 40 years now since the railroad offered passenger service. And it’s been more than five years since a freight train has left Jacumba and started down the Carrizo Gorge, bound for Ocotillo and points east. Today the only way tb see that historic line, and its historic calamities, is to follow the tracks on foot.
The San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad doesn’t welcome hikers along its tracks. At one time the railroad hired an armed guard from Jacumba to patrol the tracks every day. But now the SD&IV can’t even afford that, and little by little the tracks have become a popular route for hikers, backpackers, and mountain bicyclists.
The company’s only real effort at keeping people off the tracks are a few dozen No Trespassing signs posted along the route and ten-foot-high steel gates mounted at the entrances of the first two tunnels at either end of the gorge. At one time teen-age joy riders — and teen-agers of all ages — liked to drive their cars along the tracks; by letting the air halfway out of the tires, the wheels of a car will ride on top of the tracks. The locked gates at the tunnels now keep cars out, but a foot traveler can easily walk over or around the tunnels. In fact there are hundreds of illegal aliens who use the tracks every year as a route from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.
With the cold winter nights, the willows along Carrizo Creek have lost their yellow and brown leaves, and their bare shoots line the banks of the creek like scarlet skeletons. From Jacumba the tracks of the railroad follow the creek for a mile or so, then the creek rapidly descends into the Carrizo Gorge while the railroad tracks traverse high along the west-facing slope of the Jacumba Mountains.
Over the next 11 miles, the tracks descend only 900 feet, while the surrounding Jacumba and In-Ko-Pah mountains sometimes plunge 2000 feet in little more than a mile. The almost-level lines of the railroad tracks, carved or tunneled into the mountainside, contrast sharply with the rugged terrain of rocky cliffs and steep gullies. To anybody who had seen this country before 1907, the idea of building a railroad through such terrain must have seemed like foolishness. And maybe it was.
The history of the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad is nearly as tortuous as its route through the Carrizo Gorge. John D. Spreckels, the son of San Francisco’s sugar tycoon, Claus Spreckels, is the man given credit for ramrodding the project through. But the citizens of San Diego had been longing for an honest-to-goodness railroad as far back as the 1840s — long before Spreckels appeared on the scene.
In the 1880s and ’90s, San Diego was competing with Los Angeles for dominance in Southern California, and though Los Angeles had no decent port, it had the Santa Fe Railroad, which entered the San Gabriel Valley by way of the relatively moderate Cajon Pass. All goods moved by rail to and from San Diego had to pass through Los Angeles on the Santa Fe — not an acceptable situation for a city with San Diego’s ambitions.
After the turn of the century, a scheme for bringing Colorado River water into the Imperial Valley, east of San Diego, made it theoretically possible to supply the rest of the nation with crops from that valley. But to get the crops to market, the farmers in the Imperial Valley needed access to the fine harbor in San Diego. At one point the prominent citizens of San Diego and Imperial Valley tried to start their own railroad company by taking up donations for a survey of the route. They raised $44,000 — not nearly enough to cover the cost of the survey.
But in 1905, E.H. Harriman, the president of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, was able to convince John D. Spreckels to operate as a secret front for him in the construction of the San Diego and Arizona Eastern. Because of the Southern Pacific’s rivalry with the Santa Fe, Harriman felt he needed a prominent citizen like Spreckels to cover for him. Spreckels agreed to the plan, and the project was funded with $6 million. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in September of 1907, and construction began at both ends of the line (San Diego and El Centro) and worked toward the middle.
Except for the few miles between Jacumba and Ocotillo, there were no great engineering challenges for the railroad. It’s clear today, however, that the railroad’s engineers seriously underestimated the difficulties of building and maintaining a track through the Carrizo Gorge. Later Spreckels admitted that if he’d known how difficult the task would be, he never would have begun the project.
E.H. Harriman, who was bankrolling the SD&AE, died in 1909. The directors of the Southern Pacific then took an objective look at the SD&AE and decided to cut the funding. John D. Spreckels could have — and perhaps should have — withdrawn from the project. Perhaps it was a sense of civic duty that compelled him to continue, or perhaps it was his desire to match the achievements of his famous father. At any rate, Spreckels decided to finance the SD&AE with his own money.
Over the next few years, construction of the SD&AE limped along in spite of a number of problems. Southern Pacific sued the SDA&E to recover the money it had already invested in the project. (The court settlement made Southern Pacific an unwilling part owner of the SD&AE.) On a portion of track that passed through Mexico between San Ysidro and Campo, revolutionaries periodically raided the railroad crews and robbed them of supplies. In 1914 war broke out in Europe, and it became difficult to borrow capital to continue construction on the railroad. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the government took control of all railroads in the country, and all new construction was ordered stopped. But Spreckels, apparently a smooth talker, was able to convince the government of the SD&AE’s importance to the naval facilities in San Diego. Consequently, the SD&AE became the only railroad construction project to continue during World War I.
It’s difficult to say for certain if Spreckels was a visionary or a fool. In an era of big dreams and big projects, America was delirious with its image of itself as a major world power. Industrialists, bankers, and engineers were convinced that there was no bridge, no skyscraper, no railroad too big. It isn’t hard to see how Spreckels, sitting in his office in San Diego, enjoying the role of a railroad tycoon and surrounded by the headiness of wealth and prestige, would refuse to believe there were 11 miles of track through an unknown, rattlesnake-infested gorge that would eventually make him look like just another rich man’s son with more money than sense.
Between Cajon Pass to the north and the Mexican border to the south, the Carrizo Gorge is the best route for a railroad. But that isn’t to say it’s a good route. The gorge is steep, dry, littered with loose boulders, subject to flash floods and 110-degree heat, and broken into several equally nasty tributaries, each of which must be painstakingly crossed. From an engineer’s point of view, every one of these challenges has a remedy. But there’s a quality about the Carrizo Gorge that can’t be factored into an engineer’s calculations. Call it an uncivilized stubbornness, or perhaps an indifference to man’s ambitions.
If one walks along the SD&AE tracks through the Carrizo Gorge today, it’s obvious this canyon never accepted Spreckels’ railroad. Every few hundred feet there are examples of some disaster or another, and though it’s only been five years since a train creaked and groaned through the gorge, the canyon is already beginning to reclaim its own. Though the line is open and clear from San Diego to Jacumba, less than a mile north of Jacumba there are sage bushes growing in the middle of the tracks, and there are boulders that have tumbled down from the canyonside above, already burying the broken-down rail line.
Newspaper reporters of the day loved to write heroic accounts of the railroad’s construction in the Carrizo Gorge. The Union and the Evening Tribune told of the workers’ battles against rattlesnakes, scorpions, ticks, intense heat, lack of water, and rugged terrain. And they told of the genius of the engineers who designed the tunnels and trestles. The reports made good reading and helped glorify the vision and fortitude of John D. Spreckels. When you own two newspapers in town, you tend to get good press.
The work truly was difficult and at times dangerous, but if the railroad tracks through the Carrizo Gorge can be described as a miracle, then the credit lies not with John D. Spreckels, who contributed only money and expected profit and prestige in return, and not with the engineers, who perhaps should have known better than to build a railroad in such a place, but with the 2000 men who did the work. Even today the rock walls and rip-rap along the tracks, and the wooden linings built through the tunnels, are beautiful pieces of hand-built craftsmanship. The exceptional care and detail can only be explained by the pride of the men who did the work.
There were 17 tunnels blasted out of the canyonside in the Carrizo Gorge. The shortest tunnel is 287 feet long, and the longest is 2600 feet. The tunnels are about 16 feet high and 10 feet wide. Each tunnel was lined with timbers to reduce the likelihood of cave-ins. There are also 14 wooden trestles that were built along the side of the gorge. This required blasting out a narrow bench for a footing, then constructing a gridwork of timbers to support the tracks. Because of the steep terrain, most of the work had tq. be done by hand or with the help of mules to move rocks and timbers. For a six-day work week, with each day beginning at dawn, workers received $35 to $45 a month, plus meals and a tent to live in.
In November of 1919, the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad was completed. The final price tag for the 150 miles of tracks was $18 million. The 11 miles of track through the Carrizo Gorge cost $4 million.
More than a thousand people gathered at the top of the Carrizo Gorge to see Spreckels drive the traditional golden spike. He stood on a flatcar and delivered a speech that modestly gave credit to E.H. Harriman for originating the railroad, though he accepted credit for seeing the project through to completion.
Spreckels had fulfilled his promise of giving San Diego a railroad of its own, but it wasn’t long after his death, in 1924, before it became apparent the SD&AE would never truly become the railroad to give San Diego the dominance it craved.
At mile 98, about four miles from Jacumba and near the site where Spreckels gave his dedication speech, is the most recent example of a long history of disasters that defeated the SD&AE. There on June 18, 1983, two wooden trestles burned to the ground, leaving the twisted steel tracks hanging in the air. That was the last day a train passed through the Carrizo Gorge. How the fire was started is not known, though company general manager Dick Engle suspects the fire was set by illegal aliens. The investigation conducted by the California Division of Forestry, however, suggests a different source: the last train to pass along the tracks was having trouble with its brakes; after the train had passed over the trestles, workers on the train reported looking back and seeing the fire. The conclusion of the CDF investigation was that a hot particle from the brakes had landed on the grass along the tracks and had ignited the fire. Local rumors tell even a different story; they say the fire was the result of a labor dispute by disgruntled employees of the non-unionized SD&IV railroad.
A few months later, another fire of unknown origin ignited the wooden lining of two tunnels, including the railroad’s longest. After the fire began, smoke could be seen as far away as Jacumba, but nothing was done to put the fire out. “Once a tunnel catches on fire,” Engle says, “there’s no stopping it. It’s just like a blowtorch.” Air is sucked in one end of the tunnel and blasted out the other. The tunnels were completely gutted. The fire burned so hot that the rocks were cracked and portions of the tunnels collapsed. Scorch marks still blacken the rocks above the tunnel openings, and the sites still smell of smoke and burned wood. The tunnels were covered under an insurance contract, and Engle says the settlement for that damage is now under litigation.
There are still several tunnels along the tracks that are open. The soft dirt on the tunnel floors is criss-crossed with the tracks of mountain bicycles. Over the years, the Carrizo Gorge tracks have gained such a reputation as a popular, though forbidden, route for mountain bikers that some people have suggested that opening the line through the Carrizo Gorge for bicyclists would be a greater economic asset to Jacumba than a railroad, which never really hired many locals anyway. Some people find a wonderful irony in the notion of the invincible iron horse giving way to a rickety little bike. The mountain bikers ride up from the desert floor, where they are less likely to be discovered, or they take a chance and ride down from Jacumba. One resident in Jacumba claims to have seen an entire bicycle club heading down the tracks one day. Neither the collapsed tunnels nor the tunnels with steel gates present much of a problem to the bikers since each tunnel has a foot trail around it.
At mile 99 is an older example of disaster to the SD&AE. In the 1920s a rock avalanche closed 300 feet of track there. The avalanche was a result of excavation work on the tracks that disturbed the angle of the canyon’s slope, and it began an erosion process that still hasn’t come to rest.
In the gorge below the avalanche is evidence of a more recent calamity for the railroad — considered a miracle by Jacumba teen-agers. In the early ’60s, a refrigerated boxcar full of beer slid off the tracks, spilling its load onto the canyonside. The boxcar became a popular party site for local youth, as well as a headache for the local sheriff.
Almost as soon as the railroad was completed, in 1919, the difficulties in keeping the tracks open through the Carrizo Gorge gave the railroad a reputation for unreliability. That reputation, along with the debts that had accumulated during the construction period, made the company’s financial footing unsteady. When the Great Depression hit, in 1929, there was little freight business to help pay for the railroad’s high operating costs, and the company fell even further into debt.
That must have been a bitter time for railroad companies all across the country. At mile 100 in the Carrizo Gorge, there’s a call booth that still has perfectly legible graffiti dating back to the 1930s. One of the entries, written with an elegant hand, reads:
- What the little red rooster
- did to the little red hen,
- Roosevelt and his Jews
- are doing to the Railroad men.
Next to that entry, a worker has neatly calculated his month’s wages: 30 days times $15 a day equals $450.
At one time there was a small station house near the call booth, but it was blown off the canyon-side during a particularly violent winter storm. All that remains now is the building’s foundation.
If it weren’t for the railroad tracks gouged into the canyonside, the Carrizo Gorge would be one of the most pristine and scenic areas in San Diego’s backcountry. Most of the surrounding land is owned and managed by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The bottom of the gorge is part of the park, and in the winter and spring, when there is water in the creek, the gorge is visited often by backpackers. The potential for converting the old tracks into a hiking trail is obvious, and the park has expressed an interest in obtaining the land, should the tracks ever be abandoned.
Table Mountain, southeast of the gorge, has been designated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern because of archaeological resources there. The In-Ko-Pah Mountains, to the west of the gorge, have also been designated by the BLM as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern because of their exceptional value as bighorn sheep habitat. In the spring, during lambing season, the bighorn sheep cross the Carrizo Gorge from the west to the east. The presence of the railroad is considered by environmentalists to be detrimental to the sheep, which are extremely sensitive to disturbances during mating and lambing season. If the tracks were legally opened to hikers — and in fact the route is already popular with Boy Scout troops — dates for entering the canyon would have to be established to protect the bighorn during lambing season. Other desert areas, such as the Orocopia Mountains in Imperial County, are already controlled in this way.
The In-Ko-Pah and Jacumba mountains also shelter small pockets of the stately desert palm, Washingtonia filifera. From the railroad tracks, their bluish green foliage and blond beards can be seen across the canyon.
In 1932 a tunnel completely collapsed at Goat Canyon, near mile 101, and the railroad had to be shut down again. Today the abandoned tracks at that site end abruptly against a wall of rock, as if the mountain had gobbled them up. That disaster was enough to convince Spreckels’ heirs, who still controlled the railroad, that the time had come to get out. They sold their shares to Southern Pacific, which then built a 185-foot-high wooden trestle, said to be the highest curved wooden trestle in the world, across Goat Canyon.
World War II was the only thing that saved the SD&AE from financial ruin. As Dick Engle says, “During the Second World War, this railroad made money! They moved troop trains, and it became a very important transportation route for the navy.”
There’s nothing like a war to turn a bad business good, at least for a while. But as soon as the war ended, times were even tougher for the SD&AE. In 1951, passenger service was discontinued — not only was it unprofitable, but safety was a critical concern. Also, with the construction of a modern freeway system, railroads all across the U.S. found they could not compete with the direct-delivery service and speed of the trucking companies. Trains that passed through the Carrizo Gorge had to slow down to 10 miles per hour, and the average speed over the entire line was only about 28 miles per hour.
In September of 1976, Hurricane Kathleen struck what appeared to be the final blow to the ailing railroad. That storm washed out 50 sections of track, destroyed three trestles, and damaged several others. Just east of the Carrizo Gorge, near the town of Ocotillo, an eight-foot wall of water washed across a section of track. The total cost of the damage was estimated to be $1.27 million. The president of Southern Pacific said at the time, “The San Diego and Arizona Eastern is just a line that has outlived its usefulness ... its job is done.” Soon after the hurricane had done its damage, the company applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission for the right to abandon the line.
But the ill-fated railroad hadn’t yet breathed its last gasp. Though a lot had changed over the years, the Unified Port District in San Diego was horrified to see the old dream of a direct rail line into San Diego dying. As recently as 1983 they argued that if the Santa Fe route between San Diego and Los Angeles became primarily a passenger service, hauling commuters up and down the coast, San Diego would be left without any freight-rail service. But critics countered that commuters only travel during the day, while at night the Santa Fe tracks would always be free to haul freight.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) bought the SD&AE from Southern Pacific. The MTDB’s interest in acquiring the tracks was primarily for trolley service to the Mexican border and to the East County. But with the purchase also came the dilemma of what to do with the dilapidated tracks through the backcountry. The solution, at least temporarily, was to lease the tracks to the San Diego and Imperial Valley, a railroad company that owns no tracks, leases its engines and rail cars, and has only a dozen or so employees.
Considering the many problems with keeping the tracks through the Carrizo Gorge open, one might think the general manager of the San Diego and Imperial Valley would be gloomy about the prospects of running trains to the Imperial Valley again. But Dick Engle says the company has been assessing the damage to the tracks for the last six months, and he is optimistic the company will be able to reopen the line to the Imperial Valley. “The two small trestles that burned would be the first to be rebuilt,” he says. “Then we have the two tunnels where the lining has been burned. We would have to replace maybe eight to ten percent of the ties along the track; we’d have to tie tap, which means to tighten up all the ties; we’d have to bring in some ballast, which is the rock under the track; and we’d have to redo the drainage along the side of the track. If we’re going to reopen the track, we certainly want it to be a safe and dependable mode of transportation. ... Five million dollars would certainly put the railroad back into operating condition.”
But if the railroad has always had a hard time earning enough to justify its existence, then what could possibly justify reopening the line now? According to Engle, the answer is garbage. “The City of San Diego is considering using the railroad to haul garbage to a number of locations outside the county,” he says, pointing out that San Diego is about to run out of space in its landfills, and new landfills within the county would be too expensive. The only solution, he believes, is to recycle as much as possible, then haul the remaining garbage to Imperial County, or San Diego’s East County, where land is cheap and people are scarce. “It’s inevitable,” he says. “What other options are there?”
If you want to move a lot of garbage, there’s no question that a railroad is the way to do it. As Engle says, “You can put three and a half truck loads into one boxcar — that’s a 100-ton capacity in one railcar — and with a train, even over the mountains here, we can pull 50 or 60 cars, no problem.” Or 5000 tons of garbage per day.
When the Jacumba Plain Speaker, the provocative local newspaper, caught wind of the plan, it labeled the train “the garbage express,” and its headline covering the story read: “All Aboard ... Last Chance To Pollute For Profit.” Though some Jacumba residents would like to see the railroad tracks reopened, the idea of using the train to haul San Diego’s garbage to, or even through, Jacumba is not acceptable to them. As the Plain Speaker’s publisher, Robert Mitchell, says, “Responsible people in this community see Jacumba rising out of the ashes of what was its original economic base — tourism.” Becoming San Diego’s trash dump does not promote tourism. Later, when the SD&IV hauled a trainload of corporate heavyweights out to have a look at the track, the newspaper’s headline read: “Garbage Express Transports First Load.” About 100 Jacumba residents gathered to protest the dignitaries’ arrival.
But Dick Engle believes the controversy is only a misunderstanding that can be resolved through good public relations. “It all depends on how educated [the East County and Imperial County residents] are about it. Years ago when you went out to a landfill, you had to hold your nose because it stunk. Now it’s not like that. It’s not raw garbage.”
More recently, the Campo Indian Reservation, which is on the route of the SD&IV, has expressed an interest in opening a landfill to handle the garbage. Under that plan, reopening the Carrizo Gorge would not be necessary.
There are other possibilities for the line, too. According to Engle, Mexico has expressed an interest in keeping the track available as a route to move goods from their maquiladoras in Mexicali to the coast. But the feasibility of that plan is questionable, too. Railroads are most efficient for moving heavy, bulky goods like grain, coal, or garbage — not small manufactured goods, which are better handled by truck.
Jack Limber, legal counsel for the MTDB, says the railroad company has yet to show a justification for the expense of reopening the track through the Carrizo Gorge. “Our discussion with [the SD&IV] has been that there is a lot of potential traffic becoming available for that line. But you’ve got to get past the potential and get into a shipper with a contract.” If the SD&IV can’t come up with a shipping contract, Limber sees two alternatives: “Just let the line sit there until it’s economically feasible to operate on it. That’s the most likely scenario. The least likely is to go to the Interstate Commerce Commission, file for a formal abandonment of that line and, if it’s granted, have somebody rip the tracks out and sell the property off. That possibility is extremely remote because there’s not much value in selling the land off. And once you’ve done that, you’ve foreclosed the possibility of ever using it again. I just can’t imagine our board, a group of elected officials, making that decision.” Though the SD&IV is a privately owned railroad, the Metropolitan Transit District Board, a public entity, actually owns the tracks and the land they are on. So any decision about the future of the line will be a public decision. “If the board gave up on the possibility of a railroad, then they would turn to what other public use the property could be put to,” Limber says.
At mile 104 there are a couple of derailed and overturned boxcars lying in the steep canyonside below the tracks. The place is about as fine and peaceful a graveyard as any boxcar could hope for. In the afternoon, there’s a golden quality to the winter light that gives the canyon a warm, almost sentimental glow.
In another mile or two, the tracks leave the Carrizo Gorge and start their decent into the flat land of the Imperial Valley, where railroads stand a better chance for survival. But before the flatland, there are even more examples of the troubles this railroad has known: piles of old track ties still reeking of creosote, abandoned oil tankers, heaps of rusted railroad junk that must date back to the days of the steam engine.
There’s something reassuring about seeing all that beat-up old machinery gone to hell. Sure the railroad was an engineering marvel, as well the ambitious dream of an entire city. But it’s just twisted junk now. If the San Diego and Arizona Eastern was all a foolish mistake, then there is hope that our engineering marvels and ambitions today are just foolish mistakes, too. If there’s a comfort and a wisdom to be found in junk, it’s the suggestion to do less, not more — to build less and to want less. But then that would take a lot more courage, and a lot more skill, than building a railroad.