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The Old Railroads That Built the South Bay Are Gone but They Were Vital to The Development of This Area

Sep 09, 2019 05:30PM ● By Paul Spear

The Old Railroads That Built the South Bay Are Gone but They Were Vital to The Development of This Area 

Railroads of the South Bay 


As with most parts of the United States. The railroads played a vital role to the growth of today’s South Bay communities.

Elisha Babcock who built the Hotel del Coronado brought hotel guests from the Coronado ferry landing to his hotel when it opened in Feb. 1888 by means of a rail line down Orange Avenue. Babcock had earlier built the first transit system in San Diego in 1886 when horsecars brought passengers to the ferry landing in downtown San Diego. By August 1888, he constructed the Coronado Belt Line from National City around the San Diego Bay and up the Strand to the hotel.

Babcock bought land in the South Bay served by the Belt Line to develop Coronado Heights, South Coronado, and South San Diego (which later became Imperial Beach). He built a spur line from his Otay Wells junction into the Otay river valley for sand and gravel that was used in Coronado for construction of roads and jetties. His line also connected with the NC&O at Fruitland, bringing passengers to Coronado and to the Tent City that became popular on the Strand after 1900. Babcock purchased the Salt Works at the La Punta station of his railway and his Western Salt Company became the largest producer of salt in California.

Frank Kimbrel played a vital role in the development of National City and Chula. After a couple of failed attempts, Kimball found a partner. The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe had been building west from Chicago following a southern route to California. Kimball gave the Santa Fe half his ranch to build the terminus in National City. The deal was struck in October 1880 and the California Southern Railroad was created. The Santa Fe built a railroad yard on 225 acres in southwest National City in 1881 and a depot in 1882 that still stands today. The California Southern connected with the Santa Fe at Barstow in 1885 and brought the first transcontinental trains to National City in November, setting off the famous "Boom of the '80s" that swelled the population of San Diego and created new towns in the South Bay over the next four years. However, in 1889, the Santa Fe moved its railroad yard to San Bernardino.

Although the railroad yard was gone, the Santa Fe remained a permanent landowner in the South Bay. It created the Sweetwater Dam to provide water for the 5000 acres of lemon trees that became the city of Chula Vista. The company built the National City and Otay railroad. The railroad ran from San Diego to the border. The NC&O began running trains in June 1887 from its depot in downtown San Diego to Chula Vista and Otay. It carried over 400,000 passengers, mostly tourists, the first year. By May of 1888, the southern extension of the railroad reached Tijuana at the border. Thousands took the train to see the horse races and bear fights at the border, and bare-knuckle boxing matches refereed by Wyatt Earp. The NC&O had a great influence on the development of the South Bay. Boomtowns sprang up along its route, from La Presa north of the dam to Otay, South San Diego, Oneonta, and Tijuana. Farms and orchards expanded in Chula Vista, Otay, Highland, and the Tijuana river valley. 

Spreckels began construction of a new railroad in 1907, the San Diego & Arizona, that ran from San Diego to Tijuana, through Mexico to Tecate and across the Carriso Gorge to El Centro. The line was open to Tijuana by 1910. New depots were built in San Diego in 1915, in Campo in 1917, in Tecate and Chula Vista in 1919. The depot in El Centro was demolished in 2011. The "Short Line" trains carried passengers to the Agua Caliente resort and racetrack, but passenger service ended in 1968.

With the end of passenger service, the historic National City Depot stood empty after 1968. Freight trains passed by with lumber from the new Marine Terminal built-in 1968 at the end of 24th Street. In 1972 Milton Pollard joined with National City to develop a restaurant in the old depot. A replica of the old water tower was built on the end of the building to house a kitchen. The "Old 82" locomotive built-in 1884 by the Rhode Island Railroad was donated by Jerry Williams, who had been storing it at his Scrap Disposal, Inc. yards. A club car came from Northern California to become a "Gay '90s" bar, and a caboose was added from Stockton. The great brick fireplace upstairs was uncovered from behind a wall for the Kimball Room dining area. The big railroad safe downstairs became a wine cellar. The restaurant was called "The Depot" and was open for a couple of years but closed in 1975.

in 1997, the San Diego Electric Railway Association renovated the Depot into a museum that was declared a California Registered Historical Landmark. Historic Railcar Plaza Museum in National City was built in 2000 to hold a restored streetcar coach No. 1 from 1887 and has several historic cars there today.  The museum is located at the National City Railcar Plaza at 840 West 24th Street in National City is now operated by the Port of San Diego.

You can still see bits and pieces of the remains from these railroads throughout the South Bay and a reminder of what built the communities we live in today.


 A special "Thank you" to Dr. Steven Schoenherr of the South Bay Historical Society who did the research for this article. 



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