By JILL DIAMOND
It’s not every day you have a piece of history in your own backyard but the city of La Mesa does, the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum and the La Mesa Depot.
If you haven’t visited, the PSRM Association has been focused on the 100-year celebration of the November 1919 completion of the San Diego & Arizona Railway (SD&A).
The San Diego-area historical and educational nonprofit has been marking the 112-year anniversary of the start of construction of the SD&A with a variety of family-friendly activities such as its SD&A Groundbreaking Festival on Sept. 7, at PSRM’s second location at Campo Railroad Park and Museum in Campo.
However, don’t wait too long to enjoy the festivities as the 2019 centennial anniversary will conclude with a special reenactment ceremony and other family activities on Saturday, Nov. 16, in Campo.
According to Bruce Semelsberger, archivist for the library of the PSRM Association, the La Mesa Depot was constructed in 1894 by the San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern Railway.
The railroad was the brainchild of the governor of California at that time, Robert W. Waterman, who wanted to get a railroad to a point close to his Stonewall gold mine in the Julian mining district.
“In order to sell the idea to investors, the railroad was supposed (on paper) to go to Utah by way of Julian. The line that was built in 1888 went from San Diego to Foster Station north of Lakeside. The site of the station on Joe Foster’s ranch was where the San Vicente dam now exists,” Semelsberger said.
“There was a depot where passengers transferred to a stagecoach for traveling on to Ramona, Santa Ysabel and Warner’s, also a turntable for the steam locomotives and a water tank. Joe Foster also operated a small hotel there and there was a stone quarry where the rock was mined to construct the Zuniga Jetty in San Diego’s harbor entrance.”
He said the route from San Diego to El Cajon is largely that of the current trolley Orange line. The SDC&E was amalgamated into the San Diego & Southeastern Railway about 1913 and then the San Diego & Arizona Railway in 1919. The SD&A was purchased by Southern Pacific in 1932 and the name changed to San Diego & Arizona Eastern, which was in turn bought by the city of San Diego in 1979.
“The depot served La Mesa from the date of its construction through WWII, after which it was deemed surplus by the railroad company and the depot was sold to the Lakeside Chamber of Commerce for $1,” he said.
The planned “wild west” attraction in Lakeside was never built and the depot became an antique store owned by Flossie Beadle, he said.
After her death, it had other uses as a hen house and possibly other things. After a fire nearly burned the building and some others stored in Lakeside, PSRM volunteer Larry Rose recognized the depot in a newspaper story and spearheaded the effort to return it to La Mesa and restore it about 1979, Semelsberger explained.
Lifetime PSRM member and volunteer Reena Deutsch has spent much time researching the SD&A and wrote “San Diego & Arizona Railway: The Impossible Railroad,” which illustrates through vintage photographs and narrative about the history of the SD&A Railway, built by John D. Spreckels.
“It describes the 12-year construction from 1907 to 1919 and its on-again, off-again operations over portions of the tracks right up to modern times. Early engineers stated that the railroad would never be built because of the steep, rocky, and hostile mountain and desert terrain of the route, so it was called the ‘impossible railroad’ starting even before it was built,” she said.
However, all through its construction and 100 years of operations, it continues to face natural disasters and other calamities that it eventually overcomes and seems to re-earn its “impossible railroad” nickname all through the years, Deutsch said.
Deutsch said she contacted a publisher about writing a book on another topic, but, instead, she was asked to write “San Diego & Arizona Railway: The Impossible Railroad.”
“I had been presenting slide shows about the line for about a dozen years before that, and I always get excited to tell folks about the ‘impossible railroad’ and its fascinating history, so a book seemed like the natural next step for me,” she said.
Deutsch added she finds Spreckels and the saga of how he endured all the challenges and financial setbacks he faced in building and operating his railroad very inspiring.
“I thought it would be good if others found inspiration in him and his persistence like I did,” she said.
As for the La Mesa Depot, Deutsch said it also has an inspiring story.
“La Mesa Depot is special because an all-volunteer nonprofit museum was able to ‘rescue’ it, have it moved, and restore it to its early condition as part of its mission to educate and interpret railroad history in our region to the public.”
Deutsch said it sits right in downtown La Mesa for all to see, including passengers on the Orange line trolley that goes right by it, and it displays a full-size old steam locomotive and other railcars so people, especially children, can be exposed to some railroad equipment and history. Also, the interior of the depot is accessible on a regular Saturday afternoon schedule to immerse the public in what it was like to experience being in a train station of years gone by with some of its equipment, ticket booth, telegraph, and other artifacts and interpretive signs.
“Having a docent there, as the museum does, raises the experience to a much higher level,” she said.
The PSRM Association is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of railroads as they existed in the Pacific Southwest. With more than 120 pieces of equipment and artifacts on display between two facilities in Campo and La Mesa, PSRM provides a unique learning experience for all ages. In Campo, visitors can enjoy vintage train rides aboard locomotives and cars from the early 20th century that are operated by all-volunteer train crews and support staff.
For more information on PSRM, visit psrm.org.
For more information about the PSRM centennial anniversary of the SD&A, visit psrm.org/centennial.
— Jill Diamond is a Southern California-based freelance writer who specializes in articles about local history.