Let's Ride the Dam Train!

A sketch from the pen of Hiram H. Bice, Editor of the National City Record, edition of May 5, 1892, with technical interfusions by Richard V. Dodge

Originally printed in DISPATCHER, Issue 38, December 31, 1961

Sweetwater Dam that is! The steam motor road, named National City & Otay Railway, began operating 60-Mile Excursions for a fare of One Dollar over its entire system in 1888 and they became very popular attractions for many years.

"One of the pleasantest jaunts I ever enjoyed in Southern California was a trip to the sleepy old Mexican town of Tia Juana (now spelled Tijuana). The day was bright and cloudless."

The N. C. &. O. depot was near the foot of Fifth Street, now Avenue, in San Diego. For motive power the road had originally two steam dummies of 0-4-2 wheel arrangement, built by Fulton Iron Works in San Francisco, four Saddle Tank engines of the same wheel type, built by the Porter Company in Pittsburgh, Pa., and "the big engine", a Porter Saddle Tank 0-6-0 (rebuilt to 0-6-2) used for freight service. Numbers 3, 4 and 5, the regular passenger engines, weighed a mere 28,000 pounds on the driving wheels. The engines were fitted with "cow-catchers" at each end so that they did not have to be turned around. All were coal burners and there was an exuberant profusion of smoke and cinders.

One of the latter locomotives was waiting with a train of three or four coaches of fair size with open platforms, link-and-pin couplings and no air brakes. Open cars with single transverse benches were used when the weather warranted. The N. C. & O track was in the north side of L Street, while the Coronado Railroad's occupied the south side.

"We left at 9 o'clock in the morning on the excursion train which was filled with sightseers."

The route was east on L Street to 13th Street, turning south into what is now Newton Avenue. At that time the area was entirely unimproved. The track was ballasted and planked and bridges carried the rails over several sloughs from San Diego Bay. (The original line had run out Harrison Avenue.) Out Newton the train jogged along to just beyond 32nd Street. There it curved to the right, descended into Chollas Valley "and soon we were speeding over the low, tide-washed land which separates San Diego from National City."

"As we pass through that town of 1,400 people, we find the same air of carelessness and attention which marks all Southern California towns. National City is very much scattered and from the Steele Block (4.2 miles, all distances in figures are from San Diego, on the northwest corner of National Avenue and 8th Street. It still stands, 1962, though somewhat modernized.) to Terrace is a distance of three miles (due to the fact that the route swings west on 12th Street to Eighth, now Cleveland Avenue in order to traverse the old section of the town, thence east out 24th Street. The Company's Shops and Round House are located on 24th St. at Seventh Ave.) Near Terrace we pass the beautiful home of Mr. W. C. Kimball, one of the pioneers of the region (and founders of National City)......Beyond are some handsome residences. All this section is planted with young orange trees...."

"Now we descend into Sweetwater Valley (cross the river to Sweetwater Junction - 7.6 miles) and, after mounting a grade which brings into play all the power of the locomotive, we are in Chula Vista, one of the most favored spots in this favored land. From this gently sloping tract we look off upon the peerless bay, sleeping beneath the summer sun. Beyond are the hazy outlines of the Coronado Islands belonging to Mexico. To the east we see the Cuyamaca Mountains, while only five miles away rises the blue heights of San Miguel. Far away in the south, rising clear from the hills around it, is Table Mountain, so-called from its flat-topped appearance. Though apparently so near it is 40 miles below the Mexican line."

"All around us are orange trees, pleasant homes and grounds and flowers..... Five years ago it was a desert of prickly pear and sage brush....."

"After passing (south on Third Avenue through Chula Vista) we came to an uncultivated section and after a mile or so of this, we begin to see on either side great fields of wheat. Grain growing has increased in importance in the last year.."

"We pass the town of Otay (12.2 miles) and see the large brick building once occupied (1890) by the Otay Watch Company. For a time this town enjoyed considerable prosperity from the presence of the large number of watch factory employees..... Large flocks of sheep are pastured in the upper portion (of Otay Valley) and much wine of excellent quality is made by the Italians who own vineyards here."

The train then crossed Otay River and climbed the south bank to what is now Palm City, proceeding due south to Tia Juana Junction near Nestor Post Office, 14.4 miles. There it turned west, then south to the village of Oneonta, where an exquisite view of Tia Juana River Valley greeted the tourists' smoke-filled eyes.

Grading had been started and a contract reportedly had been let for an extension of the motor road to the south, crossing the river and curving west to "International City", a subdivision laid out by the visionary William H. (Billy) Carlson and his partner, Higgins, near the initial monument marking the boundary between California, U.S.A. and Baja California, Mexico. Border Field is now located there. Like most all of Billy's projects, it fizzled.

The train probably backed to the Junction and headed for Tia Juana, "the last town in Southern California (18.5 miles). The boundary line passes through it and cuts it in two, the American half consisting of a single street of frame buildings and a few scattered houses. The American part has a live air but the Mexican part is the deadest place imaginable." (Note: Probably the California town would have looked just as dead except that, due to the floods in 1891, the old town was washed out and the remaining buildings were moved to higher ground near the border.)

"We join a file of tourists and put ourselves in a foreign country as soon as possible. The houses here are made of mud and most of the residents look as if they were. The only respectable persons seem to be the Custom Officers and the proprietor of a curio shop, who we fancy, must live on the American side and go down to the town when he knows the tourists are coming."

"At the end of a straggling street is a small adobe church which, with its bell mounted on a post near the front door, is picturesque. Here the itinerant friar, who supplies the mission churches of Lower California, keeps his library and here he comes at stated intervals to say mass."

"On our return", we again pass through Otay and Chula Vista.

(Editor Bice overlooked the all-important subject of eats. When the 60-mile excursions were started, there was a new hotel at Oneonta and the southerly routings were reversed to go to Tia Juana first and then to Oneonta for lunch. After the hotel closed down, the train returned to National City and the tourists' appetites were appeased at Olivewood, the residence of Warren Kimball, through whose efforts the California Southern Rail Road, now Santa Fe, was constructed from National City to Barstow, or at the International Hotel in the Old Town.)

Retracing the clickety-clicks to Sweetwater Junction, "we branch off once more", turning east up the valley. Farming communities enroute include: Munger's Ranch, Bonita, Bonnie Brae and Sunnyside. (In 1895, in the river bottom between Hungers and Bonita, an attractive picnic spot was known as Linwood Grove.) Passing La Presa Junction, later called Quarry Junction, we continue to the right "to visit the Sweetwater Dam, one of the greatest irrigating works in the west. The dam is placed in a narrow, deep gorge and is a splendid structure of solid masonry, costing $296,000. It completely shuts off the flow of the Sweetwater River and commands an area of 300 acres." The rails ended near the base of the dam, 13.6 miles.

The construction of the dam was completed in 1888. It was of gravity arch design, 80 feet high. The capacity was 6,000,000,000 gallons. It was claimed to be the highest in the United States and was heralded as one of the wonders of the world. When greater storage volume became necessary, an addition raised the level ten feet in 1896. About that time a station was established on the La Presa Branch so that the tourists would not have to scale the heights. The crest of the dam was increased to a height of 110 feet in 1910. The upper portion at the north end failed in the flood of 1916.

The dam, as well as the railway, was built by The San Diego Land & Town Company, a subsidiary corporation of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. The organization was formed for the purpose of improving and disposing of the lands donated by the people of National City and San Diego to subsidize the construction of the California Southern Rail Road. The Kimball Brothers had given more than 10,000 acres of their Rancho de la Nacion, expecting that National City would be made the Pacific Coast Terminus of the Santa Fe Route.

The editor failed to mention the side trip La Presa, which was part of the 60-Mile schedule. Again the train backed to the Junction, then crossed the Sweetwater River and climbed up the north bank until the Spring Valley Canyon was reached. Here the scenery "rivals" that of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in Colorado - for a short distance. The train crosses the gorge on a deck type truss bridge of steel and wood, 70 feet above the creek bed and spanning 110 feet. It was designed to carry the loads of engines weighing 80 tons. Just beyond the bridge, the station was established and a pathway was cut to reach the top of the dam. The railroad continues east through deep cuts. Beyond, the track is very crooked, winding around the foothills to avoid having to climb a heavy grade. The curvatures make an equivalent of four complete circles, and the rails terminate in the townsite of La Presa, 15.5 miles. From that point, stage coaches carried passengers to El Cajon. Fruit, olives and other local products, including bottled mineral water, were loaded for shipment from that station. Materials for the construction of the Janal or Otay Dams were hauled by teams from La Presa to the sites.

"But the train is moving. We take our seats once more and soon we are in San Diego again."

Before reaching the terminal and after climbing the grade on L Street from 12th to 11th Streets, it was the usual practice to stop the train, a brakeman would walk ahead and open the switch to a siding. Then a "drop" or "flying switch" was made. The engineer starts the train ahead, throws the reverse lever over to bunch the slack, the conductor pulls the coupling pin behind the engine, the engineer returns the lever and yanks open the throttle. The engine jumps ahead like a scared jack rabbit, takes the switch and glides into the sidetrack. The brakeman closes the switch and the train rolls down the main line. Then the engine backs out, runs ahead to couple with the cars and pushes them to the depot. And all is set for the return to National City.

Flying switches are dangerous, even with freight cars only. Sometimes the brakeman may not throw the switch over in time, the engine may derail at the switch or the frog or, as happened on the Coronado Railroad at the ferry landing, no one was at the car brakes. It was rough on the rolling stock and the bumping post, not to mention the passengers.

What a trip the 60-Mile Excursion would be for rail-fans! Feb.11, 1959

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