May 03, 2018

Photo Essay: An Engineer's-Eye View Along a Desert Rail Line

I've been obsessed with "The Impossible Railway" for a decade now.

I hadn't heard of it until they told us about it on our "Train to Tecate" back in 2008—which, unfortunately, did not cross the Carrizo Gorge over the Goat Canyon Trestle but did run along the same "San Diego Short Line" tracks that were a part of the same system.

The old railway was appropriately named, as this area of Alta California was pretty darn near impossible to cross until the Plank Road allowed wagons and early horseless carriages to cross sand dunes, beet sugar magnate John Spreckels funded the laying down of tracks and blasting through boulders, and Highway 80 and eventually the 8 Freeway were paved through the unforgiving landscape.

Since that time, I've dreamed of hiking the Goat Canyon trail and across the trestle, but I've been afraid to do it—not only on my own, but at any time of year when it'll be too hot and too sunny and I'll have to be airlifted out or expire there in a sweaty, sandy grave.

I haven't given up on that dream yet—but for now, I've had to settle for the smaller, more accessible tracks and trestles of the San Diego & Arizona Railway's Desert Line. And just getting near Carrizo Gorge again was a major motivation to book a trip back to Campo (using the excuse of attending a rare cemetery tour).

Early in the morning, as I was driving Campo Road from my tipi in Potrero Springs to the Desert View Tower in Jacumba Springs, I couldn't help but pull over and gawk at a not-yet-decommissioned trestle I drove under and try to visualize the remnants of the railway, though I expected to see no actual trains running along them.

Later that day, I returned to the depot where I'd boarded that Tecate train 10 years ago—the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum—and got closer to the Carrizo Gorge experience than I ever had before, in the form of an unrestored Pullman train car built in 1910 and converted to business class for Spreckels himself in 1919.

With three bedrooms, an office, and full kitchen/galley services as well as bath and shower facilities, this is where Spreckels (known as “the last of the great railroad builders”) entertained business partners or simply traveled alone (well, probably always with a steward) over the rail line that he'd proudly financed and owned.

After Spreckels retired in 1923, though, the private railcar began changing hands—and colors—as it converted to a hospital car, a movie car, and a county fair attraction over the next 30 years.

In 1983, it moved to the Campo museum, which cleaned it, stripped some of the added paint layers off to expose the Spreckels-era woodwork, and installed an exhibit in the former solarium. The museum hopes to further restore it, but I kind of hope they don't. I prefer to see the wrinkles on an aging beauty, rather than smoothing them out with Botox and plastic surgery.

Originally, the train would actually cross the border into Mexico, travel through both Tijuana and Tecate, and then cross back over into the United States to complete its route, heading into some pretty rough backcountry that required giant trestles to be built across massive canyons and chasms. But now even the scenic excursions have been curtailed because of damage to the tunnel that crosses the border, track work, and I suspect Homeland Security issues.

As fascinating as the museum's historic train collection and interpretive displays are, I'd really gone there after my cemetery tour to do one thing: get back on that train.

But this time, I wasn't going to be any ol' passenger, as I was 10 years ago (when Edith and I were decidedly the youngest adults and the only unaccompanied females). I upgraded my seat to the cab.

And even a decade later, the engineer who greeted me, volunteer Ken Brown, was surprised to see a woman climbing up into the San Diego & Arizona #7285 with him. "Don't see many lady railroaders up here?" I asked, and he laughed and nodded, noting that it's usually the old timers and families/grandkids, though occasionally a pair of spouses or some other couple will show up.

I was glad to have that General Electric, diesel/electric hybrid centercab switcher—and my own personal engineer—all to myself. I'm a greedy adventurer: I don't always like to share, and I don;t always play well with others.

Ken showed me around the locomotive cab that once served at Camp Pendleton (and now acts as the primary power for the Golden State Limited excursion trains), gave me a pair of earplugs so as not to deafen me with the steam whistle, and went to work releasing the brakes and controlling the acceleration of the train. (No steering is necessary because, you know, the train just stays on the tracks and goes wherever they go).

"See that 'V' sign?" Ken called out over the chugga-chugga-chugga of the rolling stock in motion. I nodded, and he said, "That means the rules change now. I'm going to have to pay more attention, so I won't be able to talk so much." I thought that was sweet—and I was happy to look out the window and perform to one task I'd been assigned: wave to anybody I saw.

But I was having such a good time up there that I couldn't help but ask questions, laugh heartily at Ken's jokes, and incorrigibly distract him. At one point on our journey, he realized he was speeding (most of that track limits you to 5, 10 or 15 mph) and laughed and said, "You, you're trouble!"

After all, when I first sat down, I'd asked, "So, how fast can this puppy go?" (Answer:

I know I'd taken this train trip before and had already ridden those rails, but back then I think our train trip was more about the destination than the journey—because I could barely remember anything about the backcountry I found myself traveling back through.

And what scenery! Not only with the surrounding rock desert and blasted-through boulders, but also just the right-off-way itself, the "fill" that leveled out the grade enough for a railroad to run over the terrain (since trains don't do so well on lots of ups and downs).

On our way out towards the Mexican border (though stopping a couple miles short of it), we were bringing up the rear of the train—but when we hit the turnaround point (located "in the middle of nowhere," Ken said), we simply reversed (no turntable required) and headed back to Campo.

And that's when it was my turn to put on the engineer's cap (so to speak) and sit behind the controls.

Every time we approached a crossing—whether of a private driveway or where hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail are just three miles from Mexico and have got 2647 miles to go before reaching Canada—I got the turn the ding-ding-ding on by pulling the bell knob.

Not only that, but I got to yank down the horn handle to alert any potential crossers or passers-by "Heeere coooomes the traaaaaaaaaaaain."

And before I knew it, our scenic ride was over too soon, and we'd already returned to the museum grounds, passing by the depot and the old Section House, which once housed the rail laborers (usually black men and immigrants) who laid track down and straightened it out when it would become misaligned with heavy use. (The section crew—sometimes called "gandy dancers" for the songs they sung to stay in sync with one another—also maintained the gravel bed and the wooden ties, too, just a few of the tasks necessary as they served as general custodians of their particular section of track.)

Leaving the museum behind us for just a few moments, we got to take a spur excursion...

...past the former Navy switcher that lost its service number ages before AGREX took it over and used it for grain loading at the Port of Long Beach... the end of the line, just a stone's throw from Campo's local beacon, the tower of the Motor Transport Museum (which was unfortunately closed the day of my visit).

Even if I had missed the cemetery tour earlier that day (which, thankfully, I did not), riding the rails so close to the stretch of the desert railway that's proven nearly impossible for me to visit thus far. (Special thanks to Ken for letting me be a bad but not too bad influence.)

But I'm not throwing in the towel on getting to the Goat Canyon trestle in Carrizo Gorge—not while I've still got two legs and there's a chance that a train may cross it once again before I die.

Related Posts:
On Refusing To Throw In the Towel (Or, The Campo Cemetery Tour I Almost Missed)
Sunset, Sunrise in the Mountain Empire
Operation Exploration
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Fillmore to Santa Paula
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Santa Paula to Fillmore
Photo Essay: On the Sleeper Car to San Diego

1 comment:

  1. When they built the San Diego & Arizona Railway, why didn't they use the route that present-day Interstate 8 takes?