Carrizo Gorge Railway
A Ride on the Impossible Railway
by Ryan Weaver
At the very turn of the 21st century, a group of people hiked into the deepest part of San Diego's back country along the old railroad tracks. Weeds and shrubs had grown tall between the rail ties. Rockslides buried the rails in mountain passes. Sand had shifted over the tracks in the desert. Many of the tunnels shored up nearly a century ago with thick redwood timbers had long since caught fire and caved in. Despite these obstacles and more, the group decided to reopen what was once called the "Impossible Railroad." Four years later, the train rolled again, following the old meandering route between Campo (just above the border with Mexico) to El Centro and the Imperial Valley (an agricultural area between San Diego and Yuma).
Sand is the reason the railroad runs again. Increasingly strict regulations imposed by the EPA and other agencies have made mining sand exceedingly difficult in San Diego County. The city continues to grow however, and builders need sand for concrete, so the commodity has become increasingly valuable.
The train runs almost daily. A typical day consists of either bringing empty cars eastward into the desert to spend the night or bringing loaded cars back to Campo, where the sand is dumped at the old train station in massive mounds to be loaded into semi trucks and shipped off.
Four locomotives operate out of Campo, although on any given day there may be only one or two in simultaneous use. Each diesel electric engine generates 3800 horsepower, and each has a 4000-gallon fuel tank. Each V16 engine turns a 600-volt generator, which churns about 5000 amperes of electrical current to the electric traction motors.
These modern locomotives are designed to push a train up to 70 mph over tracks equally modern, but over the chewed boards and loose rattling spikes of the Carrizo Gorge Railway the top speed is 10 mph in some areas.
I grew up in San Diego's rugged back country. Once, in a time before anyone gave serious thought to reopening the line, I rode my mountain bike 11 miles along the tracks with a group of people who'd been there before and admired the views. Top speed for us was about the same speed the train would later have, for the railway was just too old and cluttered, as were the tunnels and trestles.
Although I'd explored much of these semi-desert mountains and knew all these desert-adapted plants and shrubs by heart, I'd never seen anything like Carrizo Gorge. I was captivated by the drama of its cliffs, its colorful depths, and this mysterious ghost-railroad crossing it like a Frankensteinian scar. Some years later, when I heard the train was running again, I drove to the station in Campo with a far-fetched plan.
In those days I was a journalism student at San Diego State University with an internship at a small back country publication. My semi-professional cardboard press pass burned a hole in my pocket everywhere I went, and I used it liberally. So liberally, in fact, that I presented it to conductor Matt Adams when I met him on the railroad tracks and asked if I could ride along. He checked with someone in the corporate office and got the necessary approval. I never bothered to request a similar nod from my editor. She might have had a mind to veto it all.
On the appointed day, Adams, the conductor of the train, found himself hauling a load of empty cars into the Imperial Valley with engineer Mike Reneau. They had no time clock to punch, so they left when they were ready—around noon.
Adams slipped away for a smoke now and then. He looked at the hills he'd seen a thousand times before, his eyes rolling over the rugged, undeveloped landscape that held no surprises for him. He'd seen rabbits, badgers, snakes, bighorn sheep, buzzards, lizards, bobcats, illegal aliens…even nudists from the DeAnza Springs colony scurrying from the tunnels as the train approached.
Curious if Adams had really seen everything there was to see, I pointed to
an unusual rock formation on a distant promontory, almost impossible to distinguish
from others around it. He glanced up and said, "I named that the Virgin
Reneau had seen everything as well, albeit from his seat. As engineer, his job was to keep the train rolling at a safe, steady 10 mph down the grade.
Adams and Reneau were among that original handful of people who toiled for four years clearing the tunnels and tracks so that the train could run again, after making a deal with the Metropolitan Transit Development Board that they could become operators.
"We have sweat equity in this company," Adams said.
The train meandered through brown hills that smelled of rusting iron and dry grass until sidling up against the border fence and stopping in the community of Jacumba for fuel. Here we enjoyed ample time to rest in the shade, get a snack and chat with local workers.
Thanks to recent rains the countryside was carpeted in golden wildflowers, and at times the overwhelming scent of sage saturated the air. The train dropped into the Carrizo Gorge and started plunging into cool tunnels blasted into the guts of mountains. Along the tracks and trestles, sheer cliffs plummeted over a thousand feet to the riverbed below, where a silver thread of water moved thinly between boulders and scattered palms.
Time seemed to slow while we rolled through Carrizo Gorge at exactly 10 mph. Sunset poured over the rugged canyon in a marmalade flood, illuminating hazy depths, and it seemed almost too dramatic to comprehend. I noticed my companions staring at the track with eyes like glazed donuts. Adams said, "I guess you can even get used to that when you see it every day."
Nine hours after we left Campo the train rolled into the cool desert basin—flat at last. I breathed deep the dusty air of the desert. Bats flipped in and out of our blinding headlamp. Tiny creatures scurried over the dunes beside the tracks. The warm lights of El Centro, at the southern end of Imperial Valley, glowed ahead, signaling the end of our journey east.
I felt closer to a landscape dear to me, and I had my curiosity whetted about its history. Before I shook hands goodbye, I asked if I might be able to get into the old railway museum in Campo. "No problem," they said.
As I would learn, sugar magnate, entrepreneur, and the man that built and owned most of San Diego at the turn of the twentieth century, John D. Spreckles, took the track – the Impossible Railroad – on as his biggest challenge. He wanted to put San Diego on the map by connecting it to the rest of the world, and only the rugged terrain stood in his way.
"These mountains, they are a heartbreaker," reported the chief engineer
of the Carrizo Gorge section of the project to Spreckles. Yet he pushed his workers
on, carving through boulder and thorny shrub from the mountains to the sandy
desert floor. In November of 1919, after 13 years of crushing setbacks, sheer
persistence, $18 million dollars, and roughly 140 miles of railway, Spreckles
punched the golden spike. In the old black and white photograph of the event,
the day looked sunny and Spreckles looked giddy.
The Impossible Railroad had become a reality, although in Spreckles' time it would never be a financial success. Passengers moved by day and freight, by night, but as years passed, improved transportation, wars and maintenance problems brought an end to the train's operations.
Now, it runs again, as a freight line. Someday, if passenger service returns (and there is talk of bringing it back), anyone will be able to see the breathtaking beauty of San Diego's rugged back country, where mountains descend into the desert. These hinterlands are not the dusty outcropping of a world-class city, but the bloodline that helped make a dusty city world-class.
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