Historical Desert San Diego and Arizona Railroad

The Impossible Railroad and Carrizo Gorge

Photo credit: By Pattymooney - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 

The San Diego and Arizona Railroad opened the first modern line between San Diego and the East. The railroad was one of the most expensive ever built in the U.S., costing almost $19 million in 1919. In the Carrizo Gorge, the railroad crosses 14 trestles and goes through 21 tunnels in only 11 miles. From San Diego to El Centro, the railroad rises and falls over 3,700 feet. If ever there was a monument to a builder, the San Diego and Arizona Railroad speaks of the energy, skill and determination of John D. Spreckles and his men, the last of the great railroad builders.


Map of rail route


From the Sacatone Overlook in MaCain Valley you can view the Carrizo Gorge RR tracks
Train Tracks

The Desert Line Railroad, often referred to as the "Impossible Railroad," stands as a monumental testament to early 20th-century engineering and the audacity of visionaries like John D. Spreckels. This railroad, which was one of the most expensive ever built in the U.S., costing almost $19 million in 1919, was a significant endeavor to connect San Diego to the East, bypassing the city's isolation from major rail networks. The construction journey was filled with unparalleled challenges, especially in the Carrizo Gorge. This 11-mile stretch alone required the building of 14 trestles and the carving of 21 tunnels, all while navigating a landscape that rises and falls over 3,700 feet.

The origins of the Desert Line Railroad can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when San Diego, burgeoning in growth, sought a direct rail link to the east. The city's isolation from major rail networks was a significant impediment to its growth. Enter John D. Spreckels, a sugar magnate with a vision. He believed that a railroad connecting San Diego to the East would not only boost the city's economy but also solidify its status as a major port and gateway to the Pacific.

However, the construction of such a railroad was fraught with challenges. The Carrizo Gorge, with its steep cliffs and rugged terrain, posed significant engineering challenges. But Spreckels and his team were undeterred. They embarked on a monumental project that would involve building numerous trestles and tunnels to navigate the treacherous landscape. The cost was astronomical for its time, with the railroad's 11-mile stretch through the Carrizo Gorge alone costing almost $19 million in 1919.

Despite the challenges, the San Diego and Arizona Railroad was completed, connecting San Diego to El Centro and, by extension, to the broader U.S. rail network. The railroad's completion was a significant achievement, but it wasn't without its share of troubles. Natural disasters, including floods and avalanches, often disrupted service. Political events, such as the Mexican Revolution, also posed challenges given the railroad's proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Over the years, the Desert Line witnessed numerous changes in ownership and operation. 

While it faced periods of decline, especially with the advent of modern transportation methods, its historical significance and the sheer audacity of its construction have ensured its place in the annals of American railroad history. Today, as efforts are made to revive and repurpose the line, the Desert Line stands as a monument to human ambition and the indomitable spirit of progress.

Railroad Timeline

1873: Population of San Diego 5,000.

1887: Sugar millionaire John D. Spreckles sails to San Diego.

1907: Population of San Diego tops 35,000. Spreckles begins construction of railroad.

1911: Imperial County is created. Mexican Revolution.

1916: Heavy flooding.

1919: First passenger train from El Centro to San Diego.

1920: Avalanche in gorge.

1930: Population of San Diego reaches 148,000.

1932: A four-day fire collapses one tunnel, landslide closes another, a third destroyed by fire.

1940: Population of San Diego reaches 203,000.

1942: U.S. Army patrols railroad for saboteurs.

1951: Last passenger train.

1976: Hurricane Kathleen does heavy damage in Carrizo Gorge. Railroad almost abandons route.

1982: Line closed by storm damage.

1984: Line Closed.

2004: Line reopened, tunnel repaired. Started freight service to Plaster City.

2008: Line in operation. See Ride the Impossible Railway

2009: Tunnel 3 (Lindero) is damaged by a fire.

2011: Carrizo Gorge Railway, Inc (CZRY) discontinued operations of the Tijuana-Tecate segment by the end of 2011.

2012: The SD&AE entered into a 50 year operating lease with the Pacific Imperial Railroad company for freight trains. With this lease, the operating rights of CZRY ended.

2013: Plans in the works to get the trains back in operation.

Old railroad car off the tracks.

The two box cars over the side of the Gorge, north of Goat Canyon are SP box cars.
They are empty.
 Happened in the late 70s.


Water tower on the way to Ocotillo, CA.
Old water tower on the way to Ocotillo, CA

2014: No progess has been made and there are no operating trains.

2015: Pacific Imperial Railroad Announces Majority Ownership Transfer and the Appointment of CEO and President Arturo Alemany. MTS Board approves PIR’s Operational Plan by a 17-0 vote, to rehabilitate the Desert Line starting in Plaster City working eastward and constructing an intermodal terminal near Ocotillo to service the regional trucking need for an alternative connecting link to Union Pacific’s network to the east.

2016: In June, PIR and BJRR reached an agreement regarding the rehabilitation and operations of the Desert Line. BJRR began restoration work on the Desert Line in the summer. By October, PIR filed a voluntary petition for reorganization under Chapter 11 Bankruptcy to further develop its primary asset. CEO Arturo Alemany emphasized the Chapter 11 petition's role in securing a strategic partner and addressing claims that affected PIR's capital-raising abilities.

2017: On March 10, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge approved the sale of PIR's Desert Line track leases and development rights to a Nevada corporation affiliated with BJRR. The bankruptcy case remained open due to payments to creditors and two investor lawsuits.

2021: Baja California Railroad, after leasing the railroad and pledging its reconstruction, failed to uphold its promises. The railroad ceased its lease payments in 2020. Consequently, the Metropolitan Transit System is now in search of a new operator, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

2022: San Diego transportation officials begin assessing the feasibility of reviving a 70-mile segment of the former San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway, aiming to establish a direct freight link from San Diego to eastern markets that bypasses Los Angeles, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune.


Other Related DesertUSA Resources

A Ride on the Impossible Railway
McCain Valley Resource Conservation Area
McCain Valley Recreation Area
The Buffalo Soldiers


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