Come along and enjoy our ride on what’s left of the “The Impossible Railroad.” Our tour begins on the San Diego & Arizona vintage train in Campo, California.
The designing engineers originally dubbed it “The Impossible Railroad” because of the mountainous terrain. After 13 years and almost 19 million dollars, this became a monument to the challenges and determination of the last of the great railroad builders.
In 1907, John D. Spreckels, a sugar heir, developer and entrepreneur, ceremoniously broke ground in San Diego for the railway. The route went south across the Mexican border to Tijuana, east to Tecate, then back to the United States. It then traveled north through Carrizo Gorge, and east to a connection with Southern Pacific near Plaster City at El Centro, California.
The builders experienced delays in the ruggedly beautiful, but difficult, terrain of Carrizo Gorge from cave-ins, fires, floods, and hard rock. Other delays came from a scarcity of labor during harvest seasons.
Then World War I threatened to halt completion of the rail. John D. Spreckels successfully argued that the line would benefit the war effort, because of San Diego’s military installations.
Finally in 1919, the golden spike was driven to open the first modern line between San Diego and the East.
As the train moved along past the international border fencing, we asked the guide about the border patrol station at Campo. He sadly shook his head and said the border is an ongoing dangerous problem and drug trafficking is a major concern for the town. Self-appointed Border Militiamen protect their ranches along the border.
Also, the guide explained that Border Angel volunteers constantly re-stock plastic containers with water at stations. They are marked with wooden crosses to offer relief to the desert crossers. He said many don’t realize how harsh and dangerous the climate and terrain becomes when attempting to cross the border areas.
As long as we stayed on the train, we didn’t need passports to enter Mexico. The volunteer guides are certified to unlock and open the gate, so the train can cross the border. We only went far enough into the tunnel to say we crossed the border and then started the journey back to Campo.
In the Carrizo Gorge, the railroad crosses 14 trestles and goes through 21 tunnels in only 11 miles. The final passenger run on the San Diego and Arizona Eastern was in 1951. A brush fire burned two trestles in 1983 and, coupled with diminished freight traffic, terminated freight runs to El Centro.
There is hope for a joint continuation of the route into Mexico one day again. It depends on Mexico’s meeting some agreements and refurbishing a section of track.
The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo has many trains and locomotives outside in various stages of restoration. Several restored trains with their bells and horns of yesteryear are stored in a large building to comfortably walk through as well.