May 172014

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. San Diego & Arizona railway map
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.
San Diego & Arizona RR Mexico border
Finally in 1919, the golden spike was driven to open the first modern line between San Diego and the East.San Diego & Airzona RR international border
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.
San Diego & Arizona RR Trestle at Border
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.
Carrizo Gorge Trestle
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.
Golden State Limited
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.

This train ride can now be crossed off our bucket list. What train ride is on your bucket list?

  33 Responses to “Ride on The Impossible Railroad”

  1. What a fascinating history. I love train rides, and hope to experience this one day, too. Thanks for taking us along!

    • We’re hoping that someday more of the railroad will be opened up again. Going through all those tunnels would be amazing.

  2. Looks like something I would like to do. I would love to hear the history of this railroad. I find it very interesting that they leave water out.

    • We love to ride trains that have such wonderful history. It’s sad that people go into the desert unprepared.

  3. Looks like you had a lot of fun! I love riding trains and know I’d enjoy this trip!

    • We love the history and views on trains. We wish we could ride on every train. Oh, well, one train at a time…

  4. We love old trains. Hadn’t heard of this one. Will have to check it out next time we go to San Diego.

  5. Thanks for giving us a little history to this route, looks beautiful – it would be wonderful to see this expanding again into Mexico if they can work out all the details and hopefully not a long process.

    • The best part of the route was reported to be the stop at Tecate. It’s the home of Tecate Beer and in that hot climate, a cold beer would make the ride just that much better.

  6. How interesting that you can enter Mexico on the Impossible Railway . I hope they extend the line further – I love the idea of the Tecate Beer Train …-

    • Yes, the Tecate beer factory was thriving when the train came through. That area is hoping the train will bring thirsty travelers again.

  7. It’s hard to imagine how much work and human sweat went into building this railroad. Thanks for sharing this interesting history.

    • The work, sweat and deaths that weren’t reported since there wasn’t a OSHA back then. It’s interesting what people will do to survive financially that are extremely dangerous.

  8. What an interesting ride. The history of train building in North America is fascinating. There are so many areas that were challenges to build through. Towns and cities have prospered or died based on how close trains did or didn’t come into their area.

    • We love the stories of how trains were brought into these desolate areas. Building this rail for so much money and then becoming obsolete so soon made it even more challenging to the towns nearby.

  9. I love traveling by train; watching the landscape roll by outside the window and enjoying the feeling of being one step removed from the world. Very much enjoyed learning about this particular railroad and reading the history behind it.

    • This short journey would have been more complete if we could have traveled through the gorge. The expense of maintaining all those tunnels makes it sadly impossible.

  10. Interesting history! The scenery looks gorgeous in spots. It’s amazing how much they spent on building the line.

    • The Campo area has both green farm lands for ranching and barren desert too. For that time, 19 million was quite an extreme sum to spend on a railroad that wasn’t used long enough to be profitable.

  11. Who doesn’t love a train ride?! The photo of the wooden trestle is very cool. Sounds as if it’s an interesting place to see and a classic train ride as well. I’ve always thought riding the train across Canada would be an incredible trip and of course the budget buster Orient Express.

    • We’re train lovers and each train’s railroad has an interesting history to tell. I agree that a Canadian trip on rail would be incredible.

  12. What an interesting and unusual journey this must have been. How sweet that there are volunteers supplying water for the travellers.

    • There is a graveyard with unmarked sites of people who died trying to cross the border. Women were so uninformed that they were dressed in gowns and high heels to meet up with their loved ones and died. It’s an ongoing and helpless situation and seemed so real after observing the border fencing in these unforgiving areas.

  13. I love train rides. My favorites we the Durango to Silverton train ride in CO and our ride into Northern Ontario’s Moosinee which at that time could only be reached by train or boat (i think). I’d love to ride the impossible railroad!

    • I agree with you and have rode the Durango to Silverton train three times now. I’m adding the Moosinee train ride to our must see and do!

  14. Thats’s quite the train!

    Our most memorable train ride was the route from Skagway, Alaska to White Pass, Yukon. There were a lot of men and horses that were killed in the making of that railway.

    • I fervently hope to ride such a train. What a history to see and read. The details of building the railway sound so interesting.

  15. We’ve visited San Diego a couple times, but I had not heard of this. It looks really interesting, especially crossing the border. We’ve ridden a few other trains, but as my kids have pointed out, we’ve never done an overnight on a sleeper train. So, train travel in a sleeper car would be on my bucket list — preferably on something posh like the Orient Express.

    • My grandkids have ridden on the Amtrak from Salt Lake City to Chicago. They really enjoyed sleeping in a train car. My daughter thought it weird to be taking a shower while moving at such speeds.

  16. I love the name of your blog! It really sets the stage for your writing. I wish I had the chance to do more train travel, it is such a mindful way to experience a journey, filled with a lot of thought. So interesting to read the history of this route-and the photo of the trestle is great. Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

    • Thanks for your comment on the name of my blog. My main reason is for writing stories of our travels as memoirs.

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