If you’re coming from the East Coast, you might travel by ship. But Congress is still only talking about building a canal across Nicaragua. So you would have to make that disagreeable passage over land or go the long way around the Horn. Sea passage from Philadelphia can take more than five months.
Instead, you’ll almost certainly take the train. The Santa Fe is advertising “entirely new and luxurious equipment” on its California Limited route. Four days a week, trains leave New York City, chugging west through Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, Los Angeles, completing the journey — when things go well — in less than four and a half days. First-class tickets from Chicago to San Diego cost $70; tourist class ones are $50. San Diego’s Grand Union Depot, an imposing Victorian presence with a massive central tower, impresses everyone who stands before it. Seeing its exuberant parapets, you might never guess at all the heartache folks in these parts have suffered because of the railroads.
As long ago as 1846, talk began of building a direct transcontinental line here. San Diego possessed the only great natural harbor south of San Francisco. In 1854, a company had been formed to build the “San Diego and Gila Southern Pacific and Atlantic Railroad” to the mouth of the Gila River and further connections eastward. But the Civil War had erupted before any construction took place.
When the war ended, the Union victory assured that the first franchise for a transcontinental line would follow a northerly route, and the Central and Union Pacific lines completed the link between San Francisco and the East on May 10, 1869. Despite continuing talk of a southern rail route along the 32nd parallel, savvy San Diegans soon began to realize that Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker collectively had every reason to stop such a line from terminating here. Without direct rail connections, San Diego would pose no threat to the port of San Francisco and the Central Pacific’s monopoly over the Pacific trade. Moreover, Los Angeles, though it lacked a harbor, lusted for the rail business and enjoyed the good fortune of being closest to the San Gorgonio Pass, the best of the five routes over the Southern California mountains. After several twists of fate and politics, San Diego lost the competition with its neighbor to the north when the Southern Pacific agreed to bring a line to L.A. that would connect with the East through Yuma.
Though discouraged by this turn of events, the San Diegans hadn’t given up. They’d looked instead to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, which by the late 1870s was building a line from the east across Arizona, approaching the California border at “The Needles.” In that progress, San Diego County residents had seen another opportunity, and they’d lobbied intensively for the Santa Fe to make San Diego or National City its western terminus. The Santa Fe had finally agreed to build a terminal in National City and create a “California Southern” rail link from there to San Bernardino. Between December 20, 1880, when ground was broken, and September 13, 1883, when the first train from San Diego pulled into San Bernardino, high hopes in San Diego soared. But in the spring of 1884, less than six months after the track was completed, torrential rains in the wake of the Krakatoa eruption wrought disaster throughout Southern California. On the California Southern line, flooding washed away big stretches of the track laid down through Temecula Canyon. The roiling waters ripped out telegraph poles and wrested whole bridges from their moorings, carrying the debris far out to sea.
It was an omen, but people refused to see it as such. Instead, they rebuilt the track and by late 1885 it joined the Santa Fe’s lines to the east. The day the first eastbound train puffed out of town, San Diegans paraded to the sound of brass bands down Fifth Street, which “looked like a grand avenue of flags.” It cost $150 to make the trip to the Missouri Valley. But within a year, the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific had begun to battle for passengers, using the rail fares as their weapons. By March of 1887, the Missouri–Southern California rate had dropped to $12. And it would fall still further — bottoming out at $1 before rising again to $25. The cheap tickets drew the hordes that fueled the Great Boom.
If, in preparation for your move to San Diego, you want to know more about what that frenzy was like, you might read Millionaires of a Day, the book written in 1890 by Mr. Theodore Van Dyke. He lived here in the spring of 1887, when “The streets were everywhere crowded, gold clinked on every hand, and imaginary millionaires by the score rode around the streets in shining new buggies with fast horses, or bustled about the banks and real-estate offices with checkbooks sticking from their outside breast pockets.” By that summer, he writes, “fully five sixths of the buyers were buying, not for use, but to sell at an advance to some one else in a few days or weeks. And…nearly all sales were upon contract, with only one fourth or one third paid in cash.”
Even today, the memory of the boom haunts people. Overnight it made the town unrecognizable, and it made some individuals rich beyond their dreams. But when the speculative frenzy abated in the early months of 1888, real estate prices crashed. The subsequent loss of both wealth and dreams was so abrupt folks couldn’t believe it had happened. By 1889, more than half the 35,000 souls who had stampeded into town had fled, and the Santa Fe Railroad had announced that it was shifting its operational base to San Bernardino. In 1891, floods destroyed the track through Temecula Canyon again. Today, in 1899, no one talks of rebuilding it.
Instead incoming travelers must change trains in Los Angeles. Many are tempted to stay and seek their fortunes there. Not much bigger than San Diego in 1870, Los Angeles now counts more than 100,000 inhabitants. Some of them feel such a bitter rivalry with San Diego that they’ve scared off would-be visitors at the L.A. train station with tales of drinking-water shortages and other horrors. If San Diego remains your goal, however, the “Surf Line” will take you southward.