Dear Mr. Alice: When I was but a tyke, an observant friend pointed out a strange sight, one I always look for even to this day. We were heading south on 5, between 52 and Mission Bay, and he pointed out what appeared to be train tracks poking out of the embankment. He told me in that charming, lying way of his that there used to be a gold mine on the bank and that the tunnel collapsed, and those tracks were all that was left. Over the years, I haven't been able to come up with a more logical explanation. Can you? — Jeff Hayes, San Diego
Mat mail: On I-5 southbound, just north of the Grand/Garnet exit are two railroad tracks sticking out of the hillside on the west side of the freeway. They are hard to spot but appear to be rusty, narrow-gauge rails, 20 or 30 feet up, sticking out of the hill a couple of feet, pointing roughly south/east. They've been there ever since I can remember, and I have often wondered what they are. — Roy Huntington, San Diego
I have to guess Roy is Jeff's charming, lying pal, yes? Hope Jeff hasn’t been taking Roy’s stock tips, too. Gold mine? No way. Although Louis Rose, who owned that part of San Diego (Rose Canyon) in the mid-1800s, tried coal mining in that slope, for some reason. But Rose’s coal-less diggings probably aren’t the answer we’re looking for.
It’s fess-up time for yours truly. I’m not sure I’ve actually seen these mysterious tracks, despite nearly getting flattened by freeway traffic and arrested for lurking in the shrubbery with binoculars and a suspicious look on my face. If what I finally saw was the object in question, it doesn’t give much of a clue about its identity anyway. So, when in doubt, guess.
A tip from John Fry of the Pacific Beach Historical Society suggested the south end of Rose Canyon was the site of a series of brickyards, and maybe the tracks are related. And that brings us back to Louis Rose, who could have been one of the most optimistic men in local history. Seems when he’d dug around in the west slope of the canyon long enough to see there was no coal, only clay, he shifted gears and opened a brickmaking plant. Until the 1950s, Rose Canyon would be the brick-and-tile center of the city.
If you peruse the “Rose Canyon” book in the photo archives of the San Diego Historical Society, you’ll find lots of photos of the brick operations there. A 1919 snap of the Terra Cotta Tile and Brick Corp. shows a series of wooden scaffolds heading up into the cliff face. At the top of one of them is a small wheeled cart used to transport clay down to the kiln. Along the scaffolding appear to be metal strips that guided the cart down the chute. Whether these are what’s now sticking out of the cliffs is hard to say. But it’s a good bet Jeff and Roy’s odd “tracks” have something to do with Rose Canyon’s century of clay mining. In the 1930s, it produced clay for three different brickmaking operations. Some of it went by the Santa Fe spur line from the canyon down to the foot of Crosby Street for manufacture.
San Diego’s O.G.s may remember the Leaning Chimney of P.B., near the present Price Club, built in 1888 to vent a huge brick kiln. The 115-foot chimney settled and ended up more than seven feet out of plumb; but it stood until January of 1962, when it toppled in a storm. According to newspaper accounts, 25,000 of the chimney’s 70,000 bricks were salvaged by a masonry contractor and used for the fireplaces in houses then being built in Rancho Bernardo.