112 Years Ago, Construction Began on `The Impossible Railroad,’ Groundbreaking Festival and Reenactment Ceremony, Saturday, Sept. 7th in Campo in the East County

The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association (PSRM), a San Diego-area historical and educational nonprofit, will mark the 112-year anniversary of the start of construction of the San Diego & Arizona Railway (SD&A) with a variety of family-friendly activities at its “SD&A Groundbreaking Festival” on Saturday, Sept. 7, at PSRM’s Campo Railroad Park and Museum in Campo, Calif. The public is invited to attend.

Activities for the day-long, start-of-construction anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 7 will include vintage train rides aboard full-size, restored locomotives and train cars from the early 20th century, live music, lectures on the history of the SD&A, book signings and activities for children, including storytelling and face painting. Many events will be free, although costs for train rides aboard full-size, restored diesel and steam locomotives and train cars will range from $14 to $28 per person.

At 1 p.m. on Saturday Sept. 7 in Campo, a special groundbreaking reenactment ceremony will be held. On display at the ceremony will be a shovel coated with silver with a large bow of scarlet ribbon as a replica of what was used exactly 112 years earlier, on Sept. 7, 1907. Actors dressed in period clothing will pose as San Diego Mayor John F. Forward Sr., Alonzo Horton, Frank Kimball and other dignitaries and civic leaders from 1907.

The reenactment ceremony will include reciting of speeches delivered on Sept. 7, 1907, when speakers expressed expected contributions of the SD&A, once complete, to the local economy and other factors which would improve the status of San Diego and Imperial Counties and northern Baja, Mexico.

On Sept. 7, 1907, the actual SD&A groundbreaking ceremony was held in Downtown San Diego, believed to be somewhere near the intersection of 28th Street and Main Street.

The SD&A rail line, which took 12 years to complete, was called the “Impossible Railroad” by engineers of its day due to the immense logistical challenges, which included extreme terrain requiring 2.5 miles of bridges and trestles and 21 tunnels, including 11 miles through the treacherous Carrizo Gorge, an area where cliffs dropped more than 1,000 feet to the bottom (17 of the 21 tunnels were located in Carrizo Gorge). Additional construction challenges included floods, landslides, fires, hot weather, deaths from the flu, sabotage by Mexican revolutionaries and various delays caused by World War I.

Stretching 148 miles from San Diego to El Centro, the SD&A included 44 miles in Mexico. Entrepreneur John D. Spreckels financed the building of the SD&A at a cost of $18 million, or roughly $123,000 per mile. On Nov. 15, 1919, Spreckels himself drove the final “golden spike.”

As the final link in the nation’s transcontinental railroad system, the SD&A established a direct rail link from San Diego to the east by connecting with the Southern Pacific Railroad in El Centro. Previously, San Diegans had to travel north to Los Angeles to connect with an east-bound train. Today, parts of the railway are currently active with freight trains on both sides of the border.

PSRM is currently presenting a year-long, 100-year centennial celebration of the November 1919 completion of the SD&A. The 2019 centennial anniversary will conclude with a special reenactment ceremony and other family activities to be held Saturday Nov. 16, 2019, at PSRM’s Campo Railroad Park and Museum in Campo, Calif. For more information about the PSRM centennial anniversary of the SD&A, visit www.psrm.org/centennial.

The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association (PSRM) is a non-profit, all-volunteer educational organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of railroading in the Southwest. PSRM operates the 140-acre Campo Railroad Park and Museum in Campo, Calif., where every weekend the public can enjoy vintage train rides aboard full-size, restored locomotives and train cars from the early 20th century, along with the Southwest Railway Library and more than 120 pieces of historical railroad equipment and artifacts on display. For more information on PSRM, visit www.psrm.org.

Author: Rick Griffin

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