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Ode To The Coronado Train …

Coronado’s Train Is Gone, But The Ghosts Remain

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“When I was a boy in the days of the train. I’d sit by the tracks on a long summer day. And I’d wave at the brakeman, and he’d wave back at me. [Now] The ties they are rotten and the tracks shot to hell. Along with my dreams and the old railroad bell.”

-Jim Croce

The trains of Coronado made their last run here in 1969 – a pivotal year in Coronado history. It was also the year the car-carrying ferryboats ceased to operate, and a large, blue span of a bridge made access to Coronado a little too convenient.

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Early pusher engines like this first Coronado Beach Railroad mule managed small loads of people from the Ferry Landing to the Hotel del Coronado and back.

With the trains came a series of sights, sounds and smells that none will forget. But for those born after 1969, they are, for the most part, just words and pictures in a book.

The smell of Creosote and sound of steel wheels clanking along the streets of Coronado were a regular occurrence back then. The whistle of the train and the slow-clanging bell pierced the air, and for many it was like the circus had come to town.

Children would run out to put coins on the tracks; teenagers would jump on the last car for a fun ride to the Boathouse or up to the Ferryboat Landing; some would drive their cars up on to the tracks to do one of those, “Look mom, no hands” tricks.

This shot captures excursion cars #1 and #2 at Tent City (distinct because of their passenger platforms along the sides). They were crucial in carrying people across the island as well as to Tijuana, San Diego, and inland.

When Coronado’s rail legacy ended in 1969, train operation on the island and up the Silver Strand had been reduced to weekly, slow moving freight runs to North Island. ?

Old-timers remembered camping south of Tent City in the early 1900s as young children, and fishing in the bay. The train would slow to a crawl and the engineer would yell at them to see what was biting. If he got the right answer, he would often stop the train and, keeping steam up, grab his pole and join them.

This unusual shot captures the railcars, the thatched roofs of Tent City, the fishing pier and saltwater plunge in the background. Judging by the size of the trees, this could be early Roaring Twenties.

The island saw the first steam train of the Coronado Beach Railway fire up in 1886. It chugged and puffed down Orange Avenue, laboring under its own weight. Prior to that, a horse-drawn railcar made the run across the island. The median strip, in fact, was built to house a rail line allowing people-moving on a massive scale from the Coronado Ferry Landing to the Hotel Del and, after 1900, to Tent City.?

There is a stretch of Orange Avenue you can see today, between Third and Fourth Streets, where homes appear to be built up on a cliff, looking down on Orange Avenue. It represented a hill where the little steam locomotive would struggle when carrying a full load of passengers from the Ferry Landing. The City eventually leveled the land there, creating the appearance of homes built on high ground. I doubt if even the homeowners there realize that.

The Coronado train is all but forgotten today, rarely part of any conversation, and thoroughly displaced by progress. There are a few, however, who carry special memories of the Coronado train:

This early postcard of Tent City shows the rail spur that ran down the center of the compound. Electric trolleys shared this spur with the Coronado train.

“When I was a teenager back in the ‘50s,” remembered Bill Gise, “I would let air out of the tires on my Model A so I could drive on the railroad tracks. It was all good fun in those days.” ?

Marty Jensen had yet another memory of the old trains. “When we were kids we would jump on the slow moving train down Pomona Avenue for a free ride. If we got caught the conductor would douse us with a bucket of cold water.”?

This shot is believed to have been taken as the train was leaving National City for the south run to Coronado.

According to Jill Powell, the large Alamo-looking warehouse on Third Street (between F and G) served as a trolley barn to house the vehicles.? Her grandfather owned the warehouse. Sitting on the high ground of tiny Coronado, a fresh water spring flowed freely out of the ground for many years there, according to Dick Kenney, which originally was home to migratory Kumeyaay Indian tribes.

The only evidence of Coronado’s rail history today is in the odd shaped property lots along Pomona Avenue and Third Street, and an occasional exposed rail peeking through the asphalt. ?This week, however, workers unearthed some of the old rails on Pomona Avenue as they prepared to construct the traffic circle there.

A full series of excursion cars can be seen in this shot, loaded with guests, presumably from Tent City. Notice the cow catcher on the lead engine.

Engine Number 12 was a frequent sight along the Silver Strand for decades. Visitors camping south of Tent City claimed the engineer would sometimes stop the train, get out his fishing pole and join them along the shoreline fishing for corvina, halibut and sea bass.

No information is available on this train wreck, but wrecks like this were common when an engineer took a curve too fast or erosion had destroyed part of the track.

Families flooded into the street after the workers went home. Many a souvenir was to be found amidst the digging. Children held up rusted spikes used to affix the rails to creosote-soaked wooden ties and asked, “Daddy, did trains really run down this street?”

At the request of the Steve Johnson family, this history of trains will hopefully answer some of those questions asked by big-eyed children scouring the work site for mementos of the great age of trains in Coronado.

In these rare shots, railcar #2, aka the “JD,” can be seen in her prime, waiting for the call, “All aboard!”

Rusted 60-foot lengths of rail, some of the last remnants of Coronado’s rail history, were removed in March 2009 from the bike path in front of the Coronado Boathouse. ?They were discovered during construction of the Coronado Yacht Club Promenade Project.

This private rail car is sitting on a siding designed for visiting dignitaries traveling by rail to Coronado in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these actual rails were rescued by the city of Coronado for a possible future project paying homage to the history of transportation in Coronado.

City workers uncovered track that was once part of an elaborate switching station there. ?The recovered tracks were from the original Coronado Railroad, later to be known as the Belt Line, which veered off on Pomona Avenue.

Old steam engine Number 2 of the Coronado Railroad.

Going south, this line formed a horseshoe running down the Silver Strand and arching around South Bay to National City and San Diego.? In 1888 the line was renamed the Coronado Railroad Company.

In 1908 the streetcar division of the Coronado railroad became part of the San Diego Electric Railway. The Belt Line around the Strand became part of the San Diego Southern Railway in 1908, later to become part of the San Diego & Arizona Line.

A familiar sight in the 1960s was this colorful engine pulling its load along Pomona Avenue. Noting but a working conveyance, it was taken for granted by residents of the island until one day in 1969, when the train ran no more.

Additional rail spurs split off the Belt Line and ran through Tent City, past the Hotel del Coronado and up Orange Avenue to the Ferry Landing. There, a large roundhouse and switching area could direct trains, trolleys, and passenger cars along their way.

Other rail spurs on Coronado included track that ran down First Street, along the north end of Alameda (K Avenue) and down Fourth Street across a bridge straddling the Spanish Bight to North Island.? When the seawall was built along Ocean Boulevard, there is evidence of rails extending down Olive Avenue to the beach, where two parallel sets of rails housed flatcars with large boulders on one side, and a large derrick crane to put the boulders in place on the other.

This photo by Tommy Lark captures the beginning of the end. The Coronado Bridge is nearly completed in the background, and this Southern Pacific train would soon be out of business as far as Coronado was concerned.

These same early, iron rail sections arrived by ship from England in 1887 and were laid down by Chinese and Kumeyaay workers in August of that year to help with Coronado’s rapid growth. The workers, it is said, were paid a dollar a day.?

A 1904 issue of the Tent City News advertised train trips to visit Tia Juana [sic] for the bullfights. Other trips carried Coronado residents and visitors inland to hunt grouse – often shooting right from the railcars carrying them.

Special zoning variances were granted after the train left for good in 1969. Homeowners were allowed to build on the very narrow lots that once served as rail corridors through Coronado’s residential neighborhoods.

The recovered rail sections retrieved from in front of the Boathouse will be cleaned up and stored for a possible historical project in the near future.

Two of the original 1886 railcars survived. One has been restored and is in a building in National City. A man in the East County owns the other. Negotiations are continuing to acquire the rights to Railcar #2 (nicknamed “JD” after John D. Spreckels) and bring it to Coronado where a restoration team awaits. A permanent location has not been established.

Rusted railroad spikes and 60-foot sections of rail (cut into 20-foot lengths for storage) were recovered in March 2009 from a switching station that had been paved over with asphalt following the closure of the line in 1969. Below, Bill Gise examines the salvaged rails, which were saved for a possible, future project to bring back an 1886 railcar, and perform full restoration on the large artifact and piece of Coronado history. If the project came to pass, Gise would orchestrate the restoration. Photos by Joe Ditler.

The train may have left the station in Coronado, but efforts are being made to preserve the brilliant history of rail in this tiny community for future generations to enjoy.

Tracks ran from the Ferry Landing down the length of Orange Avenue from 1887-1947. This image captures the intersection of Ninth and Orange, looking north.

The old railcar #2 (top) is the subject of a lengthy negotiation. It could end up in Coronado one day, destined to be fully restored and serve as a visual reminder of Coronado’s transportation history. Photo by Joe Ditler.

The restored car #1, above, is in a small building in National City. It was restored through a collaboration of government agencies. Ironically, it was in worse shape than railcar #2 before restoration. The only reason both cars survived is because an inland rancher bought them, put siding on them, and used them as immigrant worker habitats in the fields, complete with pot bellied stoves. Photo by Joe Ditler.

Bonus: This video shows a rapid-fire history of trains in Coronado, as well as a look at railcars #1 (now restored) and #2 (soon to be restored).

-Joe Ditler

Note: Special thanks is extended to the Coronado Public Library, Coronado Museum of History & Art, San Diego Maritime Museum, and Coronado Past for use of their images in this article.

Related: Street Construction Unearths Old Railways of Coronado

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Joe Ditler
Joe Ditler is a professional writer, publicist and Coronado historian. Formerly a writer with the Los Angeles Times, he has been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Europe. He also owns Part-Time PR (a subsidiary of Schooner or Later Promotions), specializing in helping Coronado businesses reach larger audiences with well-placed public relations throughout the greater San Diego County. He writes obituaries and living-obituaries under the cover "Coronado Storyteller." To find out more, write or call, or (619) 742-1034.


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