By Rebecca Jefferis Williamson and Miriam Raftery
December 4, 2019 (Campo) – Four days after Armistice Day in 1919 ended World War I, John D. Spreckels drove in a golden spike to complete the San Diego & Arizona Railway in Carrizo Gorge. That historic event was recreated on November 16, 2019 at the centennial of the historic occasion celebrated at the Campo Railroad Park & Museum.
Spreckels originally “missed the spike, they reset it, he bent it, and then nailed it,” said Allen Semelsberger, Pacific Southwest Railway Museum’s archivist in a previously published report. True to historical detail, actor Jake Schaible portrayed Spreckels at the centennial, swinging and missing a replica of the spike before ultimately driving it in before a large crowd, including members of the Spreckels family in the front row.
The original golden spike was brought out of a safety deposit box and was at the centennial celebration, ending up in the hands of president of the museum, Diana Hyatt (photo, right)
“We had 450 reservations,” said Hyatt but she estimated a turn-out of 500 attendees. (Photo, left: Hyatt accepts plaque from Supervisor Dianne Jacob)
The San Diego & Arizona Railway was constructed between 1907-1919, a collaboration between Spreckels and the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was plagued by so many setbacks that it became known as the Impossible Railway. Flooding, fires, financial troubles, tunnel collapses and attacks by Mexican revolutionaries all interrupted the massive construction project through rugged terrain.
After railway construction nationwide was shut down due to steel needed for the war effort, Spreckels traveled to Washington D.C. , convincing power brokers to allow completion of the line.
Its circuitous 148-mile route between San Diego and El Centro in Imperial County included 44 miles through Baja California, Mexico. But damage to the line through the years has since shut down the international line, though visitors can still ride a portion of the historic train at the railroad park in Campo—and there are steps being taken in hopes of restoring the line.
Hyatt said the story of the binational railway is “so much more than that of rock, tie and rail. It is a story of dreams and perseverance and of people that this ribbon of steel helped connect.”
Manuel Hernandez, Chief Financial Officer with the Baja California Railroad Inc. announced that a newly signed agreement to build a border inspection station in Campos a “critical step in our vision to return freight shipping over this line and connect Tijuana, Tecate, San Diego, and Imperial counties directly with points east once again.”
There are also visions of restoring passenger service. Hyatt affirmed, “If ever the Desert Line does reopen, we firmly believe the natural wonder, now so hidden from the public, could be one of the topo scenic rail tourism destinations on our continent, and with it bring vital business to the back country communities of our region.”
The ceremony included proclamations by dignitaries including State Senator Randy Voepel, Supervisor Dianne Jacob and a representative of State Senator Ben Hueso.
Supervisor Jacob spoke at the centennial, recalling traveling the full length of the rail line in her youth. “It was quite a ride,” she recalled.
Actors portrayed officials present at the 1919 ceremony including San Diego Mayor Louis Wilde, who declared the occasion the “wedding day for the Harbor of the Golden Sun and the Great Imperial Valley.”
The San Diego City Guard Band, which performed at the 1919 ceremony, once again played at the centennial including the “San Diego Progress March,” a piece written for the opening of the San Diego & Arizona Railway. A calliope also played music, adding to the festive atmosphere.
The event also included lunch, visits to the museum, exhibits, vintage cars and a historic fire rail car, as well as train rides and a group photo in front of a historic locomotive draped in patriotic bunting.
James Keeline played Frank Kimball during the ceremony. Kimball and his brothers were instrumental in bringing the railroad to National City. “We Valleyites are here today to take part in the marriage ceremony of San Diego and Imperial Valley! It has been quite the courtship,” said Keeline, as Kimball.
Keeline and wife, Kim are also heavily involved with railroads via the Poway-Midland Railroad and have staged railroad robberies for entertainment. Both dressed in period costumes.
Many groups, such as the Irish, Scottish, black-Americans, Chinese and others helped to build and work on America’s railroads. But their contributions were until recently often unacknowledged.
Cindy Wang, born in Qingdao, China, attended the Campo ceremony as one of many representing Chinese workers who were instrumental in building the railroads. She recalled that in 1969, at the 100th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion they failed to recognize the contributions of Chinese workers – a slight that was remedied with a plaque and speeches at the 150th anniversary in May, 2019 which she attended.
A plaque displayed in the museum in Campo states: “Until World War II, more blacks worked for railroads than any other industry.” The museum has numerous references to Pullman Porters, but reveals discrimination in the past, displaying a “For Whites” and “For Colored” train car and historical photographs.
The centennial celebration’s opening ceremony included Johnny Grayson and Rachel Hilliard, members of the San Diego Chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black Cavalry brigade which traces its roots to the Civil War. Camp Lockett was an army military post located in Campo, where the Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned as their final post.
"We represent those brave soldiers who paved the way for all to be recognized in history," said Hilliard (photo, left), President of the San Diego Chapter of Buffalo Soldiers. "We are pleased to be included in this anniversary."
The reenactors present include one prominent person who was not here back in 1919: President Abraham Lincoln, who never came to Califiornia. But according to the actor portraying him, Lincoln was instrumental in leading efforts to build the Transcontinental Railway--and after meeting someone from California at Ford's Theatre, voiced his wish to visit the Golden State someday--a dream dashed by Lincoln's assassination.
A ride aboard the historic railway line evoked a feeling of traveling back through time, as the train whistle blew and scenery outside the train windows rolled past, much of it unchanged from 100 years ago.