Slow Travel: The National City Depot Transcontinental Railroad is a little boy’s (and even a big boy’s) paradise. Best of all, the depot has very caring volunteers from the San Diego Electric Railway Association who show kids their electric trains as well as memorabilia related to the history of this railroad.
What’s the significance?
This was once the first terminus of transcontinental rail travel in the San Diego area. It is also the oldest railroad-related structure still standing in its original location.
In 1885 when the line was originally built, the California Southern Railroad was a “subsidiary” of the Santa Fe Railroad that served between Barstow, CA and National City, CA. The railroad came to National City at the foot of 25th Street, followed by a wharf, freight depot, hotels and a population surge known as the Boom of the ’80s.
The railway depot was the largest building anywhere in the region. In its heyday, up to four passenger trains and numerous freight trains passed by the depot each day. Many hoped the depot would lead to National City becoming the biggest city in the San Diego area, but the boom went bust and those dreams never materialized.
Today, BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway) does still have freight operations. There’s no set schedule, but the railroad still runs to this location, which is the end of the line. What’s more, pieces of the track are still from the 1800’s.
California Historical Landmark
The depot is a landmark and has a plaque numbered 1023 that was placed here in 1997. It succinctly describes the significance of this depot: “National City California Southern Railroad Depot, built in 1882, served as the first Pacific Coast terminus station of the Santa Fe Railway system’s transcontinental railroad. The station was the West Coast general office and figured prominently in Santa Fe’s effort to break the economic and transportation monopoly of California held by the Central/Southern Pacific railroad. The first transcontinental trains arrived in November 1885, resulting in one of the largest land booms in the history of California. Of the original five transcontinental railroad terminus stations, this unique Italiante designed station is the lone survivor.”
National City Architecture
Many early National City homes reflect the city’s railroad history. Railroad promoters and executives built homes here and lived in the area while they developed the region. Architectural styles were to a degree decided by the timing of the railroad’s arrival. The population rose and therefore home building occurred when the railroad got here.
What You Can See
The depot has dual coal burning stoves and a four foot tall wall safe that kept gold bullion and payroll money secure. The floors are the original hard wood. Historical photographs are displayed and artifacts have been collected, including a device used to pour molten metal to form railroad spokes. On an inside brick wall are the scribbled names of the last family to live in the depot, the Jeralds.
The Austrian Trolley Cars And Oldest Surviving Rail Car
The depot also houses three Austrian trolley cars, which came out of a museum. Acquired in the 1920’s to be used for the 5th Avenue project in the Gaslamp District, the business owners in the downtown district didn’t want the streets torn up, so the trolley cars sat for many years in the trolley yard. Finally, they were donated to the depot and have been repainted, but they aren’t up and running.
They also have the oldest surviving rail car in San Diego county.
After the railroad station stopped being active in 1967, the building became a restaurant twice, including in the 1970’s when it was an upscale steakhouse. Today, two artists rent the upstairs space. They also have an archive upstairs filled with books and journals about trains.
Recommended Reading: Robert M. Hanft, San Diego & Arizona: The Impossible Railroad
Hours: Thursday to Sunday 9am to 5pm
Address: 922 W. 23nd Street, National City, CA 91950
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Would you like to volunteer? If you are interested in history, rail, or any combination of the two, and have a few hours to spare a month, contact Docent Coordinator John DeLalla (firstname.lastname@example.org)