Steam Trains to East San Diego
By Herbert C. Hensley
Sixty-eight years ago, if you wanted to get from downtown to what we now call East San Diego, you could do it with comfort and a fair degree of speed behind a steam locomotive -- actually a "dummy" or steam-propelled street car, with a horse-car hooked on behind.
The Park Belt Motor Line railroad ran from about the corner of Eighteenth and A streets, at the foot of Switzer's canyon, northeastward up the canyon over which the Thirtieth Street bridge now stands, and away over the mesa and through the sage-brush for about three miles before it circled around northward and returned westward to University Heights. This steam road was built by Babcock & Story, in intervals when they had no more important fish to fry, and construction dragged along slowly. Service began in July, 1888, with three trains a day, connection being made with the street car company by a spur track from its line, at Sixteenth and D streets. Back at University Heights, trains came into town by way of Fifth Street.
The object of the line was to serve a district corresponding to the present East San Diego, in Steiner, Klauber, Choate & Castle's Addition, otherwise known as City Heights. This section had been exploited with success, some 800 lots having been sold immediately at from $200 to $400 each. Unfortunately, most of these sales were speculative and development was very backward, though Mr. Story built a good house and lived in it more or less for a while, to start things. The railroad was under contract to the property promoters to operate three trains per day for ten years or forfeit franchise, tracks and rolling-stock, but service soon became desultory and gradually was abandoned altogether, never, I suppose, having paid for a single day. Some of the remains of the grade of this line are still to be seen, and there have been many opinions as to the character and aims of the road, which remain mostly a mystery to the general public.
The ruins of its track remained long, out in the sage brush, and in one of our hunting-trips some of us boys came upon a section of it quite intact, somewhere south of the present East San Diego. At this place the track led east across a wide swale, in the bottom and middle of which, spanning a creek, there was a bridge in tolerably good repair. So, there were low ridges about a half-mile apart, with the bridge in the center. At the tops of both slopes were bad washouts, but in between, near the bridge, was standing a tiny, weatherbeaten flatcar.
This was a great find. On a number of occasions we made the trip out there and toiled and pushed to run that car to the top of one of the ridges, and then, jumping on, would go rushing and rumbling down the slope, clatter across the bridge and continue on at lessening speed until we had almost reached the other washout. Then, hopping off, we would push it the rest of the way, climb on and repeat the performance in the other direction. What we wanted to do, was to get the car over the westward washout and coast clear down into town, the whole track, as far as we could see, being then probably negotiable though more or less sunken and shifted here and there. We made many efforts to get this car across the washout, but were finally forced to give up the project as beyond our power; a fact no doubt Providential, as the vehicle was entirely devoid of brakes and its course would have been practically down-hill all the way.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The "dummies" used on the Park Belt Motor Line were, as one might suspect, borrowed; they belonged to one of Babcock & Story's other enterprises, the Coronado Railroad. The outbound passengers travelled by horse-car to Eighteenth and A , where the team was unhitched and the borsecar was hitched to the locomotive, which hauled it out through City Heights and University Heights, back down to Fifth and Fir -- and turned it over to another team of horses, which had brought another horse-car out for the reverse trip.
The "dummy" was a four-wheeled, closed car containing a diminutive boiler, the cylinders -- and the engineer; the only external indications of its power were a tiny, capped smoke-stack and a steam whistle, protruding through the roof, and the side-rods and their gear. It was like the "dummy" used on the old Pacific Coast Steamship Company's wharf at the foot of Fifth Street, around the turn of the century.
One of the cuts for the track of the bygone steam line remains clearly visible today; it is in the shoulder of a hill just west of the Wabash Freeway and a little north of the concrete bridge near the bottom of Wabash Canyon.