The sun is beating down on the isolated stretch of the unforgiving California desert. Laborers, mainly immigrants, dot the rugged landscape. Miles upon miles of rail disappear into the skyline. This railroad, dubbed the ‘Impossible Railroad’, was vital in connecting San Diego with Arizona. It stretches for more than a hundred miles over jagged mountains and harsh desert conditions that can easily rise to over one hundred degrees. When completed in 1919, it was rightfully considered an engineering marvel of its time; however, by the end of the century, it lay abandoned, only to be admired by the occasional hiker.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, San Diego was only a small city compared to the bustling towns of Los Angeles or San Francisco. Investors were afraid to build a railroad to San Diego, with fears that it would divert business from San Francisco. Residents of San Diego grew tired of their isolation and yearned for the economic benefits of the railroad; so in 1906, the San Diego and Arizona (SD&AE) Railroad was built, connecting San Diego to El Centro, Mexico, and Arizona. In the early 1900s, the development of railroads had a huge impact on a community. It not only brought new trade and job opportunities, but populations exploded wherever the railroad headed.
The rail line started with enthusiastic San Diego residents and hopeful investors at the groundbreaking ceremony on September 7, 1907. Three years later, rail work began in Mexico. However, in 1911, revolution broke out in Mexico and many Mexican workers left their railroad jobs. This halted the progress on the SD&AE over the border.
Other sections were not without trouble. In California, the overwhelming amounts of granite in the mountains slowed down progress; it took eleven years of near constant labor to complete one ten-mile stretch. In 1914, World War One commenced in Europe, leading to serious problems for the SD&AE construction, such as labor shortages and increased cost of materials. American interest slowly shifted from railroads to war. Progress was again halted when a deadly outbreak of influenza hit the worker camps.
In late 1919, the Impossible Railroad finally reached from San Diego to Carrizo Gorge Station. In November of that year, the final, golden spike was driven, and the impossible was conquered. This monumental project ended up costing a huge sum of eighteen million dollars (over three hundred million today) and took over a decade to complete.
Despite the high costs and the brilliant engineering, the SD&AE Railroad was plagued with maintenance problems. The Carrizo Gorge section of the route was especially problematic; in the 1930s, an earthquake collapsed one of the tunnels, leading planners to build a huge, 600 feet long by 180 feet high, wooden trestle over a deep canyon. Natural disasters continued in 1976 when Hurricane Kathleen wiped out significant sections. Four years later, desert storms wash away part of the line in the US and Mexican portions. These continued natural disasters spelled the end of the Impossible Railroad. Undamaged sections were sold off or abandoned completely.
Today, the SD&AE rail lines are a largely a forgotten part of American history. Adventure seekers and hikers occasionally frequent the area. Small portions of the railroad are now used to transport diesel. A section is still available for the public to view, leaving from the San Diego Railroad Museum in Campo, California.
I first find the trail in a sleepy little border town outside of Yuma called Jacumba. It’s so close to Mexico that the border fence can be seen from the deserted downtown area. I find the mysterious abandoned railroad asking several gas station attendants. Finally, I come across worn-looking tracks and start walking. After several miles in the blistering Arizona heat, I see derailed passenger cars in the distance hidden on a hillside. I pry the doors open and step inside. Other than broken windows and a layer of dust, they are well preserved. The atmosphere is eerily quiet, the only sound being my boots on the metal floor. In another time, these cars would have been very comfortable to travel in to view the scenic desert hills that hide them.
I leave the rail cars and continue my journey. The rail line travels high along the mountains, letting me see for miles and miles. Jacumba is long out of sight, leaving only the beautiful barren landscape for as far as I can see. I follow the rail through a tunnel carved through the road and come upon a trestle. It is a marvel of engineering, bringing the railroad straight across the canyon.
After walking for several hours, I follow the rail back to Jacumba, the sun now setting and the sky a mixture of pinks and oranges. The construction of the Impossible Railroad at the turn of the century into the 1900s shows the sheer power of will and ingenuity that coupled to make one of the most impressive railroads the world has ever seen. Unfortunately, it was plagued with every problem imaginable, from the harsh desert terrain to world wars, and revolution to natural disasters. The Impossible Railroad, now abandoned, fades away into the footnotes of history.
This story was originally published in the Desert Leaf Magazine in Tucson, Arizona on February 2017.