March 12, 2019

Exploring Southern California’s Railroad History

Everybody loves a train ride, and when it’s combined with beautiful scenery and mouth-watering chocolate, it’s really hard not to have a good time. Our first stop was for lunch at the newly renovated Viejas Casino, owned by the Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Indians.  Viejas just completed a seven-year multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion in February 2018, and since initiating the project in 2011, they have constructed three hotel towers and redesigned the entire property.  It is spectacular.  Their newest hotel property is Willows Hotel and Spa, which is very swanky, (and adult-only) complete with a spa and saltwater pool. Viejas Casino & Resort has received the AAA Four Diamond Award, which is quite prestigious. Many of my guests signed up to be a Viejas “V-Club” member, a free membership which makes members eligible for discounts in the Casino’s restaurants, gift shops and hotel accommodations. There’s a good variety of restaurants here, at all price points, and they are all newly remodeled and very nice.  A few of our members even “got lucky” in fact, I heard reports of winnings over $200!

Our next stop was in Boulevard, CA where we paid a visit to the Wisteria Candy Cottage. This tiny house, which once served as a private home and also Boulevard’s one-room schoolhouse, opened as a candy store in 1921.  Upon arrival we were greeted by Dana Ecobellis, who told us that the store was started by her grandparents and that everything is handmade the same way it’s been done since the beginning.  Dana’s chocolates were delicious, especially the pecan turtles, which is their most popular item.  Guests shopped in “shifts” due to the small size of the store, but no one walked away empty handed as everyone got a goodie bag, courtesy of DayTripper Tours.

Leaving Boulevard, we traveled west via scenic Highway 94 which winds through wooded hills and canyons and through portion of the Campo Indian Reservation en route to the town of Campo. Although this 16,000-acre reservation is home to only 351 residents, it operates Golden Acorn Casino and a wind farm with 25 turbines.  The reservation is part of the sovereign land of the Kumeyaay Nation, which ranged from the northern outskirts of modern San Diego County to the western borders of the Imperial Valley and the northern tip of Baja California. There were many clans of the Kumeyaay nation, one being the Campo. The multiple clans joined together to combat neighboring threats such as the Spanish missionaries and soldiers who came into the area to settle in 1769.  In fact, the building of the Mission San Diego de Alcala proved to be troubling for the tribe and many revolts broke out. The most famous of these was the attack and destruction of the San Diego Mission in 1775.  Today, the Campo Band is headquartered in nearby town of Campo.

One of the most impressive things we saw along Highway 94 was the Campo Creek Viaduct, a huge steel railroad trestle that was completed in 1917 by the San Diego & Arizona Railway, a short-line railroad originally founded in 1906 by sugar heir, developer, and entrepreneur John D. Spreckels. It was dubbed “The Impossible Railroad” by many engineers of its day due to the immense logistical challenges involved. The line was established to provide San Diego with a direct rail link to the east by connecting with the Southern Pacific Railroad lines in El Centro, a distance of just over 146 miles.

As we entered the community of Campo, a small town of just over 2500 people, I told the group about the fascinating history of the area. Campo, which means “countryside or open country,” was first settled in 1868 by the Gaskill brothers.

They built the first store, blacksmith shop, grist mill and other enterprises.  They also raised cattle on a range and had about four hundred colonies of bees that in one summer produced over thirty tons of honey, the second largest output in the United States at that time.  In 1869, there was a large migration of Texas sheep and cattlemen, so much so, that it became known as “Little Texas” for a time. On December 4, 1875, five Mexican horse thieves crossed the border to rob the Gaskill store.  A gunfight broke out, with three escaping, leaving behind two wounded companions.  That evening a group of cowboys driving cattle through the country heard about the shooting and came to Campo.  The next morning the cowboys were gone and the two bandits were hanging from a big oak tree nearby.

Campo was also the location of Camp Lockett, a US Army post that hosted the Buffalo Soldiers, and today a few of their barracks remain. After the Civil War the United States faced the need for a larger peacetime military to occupy the south and protect settlers on the western frontier.  In the summer of 1866, congress passed legislation establishing a peacetime military. Hotly debated was the issue concerning the inclusion of African Americans in the Army.  Ultimately, African American recruits were segregated into six regiments four for infantry and two for cavalry (9th and 10th) of approximately 1,000 men each. Many of the recruits in both units were freed slaves from the north.  Nobody knows for sure where the nickname “Buffalo Soldier” came from, but one theory claims the nickname arose because the soldiers’ dark, curly hair resembled the fur of a buffalo. Another assumption is the soldiers fought so fiercely that the Indians revered them as they did the mighty buffalo.   One of the assigned missions of these African American troops was to escort Native Americans from their indigenous homelands to designated reservations. Other duties of the 9th and 10th US Calvary’s included guarding the mail escorting and guarding stagecoaches, cattle drives, railroad crews and surveyors. They built roads and telegraph lines as they mapped and explored. They played a major part in building the West and making it safe for the westward expansion. Buffalo Soldiers earned more congressional medals of Honor and had the lowest desertion rate of any unit in the army.

Campo is also home to a large facility of the US Department of Homeland Security (Border Patrol) and also the San Diego County Probation, Juvenile Ranch Facility. And it’s still a railroad town, so to speak. The town also sits along the line of the former Southern Pacific (originally San Diego and Arizona Railway) but freight operations are currently not offered on the railway, however passenger operations are still offered by the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum who purchased this property in 1980. At the time, most of the Museum’s collection was housed on the Naval Air Station at Miramar but they were quickly outgrowing the space. Today, all of the Museum’s locomotives, railcars, and support equipment are repaired and maintained here.  The Campo Depot has been fully restored and repainted as an operating train station and gift shop.  Future Museum plans are to construct an authentic mine town, which will include several mines depicting various time periods of mining as the train passes by.

As for our train ride itself, it was aboard vintage train cars and passengers really enjoyed the ambiance and rugged back-country scenery as the train traveled just a hop, skip and a jump from the Mexican border.  One of our DayTrippers even got to ride with the engineer in the locomotive! (Donna was thrilled) We also had the pleasure of having our own private docent, Steven Young, a volunteer at the museum who also happens to be a frequent DayTripper.  Steven told us many fascinating things about the history of the railroad as well as present day operations. On the return, many of our passengers detrained at the museum to see all the fabulous locomotives and train cars on display, both inside and out.  Some folks defected and went back to the gift shop at the depot for a little last-minute shopping.

It was a great day and I had so many people tell me how much they enjoyed themselves…and it was yet another reminder of how many amazing things we have to see right here in San Diego County!

Mark Jacobson
DayTripper Tour Manager

Tour: Campo Train & Pacific Southwest Railway Museum
Date: March 9, 2019


Categories: Blog