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Rail has long history in National City Susan Walter | Fri, Jun 25 2010 12:46 PM

National City has the only surviving example of a West Coast terminus depot of a transcontinental railway. It was the beginning and ending point of what became the Santa Fe Railroad. It is also the only surviving example of an Italianate commercial building in the South Bay.

This depot was part of Frank Kimball's ambitious dream to lure a railroad to National City. The Kimball brothers owned National Ranch, and wanted the railroad because it was seen as a surefire way to grow property value. After years of struggle, Kimball successfully lured the California Southern Railroad, soon to be owned by the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe.

He did it by paying them money, giving them land, building a wharf, and bulldog determination. It connected National City to points east - ultimately connecting to Chicago. Kimball had managed to outmaneuver the powerful Central Pacific and Southern Pacific's monopoly on the West Coast.

The first transcontinental train from the National City depot left for Chicago Nov. 16, 1885. To the east went carloads of exotic fruits, vegetables, flowers, and suntanned passengers reaching their destination in the dead of winter. A rate war between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific lines dropped fares from St. Louis to San Diego from $70 per person to $1. Results for the entire San Diego region were dramatic as the region experienced the "Boom of the '80s" with a huge increase of population and wild land speculation that lasted from 1885 to 1889.

The depot was built by contractor W.A. Stratton in 1882 for $3,800. Rails were laid and supporting structures built included shops to construct, repair and maintain railroad cars, house workers, and a fancy hotel nearby.

The depot building is two stories. The bottom floor, open today to the public as a museum, includes the original baggage and freight room, ticket sales room and waiting room. Originally the upper floors housed the offices for Santa Fe's West Coast operations.

A proud reminder of the importance of the railroad to the building of our economy in the 1880s, the structure was restored to its original grandeur in 1998, and is now slated for a new paint job to keep its beauty intact.

National City is investing millions in redeveloping the area surrounding the depot. Plans are in motion for businesses and landscaping, some of which will feature the depot in all its glory.

Come see it now, then revisit later in the year. By visiting now, there is an adventurous drive through construction and anticipation of future improvements. Later, the contrast to your former experience will be a cool memory for comparison.

The National City depot is open Thursday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Exit I-5 at Bay Marina Drive, go west to the stop sign, turn right, go one block, turn left, and park in the depot parking lot at 922 W. 22nd St., National City.

For more information call (619) 474-4400.

Walter writes about historic events and places in South Bay. Her column appears the last week of the month.

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