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National City and The Railroad

The Mission of Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center is to empower students and families from diverse backgrounds to be healthy and active citizens through organic gardening, environmental stewardship, and nutrition education. Our Vision is to reconnect students and families to the natural environment through food, education and community engagement.

Railroad in National City
The railroad tracks remain in the road in front
of the Port Authority building on Tidelands Ave.
Frank Kimball’s greatest contribution to the growth of National City was the bringing of a transcontinental railroad to the bay front. After several disappointing efforts it seemed the National City bay front could become an end terminal for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. By 1879 track had been laid as far west as Santa Fe, New Mexico and it seemed headed toward the Pacific Ocean for a direct connect with Asia.

In a secret meeting Frank Kimball met with a small number of National City and San Diego civic leaders. They decided to approach the Santa Fe system in Boston with an offer of a subsidy. Kimball gave 10,000 acres of land in National City, San Diegans gave 17,000 acres, 485 city lots, and $25,0004.

Five of the major financiers of the Santa Fe leaders agreed to run track to and build a terminal in National City.

The first rail of the California Southern Railroad was laid in 1881 in the town. The track was to run north to meet the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe crossing the Southern Pacific tracks in Colton. The downpours of the winter of 1883-1884 flooded some of the track. Repairs were made but in the meantime problems arose with the California Southern route. The Southern Pacific changed its mind and refused to allow the California Southern to cross its track in Colton. The major route from San Diego north now ran through San Juan Capistrano and Santa Ana.

The community celebration to commemorate the creation of National City as a major rail terminal was held mid-November 1885. What the community did not realize was that the syndicate, which built the California Southern, was in negotiation with the Santa Fe Railroad to purchase the new company.

As soon as the Santa Fe company had stayed long enough to acquire the land-grants it began to dismantle the railroad shops which had hired 350 workers5. Some of the shops went to San Bernardino, some to Mexico City. None stayed in National City. By 1890 the San Diego community had nothing but a rail connection running north.

Railroad in National City
Starting on June 15, 1887, the National City and Otay Railroad

ran three round-trip trains a day.

Frank Kimball’s dreams of railroads, seaport connections to Asia, agricultural success, industrial efforts, and real estate sales fell apart in 1890. In 1889 Kimball’s wealth was estimated to be $1,315,000.00 in 1893, the leader of National City saw the Panic of 1893 and the foreclosure of his home6. He was broke as was most of the American public during the country’s most severe depression of the nineteenth century. Reasons for his economic downfall included bad investments, a disastrous court decision, and his name forged on bank notes by an unethical business partner7.

The financiers who backed the California Southern Railway developed the San Diego Land & Town Company with Frank Kimball as a major investor. In addition to real estate the company built the Sweetwater dam as an irrigation system for citrus acreage of National City and Chula Vista in 1886. It also built the National City & Otay Railroad which ran from San Diego to Tijuana connecting the communities of the South Bay. It was a popular means of transportation for those who wanted to picnic at the dam or travel to Mexico to watch bull fights.

The rancher whose land was adjacent to the Sweetwater dam had been compensated for run-off that might flood the area. Later the dam was raised but the rancher was not compensated for further flooding. A lawsuit resulted in a penalty of $80,000 paid by the San Diego Land & Town Company that then destroyed the Sweetwater dam8. The value of Kimball’s shares fell from $130 to $5. 9

Kimball was able to restore some of his wealth and repurchase his home in 1901, but other than the olive oil mill, which no one wanted, he lost his business holdings. San Diego’s economy depended on the railroads. When it looked like easy rail access to the bay front, land prices boomed, when the rail connection failed, the bubble burst and prices fell.

  1. Clarence McGrew, “History of the City of San Diego and San Diego County: the Birthplace of California, the American Historical Society, I:155-157, 385-389  (1922): 157. (back)
  2. McGrew 380. (back)
  3. Abramo 10.(back)
  4. Phillips 9. (back)
  5. Phillips 8. (back)
  6. Phillips 9. (back)