Remains of the Past: San Diego’s First Railroad

On December 26, 1886, the San Diego Land & Town Company, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railroad, established the city’s National Railroad in Otai. This company was incorporated into the planning and marketing of the railway lands, which included property along the bay and the construction of the Sweetwater Dam. It was also the first passenger train in San Diego, providing transportation for both goods and passengers. Thus, it provided transportation needs and access to the train for both business and pleasure. In addition, it was a popular means of transportation to the many attractions so popular for San Diego’s growing tourism trade. Citizens and visitors alike could use the train to visit the theaters downtown, the Sweetwater Dam picnic areas, and the bullfights and awards battles in Tia Juana (now Tijuana). This was, in addition, the starting point for Reuven’s trips to the exotic border sites! It served similarly to today’s cart system.

The warehouse, located across the street from Mr. Horton’s Fifth Avenue, was designed by William Sterling Hubbard, an occasional partner of Irving Gil. Both were considered the “spearhead.” Although he had experimented with Romanesque-style buildings / mission revival before, the new warehouse was the first truly Revival mission of the Hubbard style, as well as one of the earliest warehouses of this style in California. His previous Romanesque / Mission Revival building in San Diego was the power station of the San Diego Cable Company, located on Spruce between Third and Fourth Streets.

The warehouse was a one-story rectangular structure, which began construction in 1886. The walls were written on brick and topped by a gabled side roof, and were laid on a concrete foundation. The entrances were of different sizes and different locations throughout the building depending on the particular use of the interior space. As a railway installation, different parts of the interior had different requirements for openings depending on the use. Windows have also changed in size, which again reflects the diverse use of the interior. On the west side of the building was a loading dock. The flat wall on the outside featured a row of pilasters three-quarters of the way to the roof. The most dramatic decoration was a Mori square window on the side of 6th Avenue just below the gable arch. The quatrefoil is an ancient symbol of good luck. Two arched passenger entrances completed the design. The L Street side featured an elaborate Mission Revival railing motif with two arched passenger entrances coming from an extended porch.

A copy of a historic poster announces the train.

The interior floors were made of wood. The building included spacious waiting rooms, necessary offices and a large storage space designed for transportation of various types. Part of the storage facility is especially suitable for consumables. According to National City and Otay Railroad Company, their new building was “both demanding and convenient for freight and passengers alike.”

Upon completion of the structure, William Sterling Hubbard was highly regarded throughout California as an architect engaged in the design of warehouses and warehouses.

In 1907 John D. Sparkles purchased the National City and Otay Railroad, electrified the wagons and actually turned the railroad into a system of carts. It changed the name of the train to the San Diego and Southeast Railroad Company. The warehouse building was not used for the railway business after 1912.

However, the building retained its original style, even in the 1920s, when it was acquired by William Darby as headquarters for its building materials, specialties and cement business. The interior needed to be reconfigured. He probably prospered, as subsequent federal census records indicated an increase in the number of his employees and an increase in the value of his business. It was still listed in the 1931 City Guide.

Over the years, more businesses have taken over the building. One that was a longtime favorite was the Hotel Bar Coastal Mexican Cafe. The spacious interior of the warehouse building lent itself to celebrations and events, and the hotel bar hosted the 1998 San Diego Padres victory celebration over the Atlanta Braves to screw up at the World Championships that year. The KFMB sports team broadcast the event from the restaurant, which was large enough to accommodate a large cheering crowd.

Although the building represented the only existing example of the herb to one of San Diego’s early architectural style, it could not be preserved. At the beginning of the present century, the building was restored for reconstruction. Much of the brick and square window has been preserved and incorporated into the Hard Rock Hotel, where it now serves as a reminder of San Diego’s early transportation history. Excerpts from the past are alive!

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