Union Station (San Diego)

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: North American Geography; Railway transport

San Diego
Address 1050 Kettner Boulevard
San Diego, California 92101
Routes Pacific Surfliner
Other service San Diego Coaster Line
San Diego Trolley
Code SAN
Owned by ProLogis

San Diego's Union Station was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to replace the existing Victorian-style structure erected in 1887 for the California Southern Railroad Company. The Santa Fe Depot (as it was originally designated) officially opened on March 8, 1915 to accommodate visitors to the Panama-California Exposition. The depot was completed during a particularly optimistic period in the City's development, and represents the battle waged by the City of San Diego to become the West Coast terminus of the Santa Fe Railway system’s transcontinental railroad, a fight that was ultimately lost to the City of Los Angeles.

In its heydey, the facility not only handled Santa Fe traffic but also that of the San Diego and Arizona Railway (SD&A) and San Diego Electric Railway (SDERy). The designation was officially changed to San Diego Union Station in response to the SD&A's completion of its own transcontinental line in December of 1919. The Santa Fe resumed solo operation of the station in January, 1951 when the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway (successor to the SD&A) discontinued passenger service, the SDERy having ceased operation some two years prior.

The historic Santa Fe Depot is located in Centre City (downtown) San Diego and is still an active transportation centre, providing services to Amtrak, the San Diego Coaster, the San Diego Trolley, and the MTS bus system.


The magnificent complex was designed by San Francisco architects Bakewell & Brown as a "monumental reminder" of California's Spanish heritage. The Mission Revival styling reflects the colonial Spanish history of the state, and was intended to harmonize with the Spanish Colonial Revival Style buildings of the Exposition. The size and grandeur far surpassed anything the Santa Fe had ever built in the West. The new edifice featured a covered concourse some 650 feet long by 106 feet wide, with a main waiting room measuring 170 feet by 55 feet. A 27-foot by 650-foot-long arcade connected the passenger terminal with the baggage and express rooms. An enlarged bus depot was installed inthe southeast portico in 1942.

The massive arch of the front entrance is flanked by twin campaniles, each topped by a colorful tile-covered dome and displaying Santa Fe's blue "cross" emblem on all four sides. The structure draws much more heavily from the architecturally distinctive Spanish, Moorish, and Mexican lines exhibited by the Mission San Luís Rey de Francia (located in the town of Oceanside in north San Diego County) than it does from the nearby Mission San Diego de Alcalá, some nine miles away. The grand interior space of the depot features natural redwood beam ceilings, highlighted by walls covered with brightly-colored ceramic tiles.



On June 20, 1879 the Santa Fe Railway received a land grant from the Mexican government that allowed them to extend their reach through the valley of Sonora through to the coastal town of Guaymas on the Gulf of California. The Sonora Railway (an operating subsidiary) allowed the Santa Fe to effectively compete with the Southern Pacific Railroad for business on the West Coast of the United States. Traffic on the line, however, was light, and Santa Fe pushed further westward in search of a suitable Pacific terminus. Since 1845, the citizens of San Diego (then essentially a sleepy fishing village) had attempted to establish a direct rail link to the east without success. The Texas and Pacific Railway Company (known as the T&P) was created by federal charter in 1871 with the purpose of building a southern transcontinental railroad between Marshall, Texas and San Diego. The T&P had a significant foothold in Texas by the mid 1880s but construction difficulties delayed westward progress until American financier Jay Gould acquired an interest in the railroad in 1879. The T&P never reached San Diego but instead met the Southern Pacific at Sierra Blanca, Texas in 1881.

A map of "The Santa Fé Route" and  subsidiary lines as published in an 1881 issue of the Grain Dealers and Shippers Gazetteer.
A map of "The Santa Fé Route" and subsidiary lines as published in an 1881 issue of the Grain Dealers and Shippers Gazetteer.

In the wake of this setback, the Santa Fe was approached by the Citizens Railroad Committee of San Diego, who had formed a syndicate for the purpose of building a rail line to connect with the A&P in eastern California. Santa Fe provided financial assistance to the group, which also founded the California Southern Railroad Company (CSRR) on October 23, 1880. A roundhouse, workshops, and classification yards were built in National City, a suburb of San Diego. A wharf was also constructed to accommodate ship traffic. Initial plans were made to construct 18 miles (29 km) of main line track extending north from the new complex. As of January 12, 1882 the California Southern commenced regular passenger and freight service between its National City terminus and Fallbrook Junction, just north of Oceanside.

Tracklaying continued and proceeded steadily northward until August 14, 1882 when a connection was made with the Southern Pacific's line in Colton. The California Southern's attempts to cross over the SP tracks a year later led to a frog war that ended on August 11, 1883 with a court order in the CSRR's favour. A track extension to San Bernardino was completed and the first regular passenger train arrived on September 13. The line became part of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad's transcontinental rail line in 1885 via an extension of the California Southern from Colton north over the Cajon Pass to Barstow. Santa Fe completed the "Surf Line" run between Los Angeles and San Diego under the auspices of its subsidiary, the Southern California Railway (a different subsidiary from the California Southern), on August 12, 1888. The route was initially referred to as the Los Angeles — San Diego "Short Line" as it replaced the circuitous inland route through Temecula Canyon.

California Southern's San Diego passenger terminal as it appeared toward the end of the 19th century. An early predecessor of the San Diegan is waiting to depart.
California Southern's San Diego passenger terminal as it appeared toward the end of the 19th century. An early predecessor of the San Diegan is waiting to depart.

A real estate boom in the spring of 1887 brought thousands of people to Southern California, many of them traveling on "The Santa Fé Route" to San Diego. The California Southern constructed a new Victorian-style depot to handle the throngs of people coming to the Southland. The structure sported dark red paint with dark green trim. Recurring washouts in the Temecula Canyon, however, often disrupted service; in response, the Santa Fe began construction of its 126-mile-long " Surf Line" between Los Angeles' La Grande Station and the National City depot. From 1886 to 1888, the Riverside, Santa Ana and Los Angeles Railway built a branch line from Highgrove southwest via Riverside, to Santa Ana and from Orange northwest to Los Angeles. Also in 1888, the San Bernardino and San Diego Railway completed its line from Oceanside north to Santa Ana, completing what was originally called the "Los Angeles-San Diego Short Line." The inland route was finally abandoned in 1891, leaving the newer, coastal route as the only line to San Diego from the north.

It was generally felt that with the completion of the Panama Canal in 1909, San Diego would logically become the principal port of call for the Atlantic-Pacific sea trade. To that end, the City decided to stage an international exposition in celebration of the opening of the Canal, and to tout San Diego as the first U.S. port for ships traveling north after passing through the facility. But San Diego, even with its natural landlocked harbour, was 100 miles farther south than Los Angeles, which translated into an additional day of travel for both freight and passenger trains; in order for Santa Fe to compete with the Southern Pacific Railroad, the company needed a port closer to its rival's transcontinental terminus. Santa Fe transferred most of its engine terminal yard to San Bernardino in 1887, then established an interim port facility in Redondo Beach the following year. But when the railroad relocated its port operations to San Pedro's newly-dredged, manmade harbour in 1911, it effectively ended San Diego's hopes to become the West Coast's southernmost commercial port.

Santa Fe Depot

Though the elegant California Southern depot had served San Diego for nearly three decades, the station was not adequate to handle the expected flood of visitors through the "Silver Gate" in 1915. In fact, the Santa Fe had considered replacing the aging "D" Street station with a larger, more modern edifice. Plans were drawn up for a new station complex in the Mission Revival Style, befitting the upcoming Exposition. The large, graceful palm trees that graced the old depot were boxed and stored for re-planting alongside the new building. Construction began on a site just east of the existing structure on January 15, 1914, and was completed on December 31, at a total cost of $300,000. A Fred Harvey Company lunch counter and dining room were incorporated into the floor plan. The old wooden structure was razed during the few days before the opening; the clock tower was ceremonially toppled on March 7, 1915.

The facility opened for business on March 8. Oliver J. Stough, the last surviving veteran of the Mexican-American War, was given the honour of purchasing the first ticket. At the outset, the Santa Fe had three daily local trains and one express train running between Los Angeles and San Diego. During the exposition nine scheduled trains ran on during the week (eight only made stops at Fullerton and Santa Ana, while the ninth was a local that stopped at all of the "Surf Line" stations). Twelve trains operated on weekends, many running in multiple sections. Four helper locomotives were assigned to the Sorrento Grade to help trains over the hill for the duration of the Exposition.

John D. Spreckels' San Diego Electric Railway (SDERy) made regular stops at the station since its opening, and continued to do so until April 24, 1949 when San Diego adopted an all- bus transit system. Spreckels' other rail-related concern, the San Diego and Arizona Railway (built in part to provide San Diego with a direct transcontinental rail link to the east by connecting with the Southern Pacific Railroad lines in El Centro) was invited to make use of the facility. The first SD&A passenger train arrived in downtown on December 1, 1919. In 1936 the Santa Fe ordered a six-car trainset from the Budd Company specifically for the initiation of a new, streamlined named train between the LAUPT and San Diego. On March 27, 1938 the company inaugurated the San Diegan route, operating on a two hour and 45 minute schedule. A second San Diegan consist entered service on June 8, 1941, doubling the schedule to four daily round trips. Freight service consisted of one scheduled overnight train per day, though extras were run as required (sometimes numbering as many as 10–12 per day). The United States' entry into World War II saw a significant increase in rail traffic to and from San Diego, both in the form of troop movements and transport of military vehicles and supplies.

The San Diegan, pulled by a pair of back-to-back ALCO PA units, reaches the end of the line at San Diego's Union Station on October 26, 1963.
The San Diegan, pulled by a pair of back-to-back ALCO PA units, reaches the end of the line at San Diego's Union Station on October 26, 1963.

While freight shipments dropped precipitously after the War, passenger demand remained high, and traffic on the "Surf Line" ran second only to the Pennsylvania Railroad's New York–Philadelphia corridor. Passenger service on the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway (a successor to the SD&A) ended on January 11, 1951 due to years of continued declining patronage. The front portico was removed in September of 1954 to allow for the construction of a parking lot. On May 1, 1971 Amtrak took over operation of the San Diegan. Thought the name was retired on June 1, 2000 after more than sixty years of service, the Pacific Surfliner (which runs between San Diego and San Luis Obispo) still makes daily visits.

Today, a variety of bus, light rail, and commuter rail services call the station "home." The structure has retained most all of its original features, including the large blue-and-white "Santa Fe" sign (which was added in the mid-1950s as a nod to its heritage). The San Diego Trolley, a modern version of the SDERy, commenced operations on July 26, 1981. Relocation of the Santa Fe mainline between the depot and Old Town San Diego in 1991 allowed for an extension of line to Mission Valley. The Trolley continues to expand its scope. The San Diego Coaster began weekday commuter service on February 27, 1995. Though some have claimed that the facility was built merely to appease the citizens of San Diego, the Santa Fe Depot remains an important part of the City's history, culture, and economy.

Historic designations

  • National Register of Historic Places #NPS–72000248

Current services

Preceding station Amtrak Lines Following station
San Diego-Old Town Pacific Surfliner (San Diego-San Luis Obispo) Terminus

San Diego Coaster

Preceding station San Diego Coaster Line Following station
San Diego-Old Town Coaster (San Diego-Oceanside) Terminus

San Diego Trolley

  • Blue Line service
  • Special Event service
MTS bus system
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