The Impossible Railroad
By Jeremy Blakeslee
It is 1919. After two missed attempts, a genuine gold spike sinks into a railroad tie to symbolize the connection of the San Diego Railroad to the Eastern rail network in Arizona. It covers 148 miles through two countries, costs 18 million dollars, requires 17 tunnels, 14 trestles, 157,000 linear ft. of lumber and crosses some of the most undesirable topography imaginable. As the spike drives in, the railroad born. Twelve years earlier, at its conception, the project engineers named it The Impossible Railroad, but suddenly, it is not only impossible, it is real, and ready to be welcomed by the world.
But gold, while precious, is not resilient, and as quickly as the railroad was joined, it began to fall apart. From the beginning, it was plagued with floods, landslides, washouts, a hurricane, labor shortages, financial crises, and war. When nature and politics were taking a break from having their way with the rail line, engineers and laborers worked tirelessly to repair her reputation and her troubled lines using bypass surgery through the mountains to keep her trains moving. During operation, temperature fluctuation was so extreme in the summer that steel expanded and contracted until it cracked. Wood was selected as a more suitable building material, which in addition to its already formidable list of foes, left the infrastructure susceptible to fire. When one trestle would burn down they would build a tunnel, a tunnel would collapse and they would build a trestle. It went on.
The engineer who helped create this extremely remote but failed engineering marvel and its centerpiece, the 633’ long 185’ foot high wooden Goat Canyon Trestle, was a man named John Spreckles, an affluent industrialist from San Francisco. His formidable determination to complete and maintain the rail line at all cost was some combination of unruly parental pride and out and out mania. When asked what to do when one of the trestles was destroyed by flood he stated simply, “Put it back.”
Today, there is no one left to put it back. The railroad operation was always in the red, and after 100 years, it has finally bled out. The recent closure gave me a chance to photograph its fading beauty, ravaged already by the elements. Time, as well as the same floods, landslides and fires that have long bedeviled the project, will ensure that nature reclaims what she tried to tell us, from the beginning, was better left untamed.
Gold spike photo credit: San Diego Railway Museum Library
Jeremy Blakeslee has been exploring and documenting America’s industrial past for fifteen years, beginning with his first love, the former Bethlehem Steel Plant in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He’s traveled over several continents photographing architecture, machinery, and the ruins of indigenous cultures, but has an affinity for America.