The Impossible Library: the new Campo attraction
By: Byron Croft
For The Alpine Sun
Last Saturday marked the official opening of the Southwest Railway Library, n Campo, CA, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a celebratory ride upon a vintage train down a portion of the San Diego - Arizona railway.
After leading quite a transient life, the Southwest Railway Library, managed by Bruce Semelsberger, now has a home, permanently located in Campo, CA, about 50 miles east of downtown San Diego. The project is a long time in the making, originally started in 1963 by the Railway Historical Society of San Diego (RHHSD). The RHHSD intended to preserve a large collection of historical records, documents, photographs, and artifacts collected by the late Richard V. Dodge, who wrote a book, Rails of the Silvergate, on the history of San Diego’s “Electric Railway”. The size of the original collection has now been multiplied several times by private and public donations.
After several relocations and setbacks, the history of the “Impossible Railroad”, is now available for viewing by the public, thanks to the tireless efforts of numerous volunteers, fundraisers, and private grants, most notably from money raised by the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum, Roy Pickering, and the Arnold Hunsburger Foundation, in memory of Arn and Charlie Coval.
Constructed from government surplus supplies, a portable office, and joined to four “high-cube” storage containers, the library was built for an astonishing sub- 60 thousand dollars. With the completion of construction, thousands of historical records, artifacts, and photographs going back to before the turn of the 20th century, now have a protected environment to allow for preservation and continued cataloguing of the history of San Diego’s railways.
The San Diego and Arizona railroad was dubbed the “Impossible Railroad” due to the varied rugged terrain, deep canyons, boulders, and the harsh desert climate that persists throughout the East San Diego County and Arizona deserts. At the turn of the 20th century, it was an imperative priority to establish the then small port town of San Diego, to El Centro, and to Arizona beyond.
The construction of the “Impossible Railroad” required numerous tunnels, trestle bridges, and countless lengths of iron railway through the most unforgiving of terrains and temperatures, but was finally completed in 1919, establishing a vital link to supplies from Los Angeles, via San Diego, and passing through the Campo junctions.
The Library now sits on the property of the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum (PSRM) grounds, “a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of railroads as they existed in the Pacific Southwest”. Visitors are treated to an array of vintage and period-restored rail cars, locomotives, and cabooses, many of which are still operating and carry visitors down portions of the original San Diego Arizona line.
Diana Hyatt, president of the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum, explains “Both the library and the museum are efforts of an entirely volunteer staff who are dedicated to preserving the history of something that was vital to the creation of San Diego as we know it.”
Anyone interested in trains or the history of how San Diego, Alpine, and Campo all came to be, will, undoubtedly, benefit from a visit to the railway’s museum. Train Conductor Glen Rogers perhaps sums it up best “It’s so much fun! Everyone should ride one of these [trains] at least once - maybe more than that.”
Visitors to the museum, in addition to seeing the library by appointment, can ride on a restored historic train. The railway museum also offers special rides in the locomotives, allows visitors to operate the train, and maintains a federally-sanctioned training program where one can become certified to operate and work on our nation’s railways.