Explore local history by following the old rails

As I’m finding new, great roads to explore, I’ll look at current and old railroad maps. Why? Railroads followed old trails and the highways followed the railroads and old trails.

That’s true even in an urban area of San Diego.

The Metropolitan Transit System of San Diego has a great Flickr album with wonderful photos of probably the last decade of the original San Diego trolleys… ones that actually used a trolley.

While the region is known now as a pioneer in the revival of light-rail transit with the San Diego Trolley, the city was one of the first of America’s larger cities to lose its original street railway system. The tracks went cold in 1949.

These photos show a great time when the system was up and running and, according to my 89-year-old mom, was very popular. She hated the “stinky buses” that replaced the streetcars; MTS also has a another Flickr album of the early years of those stinky buses, as well as several other albums of buses through the decades.

SDER Streetcars - Downtown

In a windshield view, streetcars pass on Broadway, with the still-standing Pickwick Hotel (now Sofia) visible on the left.

It’s also a way to look at some pretty cool cars that were on the streets when these photos were taken.

The photos are from the San Diego Electric Railway era. Streetcar fans will notice the boxy Birney cars from the 1920s and the streamlined PCC cars from 1936.

So here’s where we get into one of those history debates. San Diego’s then-privately owned transit system was one of those gobbled up by one of the companies connected with the notorious National City Lines, which was partially owned by General Motors, Standard Oil of California and others in the auto or auto-supply business.

Looking in the photos, with evidence backed up by some of the stuff I’ve read through the years about the decline of urban trolley systems, brings me to a few conclusions.

These San Diego cars were in lousy shape; look for the rust and faded paint in the pictures. The rails were in bad shape and the private company didn’t want to spend the money to extend the system out to the new suburbs popping up after World War II. Some routes had been converted to buses two decades before the pro-auto conspirators came calling.

There’s a fine KPBS documentary from a few years ago on the San Diego and Arizona Railroad, the “impossible railroad” that dipped into Mexico and across our rugged mountains to the east to provide a link from our natural harbor to the railroads heading to Eastern markets. Well, it mentions that by 1919, when the railroad opened, San Diegans had already gone bonkers over the new automobile.

SDER Streetcar - Downtown

Headed east on Broadway at 12th Avenue, passing the onetime Pearson Ford dealership.

With a population of around 75,000 in 1920, there were already 30,000 cars.

Pubic opinion and the economics had pushed out the streetcars; GM executives and their pals just hammered the nails in the coffin.

If you’re looking for evidence of the old streetcars today on your San Diego day trip, here’s a couple of spots to visit.

  • Fifth Avenue, north from Harbor Drive to Fifth and University avenues in Hillcrest. Notice the relatively gentle elevations of the street, especially compared to some of the cross streets. Fifth was a main drag in the city through the 50s and was leveled out as much as possible because streetcars can’t do serious grades. Hillcrest was one of San Diego’s first “streetcar suburbs” and the block between Fifth and Sixth avenues on University was a major transfer center. That’s why it’s so wide, to make room for multiple tracks.
  • University Avenue, west from Fifth, all the way to Euclid Avenue. The arch bridge just west of Park Boulevard and the viaduct for University were built to accommodate the trolley. At Euclid Avenue, the Tower Bar was once a waiting room for streetcar passengers.
  • Broadway, west from the Santa Fe Depot to 30th Street. Here’s another main drag back in the day that crossed some serious hills. I’m told the fully loaded streetcars would really strain to keep moving.
  • La Jolla Methodist Church looks like it was built by Father Serra, but it was originally a streetcar station.

Oh, and if you want to ride an actual 1940s streetcar, take the Silver Line around downtown San Diego. Cars in service (two have been beautifully restored at this writing) are like the ones in that were used in San Diego, but were a later model that saw service in San Francisco.

And for real San Diego streetcars, visit the Orange Empire Railway Museum, about 90 minutes up the road in Perris. They have two, one which was close to being fully restored when I last visited in 2014, and another that was parked at the Del Mar Fair for years. ⚙

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Where Mick hiked: Black Mountain Open Space Park

Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones front man, tweeted about his hike in the Black Mountain Open Space Park, at left. At right is my photo of the same general area in 2007.
Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones front man, tweeted about his hike in the Black Mountain Open Space Park, at left. At right is my photo of the same general area in 2007.


So legendary rocker Mick Jagger posted on his Twitter account that he had a “great day of hiking near San Diego” and it just happens that I did a drive through that area back in 2007.

Yes, you can walk where the Rolling Stones front man trekked before the band’s May 24 concert at Petco Park, because, looking at the photo, it’s the Black Mountain Open Space Park. Check out my tour and you can retrace his footsteps, plus take a great tour through some swell scenery.

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It’s a 1940 view of San Diego

Here's a view of San Diego County from 1940. All copyrights acknowledged.
Here’s a view of San Diego County from 1940.

Here’s something I picked up on ebay the other day… a swell 1940 map of San Diego County. It shows the main highways in and out of the county, plus some back roads leading to major attractions. There’s even a few roads on here that I haven’t seen before; I’ll be checking them out in the future.

Of course, back in 1940, there were no freeways and big gaps between the towns. For example, notice that there’s not much between San Diego proper and Escondido. Also notice that US 395 (today’s I-15 through the area) winds east through Poway (only identfied as a “PO” or post office) from “Miramar” (this was before the air base was built during soon-to-come World War II). Camp Elliott was already there, but on the map is some distance from Miramar; Elliott, once an Army base, is the collection of warehouses at the interchange of I-15 and SR-163 for those of you in San Diego.

What I’d recommend is taking this map with you as you drive along a couple of my drives. Quintessential California, down Old US 101 on the California coast, was the main highway between San Diego and points north when this map was made. Journey to the Stars, up to the Palomar Observatory, which was under construction when this map was created; it didn’t get finished until after World War II.

On this Memorial Day weekend, don’t sit home… hit the road.

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20 years since death of Lawrence Welk; stop by his village

You'd buy a Dodge from this guy.
You’d buy a Dodge from this guy.
It’s been 20 years since the passing of legendary bandleader Lawrence Welk. Take the occasion to perhaps stop by one of his legacies, the Welk Village Resort just north of Escondido.

The resort includes a museum dedicated to the “Champagne Music Maker” and is located, of course, on Champagne Boulevard, the former route of US 395, just a few minutes from Escondido; look for the Champagne Boulevard exit.

While your at it, consider taking my Crazy Couser drive, which will give you some more details on the resort, plus a fun, twisting route that ends up at Pala Road and I-15.

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Socal snow in May? Head to top of Palm Springs Tramway

Snow at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Snow at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway on May 15, 2015.

The unusual winter-in-May storm that hit Southern California has dusted San Diego County’s mountain tops with snow, but not enough for snowballs or snowmen. To really have some fun, head to the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, just west of town and 8,516 feet in elevation. As I write this on Friday afternoon, its webcam looks like there’s a good dusting of snow.

This will be very green this weekend if you want to head to Sunrise Highway and Mt. Laguna or Julian in eastern San Diego County. North county residents can go up to Palomar Mountain, where the view will be great (and the Observatory should be open).


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Your weekend trip… head out to Font’s Point in Anza Borrego

Before it gets too hot in the desert, head out to Fonts Point in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

It’s an easy drive from the town of Borrego Springs to a spectacular vista of the Borrego Badlands. Great fun on the sandy, well-marked trail if you have an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

It’s one of the new Joyride Guru series drives, available on Kindle for just $2.99. You’ll get a route map and turn-by-turn directions, plus tidbits on the history and byways. It’s a great off-the-radar San Diego day trip.

Here’s a video of my trip back in 2013.

Enjoy your drive!

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Mid-City Ramble: Euclid and Adams Avenues Drive Through City’s Spine

Euclid Avenue is one of the city’s oldest and longest thoroughfares, running from National City to the rim of Mission Valley. It twists and dips through some still open canyons and unique neighborhoods.
Those neighborhoods contain some great history, revitalized business districts and unique places to eat.

Our San Diego day trip takes Euclid from Imperial Avenue, in the Valencia Park neighborhood, to near its end in Talmadge. Then we’ll twist around to Kensington and head over Adams Avenue, another of San Diego’s great boulevards, to University Heights.

A big city is made up of many small villages, and this drive will take you through some called Valencia Park, Webster, City Heights, Talmadge, Kensington, Normal Heights and University Heights. The sites aren’t always pretty, but it does provide a great slice of our big city.

And, if you’re looking for diversity, here’s where to find it, with neighborhoods full of African Americans, Latinos, Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese and just about every other ethnic group you can imagine.

Market Creek Plaza amphitheater
Amphitheater at Market Creek Plaza.

Our drives usually include a stop at a restaurant and on my trip, it was my first destination… the legendary Huffman’s Barbecue at 5039 Imperial Avenue. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2012, but here’s a little bit on the restaurant that I wrote when this story was published in 2005.

Family owned and operated since 1967, the menu includes barbecue favorites as well as soul food, including gumbo, gizzards and chitterlings. It’s open for lunch and dinner.

There are many other restaurants in this area serving soul food, as well as Mexican and Asian specialties, so be sure to bring your appetite. Mine was filled by Huffman’s hot link sandwich and a side of red beans and rice.

Imperial Avenue meets Euclid at the top of a hill, which gives drivers a great view north to mountains and south to the San Diego Bay on clear days.

This is the heart of San Diego’s African American community. The annual Heritage Day Parade runs along this portion of Euclid; it’s held annually.

There’s a lot happening around the intersection of Market Street and Euclid Avenue, the next big cross street on our route. As drivers head north on Euclid, they see the bustling Market Creek Plaza on the left. The $23.5 million development brought a Food4Less market, specialty shops and restaurants to an abandoned factory site.

A real treat is to visit the amphitheater and bridge over Chollas Creek, which provides a pastoral oasis in the middle of the city. A couple of the restaurants in the center offer creek-side dining.

After passing the tracks of the San Diego Trolley and Market Street, look east to the Malcolm X. Library and Performing Arts Center (5148 Market St., 619-527-3405). This architecturally unique facility opened in 1996 and has helped revitalize the area.

Heading up the hill to the interchange with state Route 94, drivers see the haphazard development pattern of this area, which was one of San Diego’s first suburbs. Tract homes, many built in the 1940s and 50s, sit on the hilltops, but there are still many open areas.

And while new urban developments talk about mixed use being small shops and cafes clustered with condos, this area still mixes in auto repair shops and other non-compatible businesses, as it was done in the “good old days.”

Another busy intersection is at Federal Boulevard and Euclid Avenue. It’s hard to imagine today, but before SR-94 opened in the late 1950s, this was the main highway from downtown to Lemon Grove and El Cajon.

When I was a kid, we’d shop in this area, which had a Fedco department store, as well as several markets, including a Safeway and DeFalco’s (there’s a name that only old-time San Diegans will remember). This area has also been revitalized, with much local effort through the Diamond Business Improvement District, local residents and the city of San Diego.

From here, stay on Euclid Avenue as as 54th Street veers to the right. Euclid then curves down into the Chollas Creek canyon. The city has planned hiking trails for this area and hopes to restore the watershed, which runs to San Diego Bay. If you’d like to take a look, detour at Chollas Drive to Quince Street, where there is creek access.

And, to give you an idea of how rural this area once was, until the early 1960s, a dairy was located just south of where Euclid crosses the creek.

Euclid dips and twists as it crosses the creek, heading past Ridge View Drive and Altadena Avenue before dropping down again and meeting up with Home Avenue. At the turn, look for City Farmers Nursery, 4832 Home Avenue, (619-284-6358).

Euclid next goes up the hill to the City Heights neighborhood and some urban archaeology where it meets University Avenue. Don’t miss the Egyptian Garage (Big City Liquor, since 1957) on the southeast corner. It was built in the 1920s, around the time that the opening of King Tut’s tomb started a craze for all-things Egyptian.

Just a bit east on University at Reno Drive is The Tower, a one-time soda fountain topped by a 110-foot art deco-style tower (www.thetowerbar.com). San Diego’s original streetcar line ended here.

Historic Normal Heights street sign.
Historic sign marks Normal Heights. Sign was originally installed by streetcar company.

The Tower was built in 1932, a 110-foot monument marking the east end of the University Avenue streetcar line. By 1999, the tower was as tipsy as some of its patrons and was lobotomized. A decade later, the City of San Diego found some money and replaced the hat, restoring the landmark to its original glory, although a bit more colorful this time.

On the northeast corner is the old Silverado Ballroom, where East San Diegans used to dance to big band tunes.

The buildings show a fascinating mix of cultures, with signs in English, Spanish and a variety of Asian languages and alphabets. Both University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard have many unique shops and places to eat; if you have time, take a detour.

North of El Cajon Boulevard is the Talmadge neighborhood, one of two developments dating to the 1920s on our route. Named for the Talmadge sisters, who were big in the silent movie days, this area and Kensington, just to the west, were built in the early days of the automobile.

We’ll dip down to Aldene Drive, through the canyon and under Fairmount Avenue, then up the hill to Van Dyke Street and the western portion of Adams Avenue.

Egyptian Garage
Egyptian Garage has been Big City Liquor for decades. This photo is from 2005; note the tower-less Tower bar across the street. The spire has since been replaced.

Kensington is one of San Diego’s favorite neighborhoods, with its old overhead sign (the original was built by the streetcar company), coffee houses, cafes and the Ken Theater. Cross Interstate 15 and you’re in Normal Heights; west of I-805 is University Heights.

There are spectacular views of Mission Valley and unique homes to check out on the streets north of Adams Avenue, so make a right turn at your convenience.

Don’t miss Trolley Barn Park in University Heights. On the site of the old San Diego Electric Railway streetcar facility, the park offers a great vista of Mission Valley from its north edge. Trolley-themed playground equipment, checkerboard tables and sidewalks in a grid pattern, replicating the area’s streets, compliment the expansive lawn.

Where Adams and Park Boulevard meet was once Mission Cliff Gardens, which is commemorated by all the ostrich symbols in the area. The gardens, according to the San Diego Historical Society, were developed by the streetcar company and operated from 1891 to 1942. They’re long gone except for the street name, Mission Cliff Drive, and the decorative posts at the north end of Park Boulevard.

Another revitalized neighborhood is University Heights, where at Mission Avenue and Park Boulevard are a charming collection of restaurants, coffee houses and even a massage-supply store. Stop under the big sign if you have time.

Where El Cajon Boulevard, Normal Street and Park Boulevard meet are some historic buildings and a hidden, private auto museum. At the east end of the intersection is the 1910-vintage Teacher Training Annex, a remnant from when this was the location of the San Diego State Normal School, predecessor to San Diego State University. The university moved to Montezuma Mesa in 1931.

The building is now part of the San Diego Unified School District’s headquarters complex. Its main building, just south, is one of the best examples in San Diego of mid-century modern architecture, largely untouched since it opened in 1952.

Across two streets, at 4233 Park Blvd., is the J.A. Cooley Auto Museum. It’s the private collection of Jim Cooley, who will probably be there, who says he has one of the largest collections of one-cylinder cars in the world. I’m not going to dispute him, as the cars are wonderful pieces of century-old history. There are about 18 cars on display, plus assorted photos of the neighborhood dating back decades, Army and Navy recruiting posters, antique toys and more. It’s well worth a visit.

From here, take Park Boulevard to Balboa Park, or cut over Normal Street and Washington Street to SR-163. Or head back up El Cajon Boulevard or University Avenue to explore more of San Diego’s Mid-City. You won’t believe what’s here. ⚙

Route and Info


  • About 13 miles.


  • Easy for those used to city traffic.


  • Interstate 805 to Imperial Avenue exit.
  • East on Imperial Avenue.
  • Left at Euclid Avenue. Follow Euclid north at 54th Street and Home Avenue.
  • Left at Monroe Avenue. Continue onto Aldene Drive and Van Dyke Avenue.
  • Right at Adams Avenue.
  • Left at Park Boulevard.
  • Right at Normal Street.
  • Right at Washington Street to SR-163.
  • From January 2005; updated July 2012
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Weekend Driver’s in UTSanDiego Today … and online

The latest Weekend Driver column is in print today and online. Weekend Driver: Train stop to history is in your favorite formats. It’s a trip to the Dos Cabeza train station out in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Pick up a copy at a newsstand or enjoy online. The online version includes the directions and a link to a Google map with the location.

And be sure to check back in a couple of weeks; we’ll have an extended version here at weekenddriver.com.

Companies Back at SD Car Show

It looks like this weekend’s San Diego International Auto Show is going to once again fill up the Convention Center. Several manufacturers had cut back on so-called “second tier” shows like San Diego in recent years, due to the lousy economy.

Here’s the news release from the auto show…

Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi will be on the show floor for 2012 SDIAS

    SAN DIEGO, Calif., Dec. 1, 2011 – In a sign that the good times are returning for global automakers, the San Diego International Auto Show® announced that Mercedes-Benz USA and Mitsubishi Motors America will be exhibiting at this year’s auto show. The announcement was made by show director, Kevin Leap.
    “We are thrilled that these two automakers have chosen to return to the auto show,” said Leap. “It’s our goal to offer the widest variety of automobiles for our guests, and with the return of Mercedes-Benz and Mitsubishi, we are able to increase the shopping options for San Diegans across the entire price range of vehicles.”
    Leap also sees the return of the two automakers as a sign of the industry’s resurgence. “This points to a healthy auto industry,” said Leap, “and a healthy auto industry means a great deal to our local economy as it relates to jobs and capital infusion.”
    Also a gauge of industry health is the fact that Mitsubishi’s and Mercedes-Benz’s return is with the support of local dealers. In supporting the automakers, the dealers create opportunities for the carmakers while providing expanded vehicle choices for auto show attendees. “It’s a classic win-win,” said Leap. “And the beneficiary of this cooperation is the consumer.”

It’s always a fun show and a great way to spend the New Year’s weekend. I’ll be at the Union-Tribune booth from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, so stop by and say hi. More info»

Frank Sinatra’s 1967 Austin London Taxi at the SD Auto Museum

Frank Sinatra's London taxi.
Frank Sinatra's London taxi.

There it is, holding a special place near the middle of the San Diego Auto Museum, Frank Sinatra’s 1967 Austin London taxi.  The museum even has a copy of the car’s registration with Ol’ Blue Eyes’ name on it.

The story goes that Frank used to dress up as a London cabdriver and pick up his Rat Pack pals — Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., et. al — at the Las Vegas airport. Apparently, Frank could slip in and out of the airport unnoticed.

It's Frank!
It's Frank!

The car appears to be in beautiful shape, with the updated look of the later, mid-60s taxis, with rounded headlight bezels, integrated grille and a bit more styling here and there.

The museum has a big Pontiac show going on, but the Sinatra taxi is part of its permanent collection of cars and motorcycles that’s on display no matter what show’s on. Enjoy!