The Old Trains Are Gone but the Depots Still Chug Along

Times Staff Writer

At the turn of the century, newcomers arriving by train in Encinitas were greeted by the sight of a sturdy redwood depot freshly painted in the green and white colors of the California Southern Railroad.

Today the pitch-roofed old depot built in 1905 stands more than a mile from its original site. The smell of brewing coffee permeates the former waiting room which now hosts tourists and locals much as it did in the early days. The structure also houses artisans and an art gallery, along with a tiny antique shop noted for its collection of Americana.

The Encinitas depot is one of the lucky old passenger stations that was sold off by the Santa Fe Railway for other uses when the trains no longer stopped. Other old depots were not so lucky when local “Save the Depot” efforts fizzled. Many were torn down, others left to rot.

The handsome old Encinitas station was built on a site where, in the 1880s, earlier trains had stopped to take on water (from Cottonwood Creek) and fuel (wood hauled by mule from Rancho de Las Encinitas). Its colors changed to the mustard yellow and red of the Santa Fe line and dulled over the decades as passenger travel dipped after World War II and Encinitas became first a flag stop and finally only a freight stop on the Santa Fe line.


In the early 1970s, the depot and its outbuildings were offered to townsfolk for $1 by the railroad. Local civic leaders launched a search for another site but dissension and delay nearly led to the demolition of the depot. Then a local businessman, Jim Bowen, bought the bargain building, moving it to a knoll beside old California 101 and turning it into an arts and crafts shop.

When business sagged a few years ago, Bowen searched for a buyer who would restore the railroad station and preserve it in its original form. He found one in Bob Sinclair. Sinclair and his wife, Gay, opened a Pannikin coffee shop there, returning the depot to its heyday as a place where the locals meet to catch up on local happenings.

Up the tracks at Carlsbad, another old depot lives on as the Chamber of Commerce offices. Although chamber staff members joke about the rattle and roar that occurs with the passing of each train, the aging structure still stands sturdy as ever on its original trackside site, ready to welcome newcomers if the train should ever stop again.

Santa Fe official Robert Welk explained that most old depots are sold with the requirement that they be moved from their trackside locations. The proviso is added, he said, because the railroad frontage often is more saleable without the older structures and because the railroad “is not keen on public usage” such as teen clubs or other recreational activities located within a stride of their high-speed railroad trains.


Fallbrook’s railroad station has suffered a double demise over the last century. The first occurred when floods in 1916 roared down the Santa Margarita River, washed out miles of low-lying tracks and inundated the Fallbrook station in the river valley. A handsome two-story brick depot then was built on high ground in 1917 and Fallbrook-San Diego service restored. But the rail line, which once had linked San Diego to the main line east to Kansas, bypassing Los Angeles, never was put back in operation after an earlier flood in 1891.

In 1970, the “new” Fallbrook depot was closed because of lack of business to and from the village. A decade later, the entire spur line was abandoned and much of the trackage around Fallbrook was torn out. Then the depot disappeared.

“The bulldozers were brought in one weekend, and they tore the building down,” said Al Diederich, Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce manager. “They” apparently were Santa Fe Land Co. crews, following orders of officials from the railroad’s real estate branch.

Bob White, editor of the Fallbrook weekly newspaper, The Enterprise, added that, before the station was razed, there were local efforts by civic leaders to acquire the depot but “apparently they never connected with the right people. I think they went to Barstow with their requests when they should have gone to Topeka (Kansas) or wherever the railroad headquarters were. All that’s left on the site now are two huge palm trees.”


Town leaders along another spur line--from Oceanside east to Escondido--fared better than Fallbrook. Vista Chamber of Commerce netted the 1913 Vista depot which they moved and remodeled as office space and San Marcos townsfolk acquired their station house in 1953 and promptly dismantled it, using the seasoned redwood planks to build a Grange Hall. San Marcos Grange 633 is still a popular meeting hall for local events.

Only recently did Escondido, with the financial backing of the Escondido Historical Society, purchase the frame stationhouse there and move it to Grape Day Park in the heart of the city. Eventually, it will be restored and turned into a museum, said Harriett Church, president of the historical society. Recent bids for the restoration work came in too high, she said, so the project is being pared down and rebid.

Other early railroad stations succumbed to fire and were never replaced. Some were lost and never found. One stands empty and another, at Del Mar, still serves daily commuters and annual Del Mar Race Track fans.

In Leucadia, early residents described a depot as “built in a grand, Grecian style,” but Santa Fe historians have no record of any station ever having been built in the coastal community. Local historians speculate that Leucadia’s Grecian depot may have been built by the town’s first developers to accentuate the Greek mythology theme used by early-day real estate salesmen to promote lot sales on streets named Hermes, Daphne, Athena, Diana, Jupiter and Jason.


Oceanside’s large but homely brick depot has been converted to railroad office and storage space since the new Oceanside transit center was opened two years ago. The $3-million center, a few blocks south of the depot, now serves both bus and train passengers.

Welk said it is unlikely Santa Fe officials have any long-range plans for the 1944-era depot, which probably will be razed as Oceanside downtown redevelopment projects materialize. The railroad already has pledged to move its nearby switching yards out of the path of progress and onto the Camp Pendleton Marine Base.