The Railroad Destroying Santa Margarita River

Story by Noel T. Braymer

Finally this year, 2013 (due to the need to redo more work on this bridge the opening date now is in 2014.)the new double track railroad bridge over the Santa Margarita River will replace the old single track bridge there since 1916. Well not exactly, the current bridge is a hybrid wood trestle bridge with a steel truss span in the middle which is what most people see from the I-5 when driving through Camp Pendleton. The bridge before 1916 was washed away that year. Only 10 years later in 1926 the center span of the bridge was washed away so that only the wood trestle part of the current bridge dates to 1916. So from 1926 until today this entire bridge has survived the wrath of the Santa Margarita.

The Santa Margarita River has never been kind to railroads as it remains one of the few natural, wild rivers left in California. Few people know that the original terminal for the Santa Fe Railway was not Los Angeles but San Diego. Well actually National City on San Diego Bay. The point was to serve a port and in the 1880’s the only real port in Southern California was San Diego. The route of the Santa Fe’s subsidiary the California Southern Railroad came south from Barstow, San Bernardino,Temecula, Fallbrook on to Oceanside and San Diego.

Construction started in National City in 1881 with the construction supplies being brought in by sea. The line from National City to Barstow was finished by November of 1885. But there were problems ever before the full line was opened. In February 1884 heavy rains caused major washouts of the new railroad from the Santa Margarita River in Temecula Canyon just 6 months after the line was opened between San Bernardino and San Diego. After temporary repairs additional rains wiped out the entire railroad in the Temecula Canyon. Over 40 inches of rain fell in the area in February of 1884. By 1888 the Santa Fe had completed a by-pass of this route from San Bernardino, Los Angeles to San Diego. Yet another storm in 1891 wiped out the tracks again in the Temecula Canyon and the Santa Fe abandoned the canyon and turned what was left the legs between the coast and Fallbrook and between Lake Elsinore and Perris into branch lines. By 1889 the Santa Fe had announced it would move its shops from National City to San Bernardino.

By 1942 as part of expanding the military for World War II the government acquired the Rancho Santa Margarita which is now know as Camp Pendleton. For many years the branch line from Fallbrook Junction to Fallbrook was used for carrying supplies and equipment for the Marine Corp. This included a large ammunition dump at the edge of the base next to Fallbrook. In 1979 flooding closed 3 miles of this branch in the Base. The Santa Fe was not interested in rebuilding this line. The Marines ended up buying the rail branch line and rebuilding it and it was back in service by 1988.

On January 16, 1993 the region was hit again by heavy rains and flooding. That night the I-5 freeway was shut down during the night in Camp Pendleton because of high water in the Santa Margarita River. During this night a dyke which provided flood protection from the river at the Base collapsed and a large area of it was flooded. This included a historic adobe building then used as chapel from 1821 and the Base Airfield. As a result of the flood a reported 70 aircraft, mostly helicopters were damaged by water and mud. At the time there were unconfirmed reports of aircraft being swept out to sea and never being found. Also largely destroyed by the flood of 1993 was the old Fallbrook Branch in Camp Pendleton. An estimated $100 million dollars was damaged on the Base that night. The Marines didn’t bother rebuilding the railroad.

The new Santa Margarita Bridge after years of planning began construction in January of 2010. In December of 2010 the Santa Margarita flooded again. There were reports than much of the work on the bridge for the year 2010 was washed away by the flooding. There was also a report that there was major redesign of the bridge after the flood. Interestingly one SANDAG report on the bridge claims that construction began in 2012. Clearly this new concrete double track rail bridge which is designed for 90 mile per hour speeds and 100 year floods is a much better bridge than the ones that has been placed over the Santa Margarita before. But the Santa Margarita River should never be underestimated.

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