Category Archives: San Diego History

Geography Rules

First, full disclosure time. For 32 years I taught environmental policy courses in the Department of Geography at SDSU. But that’s not why this little essay is entitled “Geography rules”. It’s because, well, quite often geography does rule.

For example (and an excellent example): With its magnificent harbor, why didn’t San Diego become the leading commercial port (and thereby largest city) in southern California, instead of some other large sprawly city a little ways to the north of us?

The reason is simple: geography. More specifically, mountains.

In the 1870s and 1880s, San Diego and Los Angeles were vying very hard to be the western terminus of a southern transcontinental railroad (San Francisco had already won the Golden Spike race to host the west end of the first transcontinental line). Bountiful trade, new workers, and regional wealth would reward the winner of that southern route competition.

And the winner was: L.A. Why? Because it was easier to build a railroad from the east to Los Angeles, as it could use the relatively gentle grade through Banning Pass. And this is where it was built. The steep mountain front to the east of San Diego was an insurmountable barrier to building a railroad, and no operating line exists directly from the east to this day.

Sure, San Diego could, and soon did, build a connection down here from the L.A. line. But just going straight on westward to L.A. was much simpler. OK, L.A. had no harbor. Picky, picky. You can always build one of those, and they did.

And then, just to add injury to insult, the spur route down to San Diego from San Bernardino County was washed out in the flood of 1891, and was never rebuilt.

Sooooo, L.A. got the railroad traffic, and with it the sprawling metropolis, the grid-locked freeways, the identity-challenged suburbs, the eye-stinging smog, and Donald Sterling. Oh, wait. We didn’t want any of those things anyway.

Sometimes, a nice little mountain range through the middle of your county makes you a livability winner in the long run. Tough luck, L.A. Geography rules.