Local officials, groups begin work to protect century-old Cardiff train artifact

Local officials, groups begin work to protect century-old Cardiff train artifact
This historic photo shows Cardiff in the early 1900s, with the original train station (left) and Mercantile Building (center) some of the only existing structures at that time. While clearing the way for the Coastal Rail Trail, it’s believed that part of the train station’s floor (circa 1913–1921) has been unearthed. Courtesy photo

ENCINITAS — As we press on with new endeavors, faces turned to the future, the past has a way of revealing itself in uncanny ways.

In late June, a SANDAG contractor working on the Cardiff segment of the Coastal Rail Trail was clearing vegetation when he unearthed an old cement slab, according to SANDAG Director of Land Use and Transportation Planning Charles “Muggs” Stoll.

Train enthusiast and Encinitas resident Ron Dodge believes the slab comprised part of the floor of the original Cardiff train station. The station was built in 1913 and served as an active railroad stop until 1920 or 1921.

Dodge had been hoping that a railroad artifact would be revealed during the double-tracking of the rail lines or the construction of the Coastal Rail Trail and had been keeping an eye out. While circumnavigating the traffic generated by the Bro-Am Beach Fest on June 30, he walked by the newly exposed concrete, arrayed in square tiles, and was convinced he knew what it was. He emailed Encinitas Councilman Tony Kranz, who reached out to SANDAG, which had also been notified by its own crew.

What ensued was a flurry of emails and calls to communicate about the discovery and coordinate the plan moving forward. The Coastal Rail Trail bike and pedestrian path will now make an easterly detour around the station floor. The slab, about 30 feet long and parallel to the tracks, is located roughly 100 feet north of the intersection of Chesterfield Drive and San Elijo Avenue.

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, whose family has lived in Cardiff for more than a century, is thrilled about the artifact, which she called “a little gem.”

“In Southern California we’re always taking down our history,” Blakespear said. “This relic gives us the opportunity to preserve a connection to who we were when, as a city, we were growing up.”

In what both Blakespear and Dodge considered a remarkable act of cooperation by multiple entities (the city of Encinitas, SANDAG, Cardiff 101 Main Street and the Harbaugh Foundation), consensus was quickly reached to both move the trail eastward and leave the floor intact in its original location.  

The mayor said the artifact’s “power is in its location,” noting that the floor’s intrigue would be lost if it were moved. It’s not clear what the exact plan for memorializing the site will be, but there’s been talk of an interpretive panel and post-and-cable fencing.

While the proposed idea of people standing on the old station floor and imagining being inside the depot sounds romantic, it could be impractical. The tiles appear thin and subject to fracturing, according to multiple sources.

Photo by Tony Cagala

The hope is that people walking or biking along the trail will stop to reflect on those who traveled to and from the area by train a century ago.

Passengers disembarking in Cardiff would have seen the wild bluffs and mighty Pacific on one side and a practically empty town on the other. In the early 1900s, the Mercantile Building, which housed a hotel, grocery store and post office, was one of the only structures in Cardiff. It still remains and is the current home of the Patagonia store.

While the Cardiff station had a short life, it’s thought that it stood in its original location until 1943, according to Dodge. But was the station destroyed or moved?

Blakespear said a Leucadia resident sent her an email stating that the former station was transported to a bluff overlooking Moonlight Beach and that his friends live there, but when Blakespear responded enthusiastically with a request for more details, she never heard back. Thus, the mystery lives on.

The train tracks running through Cardiff were part of a line incorporated in 1880 as the California Southern Railroad. Its first train traveled from National City to Oceanside in 1881.

Construction of the rail line continued rapidly in a northeastern direction to places like Fallbrook, Temecula, San Bernardino and Barstow, where the last track was laid on Nov. 9, 1885, forming the western link of a transcontinental railroad connection to Chicago.

Dodge is amazed by how quickly the rail line was built, noting how “men moved mountains by hand” in those days, which he referred to as a “freewheeling time in our history.”

Now that over a century has passed since America “ran out of frontier and hit the beach on the other shore,” as Dodge put it, trains continue to be vital. They are, for example, one solution to the clogged freeways becoming emblematic of life in Southern California in this century.

Besides, as Dodge shared about traveling by train, “It’s a whole lot easier watching the world go by … and then arriving refreshed than it is to get stuck in traffic and frazzled.”

While the details are still unknown, the city plans to continue working with Cardiff 101 and other interested parties to care for and preserve this newly discovered link to the past.

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