San Diego 1908 was a small 4’ x 10’ HO layout representing the downtown San Diego, California waterfront as it looked one hundred years ago. This area encompassed what is today called the "gaslamp dictrict" (it never had any gas lamps) and the colorful “Stingaree”, with its saloons and parlor houses, along with the complex of railroad tracks radiating from the foot of the 5th Street wharf. A dock railway, several short-line steam, electric, and trolley lines, and the Santa Fe railroad all converged there.
As well as selectively compressed representations of real buildings, researched from old photos and Sanborn maps, the model featured tableaus of contemporary life— including a Women’s Christian Temperance Union march and a celebration of the arrival of the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet. The layout also featured a train of open-sided “picnic cars” bringing San Diegans down to the waterfront for the celebration. San Diego 1908 was a great place to display a much-loved 45-year collection of HO models.

Click pix of models for enlargements.

Here's the foot of 5th street with the three railroads that converged there: The Santa Fe (foreground), the San Diego and South Coast (middle; a free-lance stand-in for the real-life San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern), and the National City & Otay (background).
Much of the fun of building a layout like this is doing the research. I spent several years "between layouts", collecting books on historic San Diego, downloading old photos off websites, and obtaining Sanborn fire insurance maps of the neighborhood.
Old photos like this, the source for the scene at the left, inspired me. Unlike nearby Los Angeles (my home town), San Diego had a compact, "modelable" downtown at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Grand Pacific Hotel was a focal point of the layout. The model combined features from several old San Diego hotels. The original Grand Pacific, built in the 1880s, still stands on 5th Street.
The Western Metal Supply building is still there too, the last survivor of the 19th century at the foot of 5th Street. It spent the 1990s as one of our favorite spaghetti restaurants. The history and original names and occupations of the buildings were learned from the Sanborn fire insurance maps.

San Diego 1908 was intended to be a home for my older models— old big-flanged Rivarossi engines and lots of plastic kit-built cars. As models go, most were made with "relaxed standards," and so was my layout. The track was code 88 to accomodate the deep flanges. The turnouts were from Atlas, bought cheap, used, and in bulk from swap meets.

The layout was staged on 1/2” sheets of foam-core textured with wallboard paste, atop 1–1/2” of insulation foam. This allowed buildings and tracks to be easily swapped out or have their positions shifted as the model evolved. The 4’ x 10’ layout was accessible from all four sides. The tabletop was 51” off the floor and shared space with a bank of computer workstations underneath. The under-structure was a cross-braced frame of 2x4s— losing a previous layout in a California earthquake may have influenced my decision to use such heavy woodwork. Backdrops were removable sheets of foam-core hung from ceiling hooks and used only for photography. The textured "ground" on the layout was painted a shade of neutral grey very similar to the caliche mud that San Diego's downtown is built on. Unfortunately, that shade had a tendency to photograph lighter and greener than real life. A lesson for next time.

I tried to model or at least represent actual rail equipment documented in old photos. A few pieces, like the open-sided picnic coach, exist to this day. Railroads that served the San Diego waterfront in the early years of the 20th century included the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (the only main line road), the Pacific Steam Ship Company dock railway, the San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern, the National City & Otay Railway (part steam and part electric), the Coronado Beach Railway (another part steam, part electric), the San Diego Electric Railway (streetcars), and the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway (streetcars and steam). Several of these short lines combined and eventually became the San Diego, Arizona & Eastern.

San Diego 1908 took about five years to build and barely made it to its 100th anniversary. In late 2008, at the height of the economic crisis, I was forced to change jobs and relocate to the East Coast. The models all ended up in boxes . . . waiting for a chance to rebuild.


San Diego's short line railroads— the Coronado, the National City & Otay, and the San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern— hosted a fleet of short open-sided coaches collectively called "picnic cars." They show up in many of the old photos and one (shown at lower right) still exists, on display in National City, the next town south of EssDee and the first Pacific coast terminus of the 19th-century Santa Fe Railway.

The models are altered MDC Roundhouse cars.

The Pacific Coast Steam Ship Co. terminal sat at the foot of the 5th Street wharf.
The San Diego, Cuyamaca, & Eastern had an interesting little "Spanish architecture" station.
In real life, the ship chandler's shop sat several blocks away from 5th Street . . . I did a lot of building relocation to fit things into my condensed version of San Diego.
The "Stingaree" was a neighborhood of bad saloons, brothels, and gambling dens centered around lower 3rd Street.
The Algeria was a hotel/restaurant/rooming house of questionable repute that started life as an I.O.O.F. lodge hall. I moved it to 4th Street and put it next to another early San Diego landmark— the Austria Beer Hall.
The steam dummy Senator Perkins hauled ship passengers from the steam ship terminal out to the end of the 5th Street wharf. The brass model was from Ken Kidder in the 1960s.
National City & Otay #7 was an 0-6-2 Porter. The model was built on a Bachmann 0-6-0 chassis.
California Southern (Santa Fe) 0-4-0 switcher #3, like the other engines, appeared in old photographs of San Diego. It was a heavily modified Rivarossi 2-4-0.
An old, modified, Rivarossi Casey Jones 4-6-0 made a reasonable stand-in for A.T. & S.F. #442.
A Rivarossi 4-4-0 became San Diego & South Coast #20. It bore a close resemblance to the old second-hand San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern engines.
Here are two old Santa Fe way cars, from the days before cabooses were red. One was scratchbuilt, the other a modified MDC car. Both have MDC cupolas.
Around the era depicted, 1907-1908, the short lines around San Diego were consolidated into the San Diego & Arizona Railway. Here's a model of their first caboose, modified from an MDC kit.
Life in old San Diego . . .
The Temperance Movement was active in the years approaching prohibition . . . here's the WCTU on the march past the Seven Buckets of Blood saloon on 3rd Street.
The local cash grocer and his customers are framed by a street-trackage switching move.
Something about the coffin with the lid ajar has the undertakers in animated discussion . . .
Nighttime. . . Most of the buildings on the layout were lit and all within a foot of so of the layout's edge had interiors.
The firehouse had a horse-drawn steam pumper and a newer Ford horseless carriage fire engine out front. (This places the photo later than 1908.)
There were nine saloons on the layout, including the First & Last Chance (closest to the dock) and three owned by ex-lawman Wyatt Earp, including the Orient, shown here.