Santa Fe Union Station in San Diego

Santa Fe Union Station in San Diego

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History -

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San Diego's present mission-style Santa Fe depot was built in 1915. On the South end, the station originally had a large covered patio area (portico). This depot has been in continual use for both passenger and freight traffic. In fact it served as a "Union Station" for both Santa Fe and the San Diego & Arizona for several decades. The building was placed on the National Historic Register in 1972 and still serves as San Diego's rail passenger and freight depot, handling more than a dozen Amtrak and numerous Coaster and non-passenger trains each day. Trolleys provided passenger service when the station first opened, and the bright red San Diego Trolley cars again serve Union Station.

The Prototype -

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In 1915 the Santa Fe railroad built a new Union Station in San Diego in preparation for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The core of Balboa Park, home of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, was also built for the 1915 Exposition. Today, Union Station is still used for passenger service, with Amtrak, Coaster, and the San Diego Trolley all stopping at this grand structure.

It would seem that in a modern high-rise downtown area, this station would seem dwarfed and out of place, but the sheer size, elegant ceramic-tiled towers, and mission tile roof still catch the eye.

Building the model -

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A prominent feature of the San Diego Model Railroad Club's HO layout is the Santa Fe Union Station. This is one of the first structures seen when visitors enter the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and is easily the most recognizable landmark in Downtown San Diego. The model of Union Station is set in a narrow time era; the "Santa Fe" sign on the roof ridge was installed in 1947 and the front porticos on the south side were removed in 1954.

This structure contains approximately 100 lights, powered by a custom-built power supply.
It is approximately 7 ft long in HO scale.

A number of people worked on "The Great Intimidator" since construction of the model was begun about 10 years ago. Steve Kuhl started the project in the early 1990ís. Steve picked the construction material for the walls ≠- 1/4" foam core board ≠ and he built the basic structure of the towers and the porticos on the south end of the passenger depot. He moved to Arkansas in 1994.

I joined the SDMRR Club in October 1994. In January or February 1995, I was asked to take on the continuation of the construction of the Depot. I did not realize what I was letting myself in for! One of the first things I did was to seek out George "Pete" Peters of the SONS. He had done the N-Scale Santa Fe Depot on the Pacific Desert Lines layout He had a bunch of reference material he loaned to me. This is where the first "intimidation" reared its head. I discovered that Pete was a master modeler, even scratch-building out of brass Shay geared locomotives in N-Scale.

Greg McBain assisted me for a while, taking about a year to make the main walls. Mitch Alderman got the blank door on which we were to erect the walls as they were produced. Mitch also got blueprints of the "as-built" drawings done in HO Scale so we could take measurements right off the drawings. That was a real help throughout the construction process. Greg and I put down the brick flooring and we transferred Steve Kuhlís south end of the Depot to the board. Gregís brother used a computer to make the windows and doors out of vugraph transparency material. After about a year, Greg got busy at work and he dropped out.

A little while later, Johnny Tarantino, started to work with me. We continued to cut out walls, cut out windows and doors in the walls and to put some of the walls up on the board. Before they went on the board in their permanent location, we had to finish them with drywall spackle and paint them ≠ with Frazee flat interior Navajo White. Johnny, too, got busy with work and then became a trolley driver.

Aaron Germundson, a really talented modeler in plastics, put together the roof tile overlay on the passenger terminal roof. He also made the two skylights at the north end of the passenger station ≠- over the part of the building that was the restaurant and kitchen. Pat Weishan assisted Aaron with the passenger terminal roof. Aaron got out of the Navy and eventually left for North Dakota.

Metal for the sub-roofs was courtesy of Rich Collier.

Chester ≠"Chet" Culp defected from the La Mesa Club and he suggested how we could wire the Depot for lights. I had put interior lights inside and underneath the porticos, but we needed to have the little exterior lights on the outside on the street side and the train side of the structure. Chet made the little fixtures for the exterior lights. He also made the power supply for the Depot, designing light life into the lighting system. That can be defeated if someone connects the wrong wire to the wrong terminal on the power pack. Chet brought a lot of enthusiasm with him and when he decided he didnít want to work on the Depot any more, I retreated to my intimidation mode for awhile.

A friend of mine who has a really neat wood lathe helped me turn the two large and two small domes for the towers, along with the columns in the Broadway portico. Pete Peters had a pattern in N-Scale for decals to be used on the domes. I blew those up to HO-Scale and put them on decal paper. About 200 tedious hours later, the domes were decaled and finished with many coats of clear varnish to represent tile.

The filials on the towers are from Milton Kronkiteís old depot (constructed in 1935).

Finally, in January 2001, after I had missed two Christmas-on-the-Prado promised finish dates, Johnny Tarantino and I completed construction on 7 January. In my opinion, the model was ready for someone to put in the landscaping and populate the thing with people and benches and baggage carts and luggage. Also in my opinion, that work should be done on the layout, not under the layout.

Pat Weishan now has the helm on this project. I will finish up by building the Santa Fe sign on the top of the passenger terminal building.

By the way, the manner with which the Depot will appear on our layout will give a definitive time frame to the era we model. You see the sign on top of the Depot was put there in 1947. The porticos on the south side of the passenger terminal and next to Broadway were torn down in 1954. Thus, the time frame our Club models is the period 1947 to 1954. The configuration of the Depot tells us that!

I want to thank the people who helped me over the last six years. If I have left anyone out, I apologize.

Robert R. Darron
2 March 2001


Although it is a substantial structure, the model of Union Station is very delicate. Extreme care must be used when working in the vacinity, expecially when rescuing derailed trains. In addition to the structure itself, many details such as the hand crafted Canary Palms and figures on the platforms are delicate beyond words.

Note also that trolley wire is to be installed on many of the streets in front of Union station. This will make it all the more difficult to get access to tracks near the station.

In particular the crossover on the main line at "F" street is sometimes a problem area which could cause damage to Union Station by clumsy operators.

Thank you for your assistance

Source: “The Railroad Stations of San Diego County: Then and Now” by James N. Price.
Historical Photos: San Diego Historical Society
Contemporary Photos: AMTRAK, James N. Price