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Historic Railcar Plaza - Restored NC&O 1887 by David Lathrop

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Historic Railcar Plaza by David Lathrop and AssociatesHistoric Railcar Plaza by David Lathrop and AssociatesHistoric Railcar Plaza by David Lathrop and AssociatesHistoric Railcar Plaza by David Lathrop and AssociatesHistoric Railcar Plaza by David Lathrop and AssociatesHistoric Railcar Plaza by David Lathrop and Associates

Artist: David Lathrop
Location: Bay Marina Dr. & Harrison Ave.
National City, California

You can almost hear that steam whistle blowin’ as the City of National City and the Port of San Diego dedicate the latest and largest public art project on Port tidelands. Linking a colorful past with a promising future, the new National City Historic Railcar Plaza is a symbol of civic pride and a catalyst for redevelopment and increased public access in a long-underutilized section of National City’s industrial west side.

Railcar Plaza is located a block west of I-5 at the corner of Bay Marina Boulevard (formerly 24th Street) and Harrison Avenue, adjacent to existing railroad tracks and just across the street from National City’s historic “Old Depot.” Its focal point is a distinctive new railcar “barn” especially designed by San Diego architects Anderson, Koch & Smith to house and showcase a 113-year-old railway passenger coach that was recently restored through the Port of San Diego’s public art program.

The hip-roofed, lantern-topped car barn is reminiscent of old-time railroad architecture. It is in the center of an attractively landscaped public plaza with a grassy lawn, exterior lighting and artistic tile accents. Large windows on all sides permit public viewing of the railcar at all times, even when the building is not open. Interior lighting will illuminate the car at night, giving the building the appearance of a lantern with the car highlighted inside. A roll-up door on one end permits the railcar to be rolled outside on tracks for special occasions. Four display rooms will showcase artifacts and interpretive exhibits relating to the early railroads and local history.

Interior viewPassenger Coach No. 1 (left) of the old National City & Otay Railway (NC&O) is the centerpiece of Railcar Plaza. Built in 1887, retired in 1914, and rediscovered after serving nearly sixty years as part of a house in Descanso, this historic railcar has been faithfully restored by David Lathrop and Associates at the Historic Railroad Shops in Atlanta, Georgia. Over half of the railcar’s mostly wood fabric has survived the ravages of time and has been carefully refurbished and preserved. Many other missing or damaged components had to be procured or refabricated. Lathrop’s meticulous research and skilled craftsmanship have seamlessly melded the new with the old to achieve a beautiful restoration that is as true to the original as possible.

steam locomotiveThe thirty-two foot long railcar is an open-sided coach with transverse bench seating, full-length running boards, varnished redwood and sugar pine ceiling, oak wainscoting, celestory windows, and two brass oil lamps. It could seat fifty-eight people. During its active service, it traversed regularly between San Diego, National City and other fledgling South Bay villages, drawn by steam locomotive (left)on the tracks of the NC&O Railway.

Railcar Plaza southwest viewThe Railcar Plaza project is an excellent example of the diverse ways the Port’s Public Art Program, working in partnership with the community, achieves its goal of contributing to the quality and identity of the region. “There’s a lot more to public art than simply plopping sculptures in city parks,” says Catherine Sass, the Port’s Public Art Director, “It’s essential for the program to find out what’s really important to a community and to facilitate that interest through appropriate projects.” In the case of National City, the preservation of a unique and colorful Victorian past was already a compelling community priority. The idea of restoring and displaying one of the last remaining artifacts of the NC&O Railway nicely complemented this existing community theme.

Historic Railcar Plaza drawingSited at the virtual epicenter of nineteenth century railroading activity in National City, Historic Railcar Plaza, together with the Old Depot, is sure to become a mecca for rail buffs and tourists alike. And secure in her new home, Coach No.1 proudly displays her freshly-restored NC&O livery and stands ready to transport our imaginations back over a hundred years to the rough and ready pioneering days of the old South Bay.

Ceramic tile elements by well-known artist Marlo Bartels add an appropropriately colorful and historic accent to Railcar Plaza. Bartels specializes in historic tile restorations and is particularly familiar with tiles manufactured by the California China Products Company that once operated in National City. Samples of the tiles they produced can still be seen in the interior of the current Santa Fe Depot downtown and on the dome of the California Building at Balboa Park.

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Historic Railcar Plaza: Railcar Restoration

After spending nearly 60 years as part of a house in the arid back country of San Diego County, Passenger Coach No.1 of the NC&O Railway was in an advanced state of delapidation when acquired for restoration by the City of National City. With funding and project coordination from the Port of San Diego, railcar restorer David Lathrop & Associates was commissioned to restore the vintage railcar, as closely as practicable, to its original 1887 appearance. The following photo essay documents the yearlong restoration process and the remarkable metamorphosis of this historic relic.

Restoration in May 1999Loaded on a flat bed truck in National City and ready for its trip to Georgia for restoration in May 1999. National City Mayor George Waters, restorer David Lathrop, Port Commissioner Jess Van Deventer, and PAC Committee member Jim Bird look on.


Ready to start...

Railcar No.1 at the Historic Railroad Shops complex near Savannah, Georgia, where restoration work was performed. Railcar No.1 at the Historic Railroad Shops complex near Savannah, Georgia, where restoration work was performed. David Lathrop's discovery of an existing set of vintage railcar trucks saved the project nearly $15,000 in replication costs.

By the spring of 2000, restoration is nearing completion and some sense of the car's former elegance is becoming apparent. Every effort was made to retain and preserve original materials in the car. Replacement components were copied from originals, if available, or patterned after items known to be in common railroad usage during the period. An careful examination of vintage photography aided in identifying other design details. Coach No.1, like many railway cars of that era, was built at the Hammond Car Works in San Francisco, but no drawings of the original car are known to exist.

End view of railcar shown with a new coat of primer paint. The roof will be finished in a darker charcoal gray. Notice the reconstructed platform. The lighter colored paint is tinted primer. In this close up the texture of the old wood and new wood can be seen clearly. Celestory windows have all been reglazed and their trim restored and revarnished. The mahogany trim and oak sash next to each other repeat the light and dark combination motif of the ceilings. The ceilings are finished in a very glossy spar varnish. The raised panels in the ends of the celestory will have wood graining painted on, as it was found under many layers of paint to have been done in the original. Note wainscoting below end windows. Mayor Waters (L) and Commissioner Van Deventer (R) inspect the nearly completed interior finish of the railcar with restorer David Lathrop. Railcar No. 1 is an open passenger coach. Here it is nearly ready to receive its seats. Restoration is taking place at the Historic Railroad Shops in Savannah, Georgia, an old "roundhouse" repair yard for the Central of Georgia Railroad. Commissioner Van Deventer and Mayor Waters confer with railcar restorer David Lathrop.

Almost ready ...

The next six photos taken in June 2000 show NC&O passenger coach No.1 close to being fully restored and awaiting shipment back to National City. Photos taken at Historic Railroad Shops, Savannah, Georgia. Side view showing new bench seats. Detail of restored boarding platform. (Note that couplers are missing. At this level of restoration it was not envisioned that the car would ever be operated again. Thus certain elements of running gear have not been included.) Interior seating and ceiling details. Interior seating. Seat backs are reversible so passengers can always choose to face forward, regardless of direction of travel. Ceiling details, celestory windows and one of two vintage oil lamps.


Coach No. 1 returns home... August 14, 2000.

After a long cross-country trip on a flat-bed semi trailer, the old coach is gingerly off-loaded and reassembled on its short section of track at Historic Railcar Plaza, which is located but a few yards from the historic roadbed and shops of the old NC&O Railway.

Craning off Craning off Craning off Craning off


Restorer David LathropRailcar finished(left)Restorer David Lathrop takes pride in a job well done as he finishes overseeing the successful installation of Passenger Coach No.1 into the nearly completed Historic Railcar Plaza.

(right)All aboard for a ride into history. Passenger Coach No.1 as she may have looked on her inaugural run in 1887 on the old National City & Otay Railway.

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Historic Tile Art at National City Railcar Plaza

Artist Marlo Bartels setting his historic tile art recreations into the plaza.

Artist: Marlo Bartels
Laguna Beach, California

Location: National City,

Balboa Park DomeDecorative tile recreations by noted artist Marlo Bartels provide a durable, colorful, and historic accent to the concrete hardscape of National City Railcar Plaza. Bartels has patterned his glazed tiles after those once manufactured by the old California China Products Company, which operated in National City from 1911. Original faience tiles produced by this factory still embellish domes and other elements of well-known structures in San Diego, including the Santa Fe Depot downtown and the buildings and gardens of Balboa Park (below left). The California China Products Company itself lasted only until 1917, by which time co-founders Walter and son Charles Nordoff had moved on to separate literary careers. Charles went to Tahiti where, with James Norman Hall, he later co-authored Mutiny on the Bounty.

Twenty-nine separate tile squares have been inlaid into the concrete floor of the plaza. Samples of these designs are shown below:

Tiles in placeTile Patterns

The linked tile patterns shown below and at the top right of the page are laid parallel to the railroad tracks and restored railcar inside the barn.

Tile Links Bar

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History of National City and Otay Railway

Train on the BridgeHistoric Railcar Plaza in National City, CA, commemorates a unique epoch in local railroading history and a fascinating chapter in the formative years of this region. The centerpiece of Railcar Plaza is the beautifully restored passenger coach "No.1" of the old National City & Otay Railway (NC&O).


The NC&O Passenger Coach No.1The NC&O Passenger Coach No.1 (left) was built in 1887 by the Hammond Coachworks in San Francisco, California. This was the first passenger car on the National City and Otay Railway and was frequently used by National City founder Frank Kimball. The fortuitous recent discovery of the remains of No.1 have provided a rare opportunity to commemorate the early history and railroading days of this community through authentic historical restoration. Railcar No.1 served on the old NC&O "Motor Cannonball" excursion train, which was the region's first commuter-type train. As such it was a precursor of today's modern light-rail trolley system.

History of the NC&O:

Incorporated in late 1886 with National City founder Frank Kimball as vice president, the National City & Otay Railway (NC&O) began its passenger service in June 1887. The San Diego Land and Town Company, a syndicate of Santa Fe Railroad stockholders, built the NC&O to facilitate the settling and development of a 13,000 acre tract of the Rancho de la Nación-a former Mexican land grant that would become National City and Chula Vista. Kimball had earlier given this land to the syndicate as part of an agreement making National City the West Coast terminus for the Santa Fe Railroad's transcontinental operations.

The NC&O ran south from a depot at 6th Avenue and L Street in downtown San Diego to Tia Juana.The NC&O ran south from a depot at 6th Avenue and L Street in downtown San Diego (left) to Tia Juana (now the San Ysidro area) on the border of old Mexico. It passed through National City, the new town of Chula Vista, and the villages of Otay, Palm City, Oneonta and Nester. From National City, a branch line ascended the Sweetwater Valley to the Sweetwater Dam and the town site of La Presa. From there stagecoaches provided connections to El Cajon and the backcountry. In all, there were 29 miles of track, and a round-trip excursion over the whole system cost only $1.

The NC&O rolling stock consisted of a number of small, standard gauge, coal burning, saddle tank steam engines and a small fleet of light passenger coaches, including Coach No.1, which is now displayed at Historic Railcar Plaza.

In its first year of operation, the NC&O carried over 421,000 passengers. Its excursions through the South Bay were popular with tourists, who reveled in sweeping vistas of the bay, ocean, mountains and sage-covered hills. This was a sparsely settled land of well-kept homes, handsome villas, thousands of acres of orange and lemon orchards, olive groves, wheat fields, vineyards, riparian forests and fragrant flowers.

Train at OlivewoodA popular highlight of the return trip was the stop for refreshments in the lunch parlor and shady gardens of "Olivewood," (left) the fine Victorian home of W.C. Kimball (Frank’s brother) in National City. NC&O trains also made special tourist runs up the Silver Strand to the Hotel del Coronado and Tent City in Coronado (below), using the tracks of the Coronado Railroad, with which it merged in 1908 to become the San Diego Southern Railway.

Railway operations on the former NC&O line effectively ended when the great South Bay flood of 1916 swept away much of its track. Most of what remained of the right-of-way eventually reverted to private ownership and has long-since been dismantled. Down the center of Cleveland Avenue, however, a six-block stretch of rails can still be seen, which, if followed, will lead the curious time-traveler to National City's new Historic Railcar Plaza, where Coach No.1 and the memory of the NC&O will live on for many more years to come.

Train at CoronadoAn NC&O excursion train takes beachgoers and tourists to Tent City near Hotel del Coronado in 1903 on the Coronado Line tracks. The two open passenger coaches immediately behind the engine are of the type restored for Historic Railcar Plaza. One of the two cars may be Passenger Coach No.1. In 1908 the NC&O and the Coronado Line consolidated and became the San Diego & Southern.

(Black & white photos from San Diego Historical Society Photo Collection.)

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Historic Railcar Plaza: Design & Construction

Southeast viewLocation: National City, California
at corner of Harrison Avenue & Bay Marina Drive

The NC&O Open Passenger Coach No.1 was built in 1887 by the Hammond Coachworks in San Francisco, California. This was the first passenger car on the National City and Otay Railway and was frequently used by National City founder Frank Kimball. The fortuitous recent discovery of the remains of No.1 have provided a rare opportunity to commemorate the early history and railroading days of this community through authentic historical restoration. The restored railcar is now on permanent display as the centerpiece of Historic Railcar Plaza, which was completed in September 2000. This page highlights some of the design and construction elements involved in the creation of this unique project.

Early plan view of Railcar PlazaAn early plan view of the Railcar Plaza (left), including the car barn and landscaped park at the corner of Harrison Avenue and Bay Marina Drive in National City.



Original artist's concept of Railcar Plaza including the car barn that now houses restored Railcar No.1. An adjoining section of railroad track permits the railcar to be rolled outside for special occasions. Display areas at each corner of the building showcase artifacts relating to the history of the railroad and the community.

Railcar Plaza rendering

Railcar Plaza viewed from the west (left). To the left is Bay Marina Drive (formerly 24th Street), on the opposite side of which is the 1880s-vintage National City Railroad Depot, now being restored. Tracks in foreground may soon carry excursion trains around the South Bay on the old Coronado Line. Construction starts (below photos) with laying of foundation slab and installation of the tracks that will hold the railcar and allow it to be rolled outdoors for special occasions.

Plaza slabPlaza tracksApril 25: Framing of structure is well advanced.April 25: Framing of structure is well advanced. This view of Railcar Plaza was taken on June 1, 2000 and shows that substantial progress had been made on the structure. Historic Railcar Plaza was dedicated on September 14, 2000.


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