Western Trips

Western Trips

Monday, July 18, 2011

Donner Pass Snowsheds And Theodore Judah's Transcontinental Railroad

If you find yourself on one of those San Francisco trips driving on Interstate-80 through the Sierra Nevada's  or perhaps on your tour of America, you can look out your car window towards the south and see an innovation that made the transcontinental railroad possible.

Crossing the Sierra Nevada


This story is about both the tunnels and snowsheds you see on the side of the mountains near Donner Summit and about the man who made this famous transcontinental railway possible. The man who put investors together and badgered Congress to act. The tunnels you see are along one of the most popular passenger routes in America today. It's where the California Zephyr runs, Amtrak's service between San Francisco (Emeryville) and Chicago. It's the old route of the Central Pacific Railroad which was built eastward from California to join the Union Pacific which was building westward.

The snowsheds, whose rebuilt and fortified cousins you can now see in existence were man made tunnels along the sides of the mountain and they are what made the rail line over the Sierra Nevada's operable, especially during winter. In fact, there was no larger challenge than building a rail line over this particular mountain range. The picture at left shows the rugged Donner Pass in 1870. The Sierra Nevada's granite cliffs represented the biggest obstacle along the entire way from Missouri to California.

The Importance of the Transcontinental Railroad


The idea of a trans continental railroad was floating around Congress for many years. Connecting the country from sea to sea was an important step to fulfill Manifest Destiny. It's a key part of the history of the state of California.

As with most issues however that are both commercial and political and where fortunes could be made, there was a great deal of debate as to the how's and especially the where's. The critical debates took place in the 1850's, a time before the Civil War when regional rivalries reached a peak.

The political infighting was not only on a larger scale such as free states versus pro slavery states but also on a county against county basis. The infighting was certainly a result of the prosperity a rail line would bring and everyone wanted their share. There were factions favoring a northern route from St. Paul Minnesota to Seattle Washington. There was a faction demanding a southern route through the southern states, Texas, southern New Mexico and Arizona and into San Diego. Of course there were the supporters of the central route from Missouri, through Nebraska, Wyoming, Nevada and ending up near San Francisco. The central route represented the busiest corridor since it really ran along the Platte Road from western Missouri through Nebraska which turned into the Oregon Trail. This was the most popular route for western migration into both California and Oregon during the earlier years.



Any undertaking of this magnitude needed a driving force. The driving force behind the transcontinental railroad was a young man from the east named Theodore Judah pictured at left. Judah was an educated engineer who had worked helping to build some of the eastern railroads before deciding to move to California. California had grown substantially after the Gold Rush and offered new adventures for a young industrious engineer. After arriving in California Judah became involved with the local railway industry and helped engineer some of the instate lines.


At this time during the old west there was a big need to improve transportation over the Sierra's since among other things, the mining towns in Nevada relied upon California for basically all of their needs. Everything from food, mining equipment and everything in between.

The current mode of transportation over this formidable mountain range was wagons drawn by mules and oxen. It was a rugged, dangerous and long journey to say the least and during the winter it was all but impassable because of the legendary snowfalls in the Sierra's. What happened to the Donner Party a decade earlier is but one example of being stranded in winter in the Sierra Nevada's.

Prior to the railroad there was one other mode of transport and that was the Pony Express which was in existence for only about 18 months during the Civil War. The obvious way to improve transportation was the building of a rail line over the Sierra Nevada's and down to the desert plateau of Nevada. The task was easier said than done because the rise to the summit from the California valley was something like 7,000 feet in only about 20 miles distance. A tremendous and steep incline. The Union Pacific crews building the westward section from the plains to the point which years later joined the Central Pacific line at Promontory Point Utah was comparatively easy as opposed to the crews building eastbound. Add to that the enormous snowfalls in the Sierra's and the Central Pacific crews had a real challenge.


Theodore Judah became quite active in not only promoting the surveying and building of an eastward line but also worked tirelessly in securing the capital needed for the project as well as making trips to Washington lobbying Congress for their support. As you could imagine there were supporters as well as naysayers, some  believing that such a route was physically impossible to build. To aid in his lobbying efforts Judah wrote a 13,000 word essay "A Practical Plan for Building the Pacific Railroad".

Judah offered an overview of special express trains traveling across the prairies at speeds of 100 MPH with passengers riding in restaurants, reading and smoking rooms and ladies in private sleeping berths. He wrote that he heard dozens of people coming up with objections and he went on to answer each one. He also wrote that the railroad issue should be taken out of politics because he felt that a house divided would never agree on anything. The only way he stated that an agreement could be reached was to judge it solely on engineering criteria.

The Raising of Capital



Judah eventually raised money for a survey from Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington, two Sacramento merchants.

More investors came aboard including such names as Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker. History eventually referred to this group as the "Big Four". From an investors standpoint Collis Huntington was thought to be the overall leader of the enterprise.  These four names are prominent still today in California. The picture at left is the Gov. Stanford locomotive of the Central Pacific line.

As with just about any new venture requiring numerous investors, there was some squabbling and a few people pulling out but eventually the project got under way.

Judah's Surveying


Theodore Judah made survey journeys into the Sierras looking at several possible routes that had the right geography to support the laying of rails. Some of the current wagon routes were not suitable for a variety of engineering reasons and eventually a route past Dutch Flat in the foothills led up to the Donner Lake area was chosen.

 According to Judah, the mountain sides could support a rail bed and the down slope into Nevada was gradual. The question of enormous snowfall did come up but at the time Judah believed that snowplows attached to locomotives could keep the tracks clear. As it turned out, this solution fell short. It was finally determined that the only feasible way to fight the snowfall obstacle was to build snowsheds at specific places. These were tunnels, similar to the ones you see today, that would protect against insurmountable snowdrifts. The snowplow idea was just not sufficient against possible 20-30 foot drifts.

Years later the Great Northern Railway ran into the same snow problems in the northern Rockies. In the case of the Great Northern years later there was an avalanche which derailed an entire train and cost many lives. The snow fall in the Rockies not only posed a scheduling problem but it was potentially deadly as well.

The picture below rightt is an old rotary snowplow at work trying to clear track. The picture further below to the left is of the debris field after the Great Northern derailment from the avalanche in Wellington Washington on March 1, 1910.


Finally, in 1862 Congress passed a bill which was signed by Abraham Lincoln authorizing work to be started on the transcontinental railroad. Theodore Judah while traveling east, via ship and the Panama Isthmus to meet with new investors ( he reportedly became concerned with the Big Four's commitment to the venture) , became ill from a mosquito bite and although nursed by his wife died a few weeks later.

Judah was the man who was responsible for convincing Congress to act after years of intense lobbying but ironically did not live to see his dream come to fruition. His associate, Lewis Clement, also an engineer was the man called on to see the project completed in 1869.

Chinese Laborers Clear a Way Over the Sierra Nevada


Clement oversaw the laying of track beds which was only possible by the skill of his Chinese laborers (the white laborers were unable to do this work) who dangled on ropes and meticulously placed explosives ( nitro-glycerine) to clear a way around ridges and to bore holes for tunnels through solid granite. The Central Pacific hired thousands of Chinese workers, or in the day referred to as coolies, to perform these jobs. There was probably about 8,000 total workers with 90 percent being Chinese.




Wreckage after Great Northern Railroad avalanche
The fact was that the Central Pacific could not have been built through the Sierra's in any reasonable amount of time without the Chinese laborers. More problems did develop but not involving the actual construction. Local Californians, unable themselves to do the job adequately nevertheless became agitated with the amount of Chinese labor used.

There were meetings in San Francisco in 1867 by the Anti-Coolie Labor Association. The issue was politicized and it marked the beginning of problems for the Chinese in California. Chinese property was damaged and destroyed by the white agitators and nothing Leland Stanford could say or do regarding both the agitators or his own stockholders had much effect.

The anti-Chinese sentiment against the coolie labor in California lasted right into the twentieth century and the Central Pacific felt the fallout for many decades. Historically speaking, the facts is that white miners who emigrated to California actually complained and set upon the Chinese dating back to the Gold Rush days. The Central Pacific issue just appeared to resurrect old prejudices.




The work performed to make the transcontinental railroad a reality was dangerous and required quite a bit of courage and skill to complete. The picture at right ( Courtesy of the Library of Congress) is just one of the many tunnels constructed by the Chinese laborers. The rock was so hard that only about eight inches of progress was made per day even with the use of nitro-glycerine.



Lewis Clement's engineering knowledge along with the Chinese labor skill made the Sierra crossing a reality. Clement lived to the age of 77 and passed away in Hayward California in 1914. The Big Four led by Leland Stanford took private railway cars to the Golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Point Utah on May 10, 1869. Stanford actually drove the final spike (Golden Spike) himself and it's on display today at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in Palo Alto California.





The image at left is the poster of fares published the day after the Golden Spike was driven. Although the railroad was connected, it wasn't long before the Central Pacific found it hard to keep the tracks open in winter.

When the snowplows proved inadequate a large number of snowsheds were built at key points. It is at those points where today you can see the snowsheds in place in the Donner Pass area when driving on Interstate-80.


When driving Interstate-80 you can look south at the mountains and visualize what it looked like before the tracks were laid. You can get a feel of the monumental task it was to blast a passage through this wild and remote area.



In addition to viewing the actual Golden Spike on display at Stanford University, you may want to add the California State Railroad Museum to your travel planner. It's located at the Old Sacramento State Historic Park in Old Town Sacramento. 

Among it's exhibits is a replica of a Central Pacific Railroad station. These historic California exhibits can make great additions to your San Francisco area things to do list. Below are some good links pertaining to this American story. Also, The University of Arizona has Central Pacific records and manuscript letters on microfilm for those wishing to do further research.


California State Railroad Museum

Cantor Arts Center/ Stanford University 


Theodore Judah Monument/ Old Sacramento

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)

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