Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Donner Summit and Historic Central Pacific Railroad Sites

Chinese laborers in early California had built portions of the California Central Railroad from Sacramento to Marysville as well as the San Jose Railway. Their next project would be far from ordinary and quite historic.

old town sacramento california
Old Sacramento California
The biggest railroad project by far however would be their work through the Sierra Nevada as part of building the nation's first transcontinental railroad. Chinese work crews performed the work that made this route possible.

This was dangerous work for the Central Pacific Railroad involving hanging by ropes over cliffs, boring holes in granite walls and placing explosives in the holes. Add to this the high mountain environment in winter. Quite dangerous work in the harshest of conditions.

While the eastern portion of the transcontinental railroad had mountainous sections, nothing along it's route compared to laying rails over Donner Summit in the Sierra Nevada range. Workers often  lived in canvas tents along the rail grade. In the mountains workers often lived in wooden bunkhouses that helped to protect against the elements.

The earliest Chinese arrived in California in large numbers during the California Gold Rush days. Over 20,000 immigrants arrived during 1851 and 1852. For about twenty years afterward, about 8,000 Chinese immigrants arrived annually.

The work ethic of the Chinese impressed James Strobridge, the foreman of construction, as did their willingness to do the dangerous work of blasting areas for track in the treacherous Sierra Nevada, an effort that cost some Chinese laborers their lives. Chinese workers even helped lay a record ten miles of track in just twelve hours, shortly before the railroad was completed. This represented a tremendous accomplishment.

donner summit
High Sierra Nevada looking toward Donner Summit
In addition to the often hazardous working conditions, there was also antagonism toward these workers from European immigrants and many Californians in general. Chinese employees received wages of $27 and then $30 a month, minus the cost of food and board. This was at a time when Irishmen were paid $35 per month, with board provided.

Visit Historic Sites Along the Central Pacific Route

The book, Rails, Tales, and Trails is a guide to the historic sites of the Central Pacific Railroad, built by hand in the 1860s. The part of the book featured in this article talks about the Tunnels at Donner Summit. Rails, Tales, and Trails will tell you what you need to know for a self guided trip to the historic sites of the Central Pacific Railroad, built by hand in the 1860s. 

For more information about this book and the accompanying award winning film visit website www.transcoshow.com
The following excerpt from Rails, Tales, and Trails gives you directions for a self-guided tour to view the work by the California Chinese in building the Central Pacific railroad at Donner Summit.

The tunnels at Donner Summit

Elevation, 7,100 feet

From Rainbow Lodge take Highway 40 east, or go back to I-80 and exit at Soda Springs, it’s about 5 miles to the summit. Drive to the Rainbow Bridge Donner Lake overlook and park there or park on the side of Highway 40.

It’s not the Great Wall of China here but you will find the Chinese wall, actually two walls built to hold the trains that crossed the mountains for more than a century. A plaque commemorates the work of the Chinese who blasted and scraped the tunnels through the mountain and built this wall that held the heavy train loads through the 1990s.

China Wall of the Sierra Marker

“Charles Crocker, Construction Chief of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), contracted for a workforce of approximately 12,000 Chinese laborers to push the CPRR tracks over its Trans-Sierra Crossing on its race east to a meet with the Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah Territory. A railroad retaining wall and fill, constructed of Sierra granite, stand silently above on the pass as a lasting monument to the Asian “Master Builders” who left an indelible mark on the history of California and the West.”

"Initially the Big Four resisted hiring Chinese, but soon discovered the Chinese proved to be quick learners and excellent workers. Samuel Montague, the chief construction engineer reported that “some distrust was at first felt regarding capacity of this class for the services required but the experiment has proved eminently successful. They are faithful and industrious. Many of them are becoming very expert in drilling, blasting and other departments of rock work.”

Stanford, in a report to President Andrew Johnson said “as a class they are quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious and economical. “ There was no doubt Chinese workers had the right stuff and literally “made the grade” for the Central Pacific Railroad. The Chinese, using only picks and shovels, would sculpt the grade. Excavated dirt and rock were loaded into small carts and moved to the side or used as fill to construct a trestle. White workers would lay in the heavy rail, which were 25-feet long and weighed 560 pounds per rail. Workers made around $35 a month, paid in gold coin, not the less-desired paper greenbacks. The wages were good money compared to a Union private’s pay of $13 a month. 

Many Chinese stayed with the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and helped build modern California".

california state railroad museum
Visit Many Historic Sites Along the Old Central Pacific Route

There are many historic sites to visit along the old Central Pacific Route. The link below will take you to our article describing a self-guided tour upwards from Auburn California.
Visit the fascinating California State Railroad Museum in Old Town Sacramento. This is probably the world's largest railroad museum under one roof. Here you'll see vintage locomotives and rail cars, artifacts and photographs of the building of the Central Pacific Railroad over Donner Summit and many additional unique exhibits.

See our Western Trips articles San Diego's Oldest Building in Old Town... "Driving California State Route 49" and The San Diego Zoo, A Must Trip Stop 

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips. Rails, Tales, and Trails book excerpt copyright Nimbus Marketing)

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