1900’s Tunneling Through the Sierra  

Daniel Cobb / Special to the Sun
A map of the Tunnel.
SP 5-mile Tunnel Map

 On Saturday, August 17, 1901, the front page of the Sacramento Bee proclaimed “Six Mile Tunnel Through Sierra”.  The article noted that the new tunnel would shorten the Sierra crossing by seven miles and eliminate fourteen miles of snowsheds, and concluded with “tools are on the ground and the work will be commenced right away and bored night and day from both ends until finished.”    

Another article published three days later in the Bee was titled “Two and a Half Days to Chicago”, and described a 27,000-foot tunnel that would lower the railroad summit by 1500 feet.   Additional details were outlined in the following Saturday edition, reprinted from the Colfax Sentinel.  According to that reporting, two routes or alignments were under consideration.  One was a five-mile tunnel that would emerge above the west end of Donner Lake and run along the north shore of the lake, connecting with the existing line just west of Truckee.  The other was a six-mile tunnel under the mountains from the American River Canyon to the Stanford siding above the south shore of Donner Lake.  The article noted that this tunnel would also be “low enough to convey the water of Lake Tahoe to the western slope.”   There were even reports that Southern Pacific (SP) was considering a double-track tunnel 18 miles in length with a total cost of over $30 million, and would electrify the line in the process.    

Harriman’s Grand Plan  

There was certainly cause for excitement.  Tunneling technology had improved significantly with the invention of pneumatic drills and drilling machines.  The 2.6-mile Cascade tunnel through Stevens Pass in Washington state had been completed by the Great Northern Railroad in 1900.  Control of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads had been acquired the previous year by E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific, who had declared his intent to invest $18 million in improvements.  Harriman’s aim was to double-track the Central Pacific from Oakland to Ogden, making it capable of handling as much freight between Ogden and San Francisco as the Union Pacific could handle from St. Louis to Ogden.   His grander vision was the extension of American commerce to the Far East and the creation of an around-the-world transportation line.  Improving the efficiency of the “Overland Route” was a critical piece of that ambitious plan.   

And then … nothing happened for a very long time.  In November of 1901, the Bee reported that the original line surveyed had proven to be impractical, and the survey crew was working on a new line that would “begin at the head of Donner Lake, with the intention of coming out on the Yuba River near Cisco.”  Another article in July 1903 notes that further surveys will be done “in order to see if a better route can be obtained”.  Evidently the engineering was proving to be more daunting than originally thought.   

Then there was the question of whether a tunnel of 5 miles or longer would require electrification.   In 1903, a train carrying 103 passengers was stopped inside the Cascade tunnel in Washington and the engine crew lost consciousness while working on the problem.  Passengers and crew were saved by an alert fireman who released the brakes and coasted the train to safety.   Notwithstanding this risk, a Sacramento Bee article on 29 August, 1904 describing the planned 5-mile tunnel, stated that all trains running through the tunnel “will burn fuel oil, so as to reduce the danger from smoke, as well as the nuisance of it, to a minimum.”   Another article, on June 16, 1905, stated that “electric power is to be used in hauling trains through the tunnel to prevent the accumulation of dangerous gases”, and other articles speculated on the possibility of building a hydroelectric plant on the Truckee River to power trains through the tunnel.  Electrification would add significant cost to the tunnel project, both to generate the power and for electric locomotives to power trains through the tunnel.   

There was also occasional speculation that Harriman would accomplish his double-tracking goal another way—by acquiring Western Pacific’s Beckwith Pass route.  A March 1905 article in the Bee went as far as to announce that the Sierra tunnel project had been dropped in favor of the Beckwith route, but offered no details on the business dealings that would make that possible.  Another article a couple of months later in the Sacramento Star reversed that, noting that Harriman of Union Pacific and Jay Gould of the Denver & Rio Grande and Western Pacific were no longer working together and would each pursue their transcontinental ambitions separately.   

Anti-Trust Suit and a War 

In 1907, the Interstate Commerce Commission began to investigate the relations among the western railroads as a possible violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  Named in the suit along with the railroad entities was E. H. Harriman, who had a financial interest in most of the major western railroads including the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and the AT&SF.   

Harriman did not live to see his tunnel built or his merger unwound.  He died in 1909 at his estate in New York, at the age of 61.   

In 1911, the Eighth Circuit Court found that the merger of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific did not in fact violate the Sherman Anti-Trust law, but the federal government continued to press other aspects of its suit.  In 1913, UP and SP, bowing to legal and business pressures, proposed to dissolve their merger, with each retaining a portion of the Central Pacific.   

Talk of the great tunnel persisted through 1912.  SP Chairman Robert S. Lovett told reporters in September of that year that SP’s directors were “considering” a 5-mile tunnel, but that “the proposition stood just where it did five years ago”.  Traffic on the Donner route continued to increase, with 44 trains handling 493 cars on the peak day in 1913.  Traffic congestion no doubt increased the urgency of double-tracking the Donner route, but managing the traffic and attendant staffing and equipment needs also preoccupied the railroad and made infrastructure improvements more difficult.   

In December of 1917, eight months after the United States entered World War I on behalf of the Allies, the majority of the country’s railroads, including the UP, SP and CP, were nationalized under the Federal Possession and Control Act, and they remained under Federal control until March, 1920.  During this period, the government owners eliminated non-critical passenger service, expanded freight operations, and purchased more than 100,000 new railroad cars and 1,930 steam engines, but made little or no investment in new trackage.   

The New Tunnel is Finally Drilled 

In 1923, the ICC and the Justice Department ruled that SP should be allowed to retain CP in its entirety.  This resolution of the legal control of the CP unleashed major improvement projects around the system, including the double-tracking of the Donner route from Blue Canyon to Truckee.  Plans to drill a 2-mile tunnel at the summit (Tunnel 41) were announced and work began almost immediately.  The summit tunnel was holed through on August 25, 1925, and the first train passed through on September 19th of that year.   

While significantly less ambitious than the 5-mile or longer tunnels proposed twenty-five years earlier, it was still the third-longest railroad tunnel in the United States and shortened the Sierra crossing by two miles.  Southern Pacific used the new tunnel for eastbound traffic and continued to route westbound trains through the old tunnels and snowsheds until 1993.  The rails through the old tunnels and snowsheds were pulled up, and since then all traffic has been single-tracked through Tunnel 41.    

Daniel Cobb is a railroad modeler, amateur historian, and volunteer with the Truckee Donner Railroad Society.  He lives in Tahoe Vista. 

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