Central Pacific’s unlucky Tunnel 13
Echoes From the Past
Special to the Sierra Sun
When Theodore Judah laid out the Central Pacific Railroad from Donner Pass east to the Truckee River, he laid out a combination 180-degree-reversal-of-direction-curve, with a 900-foot-long tunnel, and a 50-foot drop as the tracks ran between the north side of Schallenberger Ridge above Donner Lake to the south side above Coldstream Valley. The tunnel was designated Tunnel 13 and seemed to be an unlucky one for the railroad.
Accidents were very common along the dangerous stretch of railroad from Verdi at the base of the Truckee River Canyon over Sierra to Emigrant Gap on the west, but Tunnel 13 had more than its share of wrecks, accidents and deaths.
Unlucky 13 was a difficult tunnel to construct through glacial debris and volcanic rock, including cave-ins that injured several Chinese laborers. As it was being completed in 1868, the superstition began to spread. The first notable accident occurred in June of 1869 when an engine ran into a handcar in the tunnel. The section men heard the engine just in time and all but one jumped to safety. One man was gravely injured.
Minor accidents and close calls led to the railroad issuing orders to engineers to proceed slowly and use their whistles liberally as a warning when approaching the tunnel. Ice was a constant winter hazard as well. In an era where brakemen rode on top of the cars, this tunnel was a special hazard. Icicles hanging down from the ceiling knocked countless men off the cars, killing half a dozen over the years. Even in summer a distracted brakeman who forgot to duck might be knocked off the cars and killed.
In the spring of 1875, ice caused a car to jump the track in the tunnel on the curve. The dozen-car-cleanup by the Truckee wrecking crew was complicated by the close quarters in the tunnel. It took over 11 hours to clean it and get the tracks fully operational again. A month later, another nine-car-smashup in the snow shed just below the tunnel caused the cars to pile up so high that the roof of the shed was torn off. No injuries were reported in either accident.
In 1878 a speeding freight train ran into a snowslide on the Donner Lake side of the tunnel which required the wrecking train to drag the damaged cars back to the Truckee repair shops.
As time went on, more minor accidents and fires occurred in or near the curved tunnel. In the 1870s, a siding and turntable had been erected on the Coldstream side to turn snow plows around. In 1883, several lumber cars had been dropped off on the siding, but they got loose. The cars crashed at the switch just before an eastbound passenger train came speeding out of the tunnel. Quickly applying the brakes, but unable to stop in time, the locomotive crashed into the cars. The engine turned over, and was demolished. The lead engineer was injured, with a broken ankle, a dislocated shoulder, and bruises and scrapes all over. No passengers were injured due the heroic efforts of the engineer.
A few years later a fireman was knocked from a locomotive in the tunnel. He bounced off the wall, but managed to crawl out before a following train came rushing by. Track walkers, assigned to keep a eye on falling rocks and snow shed fires were also occasionally brushed by flying trains in the tunnel. It continued to be a thoroughly dangerous place as train speeds and locomotive sizes both increased in the 1880s.
The snow sheds that protected the tracks from winter’s fury caused a fire hazard during the summer. The sheds on the Coldstream side were of particular concern as they sat on the hot, dry southern exposure. Track walkers and alarm systems were placed all along the line, especially at Tunnel 13. Fire trains sprayed the tunnel timbers and snow sheds down weekly during the summer months, but in 1897, that wasn’t enough.
A fire started in the brush next to tracks and quickly caught the wooden sheds on fire. The telegraph operator hurriedly sent a message that the sheds and connected station was catching fire. She then fled to the tunnel itself to escape the inferno.
Over 3,700 feet of sheds and track were destroyed with fire coming up to the mouth of the tunnel itself. This was the worst fire the railroad had suffered in years, but more were to come. The reputation of Tunnel 13 as an unlucky spot remained.
In August of 1898 hobos riding in a boxcar started a fire that caught an adjacent oil car on fire. The train stopped just shy of Tunnel 13 on the Donner Lake side where snow sheds were extensive. The fire quickly caught the next cars in line: They unfortunately contained naphtha, a highly volatile liquid.
The ignition of naphtha caused an explosion heard in Truckee and caught the snow sheds and whole forested hillside ablaze. For hours the fire raged, but the Southern Pacific fire trains from both Truckee and Donner Summit prevented the fire from burning into the wood-lined tunnel itself.
These fires were just a prelude to the November 1898 fire that caught the 30-year-old timber inside the tunnel itself. Sparks from a passing train caught the bone-dry timbers on fire and the flames devoured the whole 900 feet of the lining. Cave-ins followed as the dirt and rock were heated and cooled again.
The heroic fire train crews could only make sure that the fire stayed inside the tunnel and not burn the newly reconstructed snow sheds on either side from the previous fires.
It took well over a week for construction crews to clear the wreckage, shore up the mountain, reline the tunnel, and relay the tracks. In the meantime mail was carried by wagon from Donner Summit to Truckee. Passengers had to walk around the ridge on a rough temporary trail, with porters hired to carry the baggage, day or night to keep trans-Sierra traffic moving.
While passengers trains ran to each end of the tunnel, freight trains were stopped entirely. Express freight was taken by wagon between Truckee and Donner Summit, creating a mass of confusion at both locations and traffic jams along Donner Lake that hadn’t been witnessed since 1867.
The year 1901 saw a series of wrecks and minor accidents on either side of the tunnel, including a spectacular head-on high speed collision on the Donner Lake side that destroyed two Mogul locomotives. Even though many of these incidents didn’t involve the tunnel itself, the designation of unlucky 13 got the blame again.
In August of 1901 the snow sheds on the Coldstream side near the tunnel caught fire again. About 3,000 feet of sheds, the telegraph office, and eight freight cars burned, delaying trains for a day or two, but requiring several months to reconstruct.
The next run-of-the-mill accident was a six-car derailment in the tunnel in February of 1902. Like most minor accidents, it only took the Truckee wrecking crew six hours to get the tracks opened again.
In August a missed order on the new signal block system caused two locomotives to collide head-on near Tunnel 13. Only because the crews jumped to safety did no deaths result. Dozens of freight cars were demolished and freight was scattered everywhere. As this occurred in the snow sheds, it took far longer than normal to clear up the tracks.
Seven serious injuries were reported and Truckee Doctors Shoemaker and Bryant went to the scene to treat the injuries. The two locomotives were collapsed into each other so tightly that they were brought down the mountain to Truckee locked together. For a full week, crews were on the scene recovering freight and replacing the snow shed timbers.
A few months later, an unidentified railroad worker was run over and decapitated in the tunnel, making him another unlucky victim of the tunnel. November saw a rear-end accident right outside the switch on the Coldstream side, followed by a minor wreck a few days later.
In August of 1907 a passenger train engineer could not see through a tunnel full of smoke that another passenger train was still on the main line in the tunnel. The engineer started up his train and hit the other engine. Little damage was done, but the embarrassment was huge, as Sierra Pacific’s General Manager Calvin and Nevada Senator George Nixon were on the moving train.
For another decade the wrecks and accidents slowly diminished. The cause wasn’t the lack of superstition regarding Tunnel 13, but was related to the steady improvement of safety all along the Southern Pacific Donner Pass line. In 1913 the name of the turntable and station were changed to Andover, but Tunnel 13 still remains, modernized, still a feat of Judah’s engineering, and maybe not so unlucky anymore.
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