The Long Winter: How tunnels were carved on Donner Summit | SierraSun.com
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The Long Winter: How tunnels were carved on Donner Summit

Staff reports

Excerpts of a paper read before the American Society of Engineers, January 5, 1870, by John R. Gilliss, Civil Engineer, Member of the Society.

During the past summer, the track has been completed across this continent, and so much sooner than was thought possible, that the difficulties overcome are apt to be underrated. Some account of a single item in the great work may therefore be interesting.

The tunnels of the Central Pacific are nearly all near the summit, where it crosses the western range of the Sierra Nevada.

In November and the early part of December were several snow-storms; just enough to stimulate without delaying the work. The rocky sides of Donner Peak soon became smooth, slopes of snow and ice covering the trail that led from tunnel 8 to 9; it remained impassable until spring, and communication had to be kept up by the wagon-road, five or six hundred feet below.

This, the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake wagon road, was opened soon after it was decided to adopt this route. From the Pass the descent toward the lake was over very rough ground, requiring heavy side cuts and retaining walls with numerous zig-zags to gain distance.

From this road the scene was strangely beautiful at night. The tall firs, though drooping under their heavy burdens, pointed to the mountains that overhung them, where the fires that lit seven tunnels shone like stars on their snowy sides. The only sound that came down to break the stillness of the winter night was the sharp ring of hammer on steel, or the heavy reports of the blasts.

Our quarters were at the east end of Donner Pass, but still in the narrow part. About the second or third day of a storm, the wind would be a gale, sometimes 10 lbs. to a square foot; and would plough up the new-fallen snow to heap it in huge drifts beyond the east end of the pass. About 30 ft. from our windows was a large warehouse; this was often hidden completely by the furious torrent of almost solid snow that swept through the gorge. On the cliff above, the cedar trees are deeply cut, many branches of the thickness of a man’s wrist being taken off entirely by the drifting snowflakes.

No one can face these storms when they are in earnest. Three of our party came through the pass one evening, walking with the storm – two got in safely. After waiting a while, just as we were starting out to look for the third, he came in exhausted. In a short, straight path, between two walls of rock, he had lost his way and thought his last hour had come.

With the exception of a few white men at the west end of tunnel No. 6, the laboring force was entirely composed of Chinamen, with white foremen – the laborers working usually in 3 shifts of 8 hours each, and the foremen in 2 shifts of 12 hours each. A single foreman, with a gang of 30 to 40 men, generally constituted the force at work at each end of a tunnel; of these, 12 to 15 worked on the heading, and the rest on the bottom, removing material, etc.

The Chinamen were as steady, hardworking a set of men as could be found. They were paid from $30 to $35, in gold, a month, finding lodgings themselves; while the white men were paid about the same, but with their board thrown in. The force at work on the road probably averaged from 6,000 to 10,000, nine-tenths of them being Chinamen.


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