The remarkable China Wall

Bill Oudegeest / Special to the Sun
The China Wall was built in 1867.
Provided / Bill Oudegeest

Building the Transcontinental Railroad across the Sierra was an amazing feat. Everyone just accepts that but consider the trials. The mountains are high and the weather is extreme. Consider trying to find a route where the entire train run could not have more than 2.5% grades. Imagine plotting a route through and around mountain peaks.

Laying out the route through the geography was a huge challenge. That was not the end however. They had to find financing. They had to find labor. They had to fight rock slides and avalanches, freezing weather, storms, huge falls of snow (35 feet or so in a season at the Summit), desert, and fire. The workers had to face black powder and nitroglycerine.

They had to face isolation, accidents and sometimes a lack of food. The Asian workers had to face racism. They were prey for white thieves and riots aimed at evicting them. Then there was the race between the two railroads, one heading east and one heading west. The railroads were paid based on the miles of track laid. Therefore, the more track placed gave them more money from the Federal Government.

Tunnel after tunnel (15 total) went through the Sierra mountains and then they built more tunnels to shelter the line from the snow. We see the tunnels and we can see the trestles bridging the canyons and rivers. But there was also the need to harness gravity and fill in low spots.

Traveling Old Highway 40 over the Summit we can see the Lincoln Highway, snow tunnels, the railroad, climbing rocks, famous peaks, Rainbow Bridge, the petroglyphs, and the Pass. Almost ignored is the wall off to the south, just before the string of snowsheds, China Wall. This was used to cross a canyon using real rock to stand to time.

China Wall

As they dug and blasted Summit Tunnel 6 (160 cross, 59 feet of solid granite) they carried the rubble to the ravine just east of the tunnel. There they filled and perfectly fitted a dry fill (using no mortar) rock retaining wall that is 150 feet tall. I’ve driven past it innumerable times and walked atop it a few times. Then one day I thought I’d pay attention to the details. If you walk up from Old 40 take a look at how beautifully the rocks are laid together. Look at the tool marks from pry bars and star drills. The color is beautiful too, especially if you admire the wall after a rain which saturates the colors. Then contrast that 1867 China Wall with the modern concrete/gunite wall at the start of the snowshed above and just a bit east. There’s beauty in China Wall as the pictures show.

To build the wall and the railroad path, the Chinese workers had to work six days a week, 52 weeks a year. There were more than 8000 workers and without them, the railroad would not have been built. Ironically, it was first thought Chinese workers would not be acceptable. They were too small but Leland Stanford supposedly said, “They built the Great Wall” didn’t they?

China Wall is a testament of their work, passion and being a part of our community.

Visit China Wall

In the Sierra, they built a great railroad. And a great wall. The fact that it still stands is a testament of the caliber of work that was completed.

To get there (based on current construction) take I-80 to the Soda Springs exit. Turn East and drive past Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. You will pass the trailhead of trailheads at the Summit, go over Rainbow Bridge and the China Wall is visible on the right. If Hwy 40 is open just follow Donner Pass Road up to the Summit. China Wall will be on the left.

To get the real history

Sign up for a Donner Party Hike! The hikes will take place on September 9 and 10. Several of them take you onto the wall and you can hear about the history of the area from local historians. Sign up at

Bill Oudegeest is a well-known author, historian, teacher and community member of Donner Summit.

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