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Echoes From The Past: How Chinese labor conquered the summit

Guy Coates, Sierra Sun columnist

(Continued from the May 24 Sierra Sun)

Theodore Judah’s decision to bring the railroad over Donner Pass caused almost instant activity in this area.

An endless succession of freight wagons traveled the turnpike road between Dutch Flat and the Truckee Basin, hauling supplies in advance of the railroad. The population of Coburn’s Station grew larger each day. It wasn’t long before saloons, dance halls and gambling dens were flourishing.

By the autumn of 1866, the Central Pacific had already reached Cisco and was beginning the ascent to the summit. The next 28 miles would prove to be the most difficult section of the entire transcontinental railroad.

Crews faced one delay after another. Huge trees had to be felled on the rights-of-way, the stumps blasted clear and ice had to be chipped from the frozen ground. Supplies had to be hauled on sleds from Cisco and 11 tunnels had to be carved through solid granite. The delays nearly drove railroad founder Charles Crocker out of his mind.

The Chinese proved to be extremely industrious and willing to work in dangerous situations. At Cape Horn they had been lowered in baskets over cliffs some 2,000 feet above the American River canyon to chisel a roadbed through granite and shale deposits. But now they showed their greatest strength amidst the chill winds of late October in building 15 tunnels through the Sierra.

Chinese workers were divided into gangs of 12 to 20 each, with a cook assigned to each group. Each gang had a “headman” who received from the foreman an account of the time credited to his gang. The headman bought and paid for all the provisions used by the gang and kept track of the amount of pay due each individual at the end of the month. They lived in simple dwellings and cooked their own meals, often consisting of fish, dried oysters, fruit, mushrooms and seaweed.

C.P.P.R. Superintendent James Strobridge, who at first opposed the use of Chinese labor, became one of their greatest supporters when he expressed to Crocker, “They learn quickly, do not fight, have no strikes that amount to anything, and are very cleanly in their habits.”

Crocker echoed these observations in a letter to outgoing Congressman Cornelius Cole, which stated: “A large part of our force are Chinese and they prove nearly equal to white men in the amount of labor they perform, and are far more reliable.”

Tunnel six, also referred to as the “Summit Tunnel,” was the crowning achievement in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. This was the longest tunnel, extending from the eastern side of the Summit to an opening on the west near today’s Donner Ski Ranch. It ran more than 1,600 feet through solid granite.

Despite endless digging and blasting, the Chinese laborers were only able to gain about eight inches a day. The construction was so difficult that engineers decided to try a new method of blasting using nitroglycerine, which increased the rate of tunnel excavation by fifty percent.

On March 15, 1867 a story appeared in the Nevada Daily Transcript telling how a huge avalanche of snow and rock near tunnel six buried 50 Chinese workers beneath the snow. Despite the courageous efforts of other workers to save their comrades, only 18 men were rescued.

When the first train rolled through Truckee on June 19, 1868, all work in town ceased as townspeople lined the riverbank to wave and cheer. It was day to be remembered; the Sierra Nevada had been crossed.

The contribution and sacrifice of Chinese workers to the construction of the Summit Tunnel cannot be understated. Thousands of Chinese participated in the project and many gave their lives. Without this tunnel the railroad could not have been completed at so opportune a time in our national history. Failure to finish the railroad would have weakened the United States’ ability to defend its West Coast and delayed the full economic development of our Western regions.

By the summer of 1868, 4,000 workers, two-thirds of which were Chinese, had built the transcontinental railroad over the Sierra and into the interior plains. On May 10, 1869, the two railroads met at Promontory, Utah in front of a cheering crowd and a band. A Chinese crew was chosen to lay the final 10 miles of track, and it was completed in only 12 hours.

On August 7, 1999, the Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus in recognition of the diligence, persistence and hard work of Chinese workers whose indomitable courage and sacrifice made the first transcontinental railroad possible, re-dedicated tunnel six in their name.

Future Motion Picture

Movie titans Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese have reportedly joined forces on a monumental film project about the American Railroad. Spielberg’s production company, DreamWorks, will produce and Scorsese will direct the film, titled “Into The Setting Sun.”

According to Hollywood trade paper Variety, the story will focus on the birth and construction of the transcontinental railroad. This will be the first collaboration between the two filmmakers. No time scale or locations for filming have yet been announced.

“Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at gcoats@telis.org.


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