By Phil Sexton
For those of us who live, work, and play in this region, it’s hard to ignore the mountains to the west of Truckee, particularly the pass. It’s both a barrier and an opportunity, as it has been for thousands of years. Up there are petroglyphs that may be 4,000 years old, evidence of Gold Rush immigrants to California, and the first automobile route to cross the United States. The very name, Donner Pass, speaks to the challenge of crossing the Sierra.
A key section of the historic transcontinental railroad also lies up there, perched high above Donner Lake. Even though the tracks in the original roadbed were dismantled in 1993, it remains visible, as well as tunnels, massive rock walls, and concrete snowsheds, somehow blending into the landscape as if they’ve always been there.
Completion of the railroad was vital and meaningful to our nation’s history, and this part was particularly daring and dangerous to achieve. Have you ever thought about who did this work and how it was done? Increasingly, people are interested in this chronicle, which for decades had been nearly lost to historical record.
Before the 1860s, no one had ever built a railroad over such high mountains. The owners of the Central Pacific were politicians, attorneys, and merchants, not railroaders. To complicate things further, there was a labor shortage in California due to the Civil War and demand for silver miners in the Comstock Lode. Because they were the only workforce available, local Chinese labor was hired by Central Pacific when railroad construction reached Auburn in 1864. By the time the railroad reached the High Sierra in 1865, perhaps 5,000 Chinese worked for Central Pacific, making the company the largest employer of Chinese outside of mainland China.
A prime example of the treacherous and mind-boggling feats that railroad work entailed on Donner Pass: In one significant section, the route had to go straight through rock, for a total of 1,654 feet. It was painstaking drudgery — laborers drilled and blasted with black powder and later, nitroglycerin, done by hand, with a day’s work measured in inches. Work began on this tunnel 6 in late 1865 and the first train passed through in November 1867. For 126 years, this passageway was a direct connection between the East Coast and San Francisco Bay. During World War II, the route helped liberate the Chinese mainland from the Japanese empire, since much of the troops and munitions used in the Pacific theatre came west by railroad over the pass.
But few, if anyone on the ground at the construction site, thought in such grand terms. There was a job to do, and the Chinese were most unlikely workers for such hard work. Physically small, most with no knowledge of English, it just didn’t make any sense. In the process of constructing 40-plus miles of track bed between Auburn and Cisco, Chinese workers had become master road builders, master masons, and masters of organizing work gangs. Dependable and hard-working, they were the right people in the right place.
In a foreign and hostile environment, working in tight groups, these men worked, lived, and in many cases died to bore more than a dozen railroad tunnels through granite and metamorphic rock. Still, the contribution of Chinese workers to this great national undertaking was barely a footnote in most historic accounts. In 1969, at the centennial celebration in Utah, the one Chinese speaker invited to the official event was bumped from the program when John Wayne showed up at the ceremony.
But over the last two decades, history is remembering the work of these labor giants. In the years leading up to the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 2019, there was renewed interest in understanding, learning, and teaching the history of construction for the entire railroad. PBS, the History Channel, and foreign television have aired numerous documentaries. AMC broadcast the drama Hell on Wheels from 2011 to 2016, a heavily fictionalized western centered around building the railroad. On New Year’s Day 2019, a float in the Rose Parade, sponsored by the Chinese-American Heritage Foundation, re-created the moment when locomotives came together at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869.
From 2009 to 2019, Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project attempted to document as much verifiable information about the contribution of the Chinese as possible, ultimately publishing two books and providing a wealth of information available online. At the same time, advocacy groups such as the 1882 Foundation, the US-China Railroad Friendship Association, Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, and others have lobbied, educated, and shared their members’ knowledge. Museums along the railroad corridor developed programs and exhibits. From 2012 to 2019, UC Davis’s History Project, which provides continuing education for history teachers across the nation, presented 14 sessions of Teaching the Transcontinental Railroad in partnership with the California State Railroad Museum and noted scholars.
The milestones achieved with Chinese labor at Donner Pass is the most visible and dramatic monument to their work between Sacramento and Promontory, Utah. Much of the original route remains in use, but at Donner Pass, the roadbed, tunnels, and China Wall, while still owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, are not in service. Today, all trains run on track 2, about a mile south.
On public land near the roadbed, evidence of buildings, habitation, and work sites used by these workers can still be found. Thousands of people visit year-round to explore this area. Sadly, others come to paint graffiti on the tunnel walls and snowsheds, operate motorized vehicles in closed areas, and damage or remove remnants of the past. While a lot of information is available on the web, much of it is inaccurate, and there’s little or no on-site interpretation that can help people better understand this important part of both American and Chinese history. Enter the 1882 Foundation — which would like for this to change.
The foundation is a national nonprofit advocacy and educational group named after the year of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, that provided for an absolute 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. Among its work, the organization is spearheading an effort to nominate a portion of the Donner Pass railroad area as a National Historic Landmark, a designation by the federal government for exceptional places that illuminate U.S. heritage.
Members of the 1882 Foundation have met with representatives of Union Pacific Railroad, Sugar Bowl Ski Area, Tahoe National Forest, and National Park Service to develop consensus and support for this landmark; they are currently engaging regional stakeholders in the process as well.
Locals have always known how special and important this site is, and many people are passionate about its history and meaning. In 2016, Nevada County, together with local residents and businesses, prepared a general plan for the area to encourage informed, wise development and historic preservation. You may have noticed the construction on the summit this summer that is tied to this plan. A National Historic Landmark designation would complement and enhance these efforts, making it easier to fund grants, gain philanthropic and professional support, and complete a proper setting and infrastructure for this crown jewel of our history.
Thankfully, due to the efforts of many, the work of the giants will not be forgotten.
Great Resources to Learn More
The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, by Gordon H. Chang and Shelly Fisher Fishkin, Stanford University Press
Ghosts of Gold Mountain, by Gordon Chang, Mariner Publishers
Chinese Railroad Workers in North American Project, Stanford University
Summit Tunnel, Exploring APA Heritage
Legacy, 2019, 18-minute film, directed by Joe Flannery, USDA Forest Service
Soda Springs General Plan, Nevada County Planning Department
~ Phil Sexton is the executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society and has returned to the Tahoe/Truckee area after an 11-year detour working for California State Parks at the California State Railroad Museum, Sutter’s Fort, and the State Capitol Museum. You can contact Phil at firstname.lastname@example.org.