Chinese Laborers Built Sierra Railroad

Chinese tea carrier. | Courtesy California State Library

Today the community of Truckee is a recreational paradise that’s complemented by a downtown of boutique retail stores and a sophisticated dining scene, but deep down it has always been a railroad town. It’s been a century and a half since the first train rolled through Truckee on June 18, 1868, and the nostalgic shriek of air horns, clang of railroad crossing bells and hissing of air brakes are still a daily occurrence. Historically, the transcontinental railroad was the economic lifeblood of this mountain hamlet.

To conquer the Sierra crest, the most challenging section of America’s first transcontinental railroad, CPRR hired thousands of Chinese men to pick, shovel and blast their way through the range’s formidable granite spine.

Interstate 80 enables motorists to whiz back and forth over Donner Pass with barely a glance at the extensive tunnel and shed network constructed by Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) in the 1860s. But the effort that it took for engineers and a Chinese labor force numbering in the thousands to build a railroad over the forbidding Sierra Nevada is still impressive today. For those with an interest, Donner Pass Road west of Donner Lake offers access to the original construction of the transcontinental railroad and subsequent first cross-country roadways.

To conquer the Sierra crest, the most challenging section of America’s first transcontinental railroad, CPRR hired thousands of Chinese men to pick, shovel and blast their way through the range’s formidable granite spine. Contracted from China to build the railroad, the men were paid $30 to $35 in gold per month. During the winter of 1866-67, workers endured 44 storms that dumped nearly 45 feet of snow, which unleashed deadly avalanches on the workmen. Despite the formidable obstacles, rail by rail the hard-working Chinese crews pushed the track east, reaching Donner Summit on Nov. 30, 1867. The track arrived in Truckee the following spring.

Engineering and constructing a railroad through the Sierra Nevada had long been considered an impossible folly, one long delayed by divisive politics in a country lurching toward the Civil War. William Tecumseh Sherman, who later became a Union general in that war, was a San Francisco banker in the 1850s. After exploring the mountains, he wrote to his brother of the project: “If it is ever built, it will be the work of giants.”

Even Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and ardent advocate of westward migration who exhorted, “Go west young man,” came to the same conclusion: “If Congress had common sense, they would not discuss such a subject … but those men in Washington seem to be more disposed to make fools of themselves, at the price of $8 per day to the people, than go to work and do their duty to their constituents.”

It took Theodore Judah, a brilliant engineer from Connecticut, to prove the skeptics wrong. China had built its Great Wall, now her people would accomplish another tremendous feat of construction. Judah convinced the U. S. Congress that he could snake a railroad through the treacherous California mountains, but due to slow progress drilling through the granite, much of the track in the Sierra high country was built along steep-sided, slide-prone slopes. Speed was of the essence because the railroad was getting paid by the number of miles completed and its competitor Union Pacific was pushing east at a fast clip.

To protect the tracks and trains, Central Pacific constructed 37 miles of wooden snow shed that required constant maintenance. Where a roadbed could not be built, a tunnel was blasted out. In the heavy snowbelt between 6,000 and 7,000 feet, nine tunnels were excavated, totaling nearly 1 mile in length. At Donner Summit, Tunnel No. 6 was carved through 1,659 feet of solid granite. Despite the use of 300 kegs of black powder daily, the rock was so hard that Chinese laborers working around the clock by lanterns and firelight could gain only about a foot per day. To expedite the work, a vertical shaft 75-feet deep was sunk so that crews could work four headers, two from the middle out and two inward toward the shaft. The cap on the shaft can be seen today off Donner Pass Road, just west of the Sugar Bowl Academy parking lot.

Black blasting powder had sufficed for the railroad construction until crews reached the obdurate High Sierra granite. After more than a year deploying the powder on the Summit Tunnel, Central Pacific director Charles Crocker decided to use a new high explosive called nitroglycerin, first discovered in 1846. An improved manufacturing process for nitroglycerin was patented in the U.S. by Alfred Nobel in 1865. Nitro is a clear, odorless oil 13 times more powerful than gunpowder and the active ingredient in dynamite. Nitroglycerin detonates instantly, producing a large volume of gas and a powerful shock wave that blasts rock apart.  (After seeing his invention used destructively in war, Nobel bequeathed money to establish the Nobel Peace Prize.)

When CPRR began using the high explosive to bore the Summit Tunnel, they were probably the first to do so in the country. Nitroglycerin was much more powerful than black powder, but it also had a nasty reputation for exploding at unexpected times. In April 1866, the San Francisco Chronicle described a terrible tragedy that resulted when someone tried to open a leaking case of nitro that had just arrived by steamer from Hamburg, Germany: “The explosion occurred in the office of Wells Fargo & Company by which eight persons lost their lives. It also caused a $250,000 in damage to the city’s commercial district. A man passing by the Wells Fargo office heard one of the employees address a man riding past on horseback, ‘Doctor we have got a case of oil and it seems to be smoking, I wish you would step in and advise us what had better be done with it.’” Minutes later the case exploded.

Crocker was reluctant to transport nitroglycerin any distance, so he arranged for it to be manufactured at construction sites where it doubled the speed of tunnel excavation. Even after harnessing the explosive power of dynamite, the Summit Tunnel was not completed until May 3, 1867; nearly two years after work began.

Constructing a railroad 88 miles over the rugged Sierra between Newcastle and Truckee took more than 8,000 men 38 months  — February 1865 to April 1868. In comparison, the railroad from Truckee across the desert to Promontory, Utah, a distance of 571 miles, took 5,000 men just one year and 27 days. General Sherman was right — conquering the Sierra did take the work of giants in the form of man-sized Chinese workers.