Summit Tunnel #6

The Central Pacific Railway had to bore thirteen tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, this proved to be the biggest challenge of the Transcontinental Railway. None is more of an engineering feat than Tunnel #6, known as the Summit Tunnel, the longest tunnel on the Central Pacific.

Like it’s name implies it is on the summit of the Sierra Nevada at Donner Summit (7,017 feet). This 1,659 foot long tunnel was bore through granite with Chinese laborers using, at first black powder, and then later the more powerful but more volatile, nitroglycerin. The tunnel was started both at the west and east portals and when they finally met, the two bores were just an inch off.

I hiked up from Donner Summit Road, old Highway 40 (the highway is the last incarnation  of the Emigrant Trail), to the east portal. I walked through Tunnel #7 heading west along the abandoned railway grade. The single track was abandoned in 1993 when the line was double tracked to the south.

I entered the Summit Tunnel, found a dry place to sit, and started to sketch the tunnel from the east portal (the featured sketch).

Looking west down the 1,659 feet of the Summit Tunnel (#6).

What impressed me about this tunnel was the sheer effort that went into conquering the Sierran Monolith. Over 12,000 Chinese labored in the mountains, year round, 24 hours a day to will this tunnel into existence. It took just over a year to complete the tunnel (November 30, 1867). The first passenger train passed through on June 18, 1868.

After my sketch, I headed east through Tunnels # 7 and 8 and into the snow sheds that hugged the mountainside down past Donner Lake and into Truckee. The snowsheds are now abandoned and are now canvases for mountain/ urban artists.

The snowsheds where the brainchild of Stanford and despite their cost, were essential to keeping snow off the line during the massive snow falls that are almost a seasonal tradition in these parts. Think: Donner Party. The first sheds were built of wood.

Snowsheds looking east where now a stream instead of trains now runs.


The China Wall of Donner Pass

The construction of the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, would not have been possible without the thousands of Chinese laborers that gave their blood, sweat, and lives to the construction of the railroad. The workers, at their highest number, was 12,000, making the Chinese the largest work force on America at the time.

Many lost their lives to explosions, extreme cold, and avalanches. The Central Pacific Railway never kept records of Chinese fatalities, the true toll will remain a mystery to history.

On the the Old Donner Pass Road (Highway 40), just past the Rainbow Bridge, is the historical marker, “China Wall of the Sierra”. Looking just beyond the marker, a quick scramble up the hill, is the granite wall that holds up the roadbed between Tunnels #7 and 8. I sat on a bench of granite and sketched the wall from below.

The wall, which was built in 1867, was created to fill in a ravine and is 75 feet high. It is a testament to the workers, that after 150 years later the wall is still intact.

The upper China Wall on the right and the entrance to Tunnel #8 looking east along the now abandoned railroad bed.

An eastbound Union Pacific freight train at Norden, near Soda Spring Ski Resort. Around Donner Summit, the mainline has now been double tracked to the south of the original route of the Transcontinental Railroad. This stretch of iron was built by the Central Pacific which later became the Southern Pacific and then the SP merged with the Union Pacific on September 11, 1996.


The Transcontinental Railroad

Since visiting Promontory Summit, where the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met, thus completing the Transcontinental Railroad, I wanted to visit the location where the railroad started in California. So it was that I found myself on a Friday morning in “Old Town” Sacramento, on the banks of the Sacramento River.

A sign on the the side of the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot, notes, “You are standing where the First Transcontinental Railroad in America had its western origin, at Front and K Streets in Sacramento.” This location made sense because all of the materials used for the building was shipped up the Sacramento River from San Francisco and it was unloaded here. On January 8, 1863, then Governor and President of the Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, turned a shovelful of dirt, the official start of building the western leg of the Transcontinental Railway.

IMG_2777Just below this sign, is the birthplace of the Transcontinental Railway on the banks of the Sacramento River.

The other reason I found myself in Old Town was to visit the California State Railway Museum. The museum was opened in 1981 and I was there with my father to see SP’s No. 4449 and UP’s No. 8444 (now numbered 844) on the opening day. But today as these engines where back in Portland and Cheyenne and I was here to see a another very important steam engine: the Central Pacific’s No. 1 the Gov. Stanford.

This American type 4-4-0 was the first locomotive purchased by the Central Pacific at a cost of $13,688. The engine was built in Philadelphia in 1862 and then shipped on the Herald of there Morning around the horn of South America to California where it was reassembled in Sacramento. Stephan Ambrose notes of the 50,000 lb locomotive, in his book Nothing Like in the World, “the Governor Stanford [was] the biggest man-made thing in California”. This engine has many notable firsts for the Central Pacific: it hauled the first excursion train and the first passenger train on April 15, 1864 and the first freight train on March 25, 1864. It also took part in building the Transcontinental Railway with hauling supplies for the construction of the line over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The engine was slated to be scrapped in 1895 but it was saved and donated to Jane Lathrop Stanford, widow of Leland Stanford, in 1899 where it was put on display at Stanford University. It was later loaned to the California State Railway Museum where it is on display near where it first steamed to life on November 6, 1863, on the banks of the Sacramento.


Bloomer Cut and Cape Horn

After my visit to the California State Railway Museum I headed to a lasting vestige of the Transcontinental Railway, an engineering feat called, “the eighth wonder of the world”. It was about 30 minutes north of Sacramento between Newcastle and Auburn. This was the 63 foot deep and 800 feet long man-made canyon known as Bloomer Cut.

Like the still present ruts of the Oregon Trail, this rail cut is still there. It was blazed in 1864 with blood, sweat, and black powder. The builders did not have the heavy machinery of modernity but hundreds of laborers with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. This is one of the few remnants of the Transcontinental Railway, a permanent scar in the earth that shows it extisted. I was reading the Stephen Ambrose book Nothing Like it in the World and now I was reading it in the landscape.

I sat on a small boulder next to the rail line just where the cut began and I got a sketch in before it started to rain. Two things that don’t go together are watercolor painting and rain.

In the middle of Bloomer Cut, looking out to the southern end towards Newcastle, Roseville and Sacramento.

After reading about one of the other incredible engineering feats on the western reaches of the Transcontinental Railway, a cut made around a rock face, high above the North Fork of the American River called Cape Horn, I desided to see if it still existed. A quick google search not only confirmed its existence but also that it was located near Colfax, a mere 30 minutes east from my mother’s house in Penn Valley. I simply could not pass up this sketching opportunity.

Camp 20, which was later renamed Colfax to honor a visit to the railroad by then Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax. The town was the staging area for the first real assault on conquering the heights of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Railway grades cannot exceed 2%, that is a rise of two feet over 100 feet of rail. This provided one of the major engineering challenges for laying track across the Sierras. Many tunnels were blasted through granite to reduce the climb  and a roadbed had to be blasted into the side of the cliff at Cape Hope to make the ascent on the western slope of Sierra Nevada.

This incredible engineering feat would not have been possible without the thousands of Chinese laborers who worked on the line.  The workers had to be lowered over the cliff in reed baskets where there would drill a hole in the rock by hand and then fill the hole with black power. When they lit the fuse they had a short time to be hauled back up out of harm’s way. They gave their sweat, blood, and lives to make the cut around Cape Horn. The Central Pacific did not keep records of Chinese fatalities so we will never know the true toll in lives sacrificed in order to make a railroad that spread from sea to shinning sea a reality.


A field sketch of Cape Horn from the viewpoint of Highway 174 near Colfax.

Cape Horn railway bed is still in use today. Eastbound California Zephyr just leaving Colfax headed to Chicago, Ill.


Golden Spike

On my final morning I left my digs at West Yellowstone early in the morning, on my way to Salt Lake City for my flight home but I had one more stop before I headed west to the Golden State. This trip was bookended with our railroading history. One one end was the Union Pacific Steam stronghold and the largest steam engines that ever rode the rails and on the other end I was going to one of the most revered locations in United States railroading history.

I headed off the highway, north of the Great Salt Lake, to a destination that has been described as “45 minutes from nowhere”.  Here I was in high desert and the temperature was heading into the low 70’s, a heat I hadn’t felt all trip.

My destination was where the Transcontinental Railroad met and was completed in 1869, known today as the Golden Spike National Historic Site. This was where the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific finally united the country from coast to coast thus making overland travel by wagon a thing of the past.

I had only a limited time here because I had to return my Jeep and make my flight so I did not have time for any field sketches. I took plenty of photographs and my feature sketch is based on one of these photographs.

Golden Spike

A drawing based on the famous photograph by A. J. Russell “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail”, May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah.

Golden Spike Stanford

The Golden Spike at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Museum. The spike was a gift to Leland Stanford and lends its name to the National Historic Site. The sketch was drawn from life in Palo Alto, Ca.