Johnson’s Ranch

It was long after dark when we got to Johnson’s Ranch, so the first time I saw it was early in the morning. The weather was fine, the ground was covered with green grass, the birds were singing from the tops of trees, and the journey was over. I could scarcely believe that I was alive.

The scene I saw that morning seems to be photographed on my mind. Most of the incidents are gone from memory, but I can always see the camp near Johnson’s Ranch.

~John Breen, April 24, 1847

John Breen wrote this letter once he had crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the foothills of California as a member of the emigrant group now known as the Donner Party.

Out of the 87 members of this doomed party only 48 survived. Most of the 48 survivors where women and children. Breen and his family were lucky. All of their family members survived.

It is unclear where Breen wrote this well known letter but is was either at Sutter’s Fort (in present day Sacramento) or at Johnson’s Ranch (near Wheatland).

Johnson’s Ranch was the first settlement the emigrants encounter once they entered California on the California Trail. They often paused here after the grueling passage over Donner Summit before heading down to Sutter’s Fort in present day Sacramento. They would camp near the banks of the Bear River.

Once the Breens came into California at Johnson’s Ranch and then Sutter’s Fort, they relocated to the mission town of San Juan Bautista.

Johnson’s Ranch was a Mexican Land Grant that eventually ended up in the hands of Willian Johnson. In 1846 be built a humble adobe house that became known as Johnson’s Rancho.

During the winter of 1847, the seven surviving members of the Forlorn Hope staggered into Johnson’s Ranch. They were a party that set out from Truckee Lake in order to get help for the ill fated Donner Party. The party got lost and of the 17, only seven made it to the ranch. The survivors that made it to included it’s leader William Eddy, and sisters Sarah Fosdick, and Mary Ann Graves.

All of the relief parties that took the remaining survivors from the Lake and Alder Creek Camps back into California, staged and departed from Johnson’s Ranch.

Today the town of Wheatland is near the location of the ranch. Nothing remains of the original ranch. Just California Registered Historical Landmark No. 493. The plaque sits in the town’s park near the railroad tracks. It reads:

The first settlement reached in California by emigrant trains using the Emigrant (‘Donner’) Trail, this was an original part of the 1844 Don Pablo Gutiérrez land grant. It was sold at auction to William Johnson in 1845, and in 1849 part of the ranch was set aside as a government reserve-Camp Far West. In 1866, the town of Wheatland was laid out on a portion of the grant.


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.