The Quest to Protect California’s Transcontinental Railroad Tunnels
Built by Chinese immigrants in the 1860s, the caverns cutting through Donner Summit helped unite the country
A summer hike led me straight to the yawning maw of the Donner Summit tunnels high above Donner Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not even the longer of the two, a man-made cavern 1,659 feet in length, appeared on my map. There was no historical marker, no plaque, no interpretive signs—no signage of any sort. I had no way of knowing that I’d accidentally stumbled on one of the most important engineering marvels of the 19th century, the one that united America.
The Sierra Nevada, the 400-mile-long range of granite peaks that form the backbone of California, was the most formidable obstacle in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The only way past them was through. But in the mid-1860s, an era without dynamite or heavy machinery, the task seemed unsurmountable. The granite was too hard, the mountains too steep, the 7,042 foot elevation where snow arrived early and stayed late was too treacherous for train travel.
Thousands of men, nearly all of them immigrants from China, working 24 hours a day for 16 months, proved the seemingly impossible possible. Using hand drills, black powder and experimental nitroglycerin explosives, the workers penetrated the granite at a rate of a foot per day. When the most impressive tunnel of the bunch, Tunnel #6, was completed in November 1867 and finally opened to train traffic, it stretched the length of nearly five football fields across the mountain pass, the highest elevation tunnel in the world. A year-and-a-half later, the Transcontinental was complete, cutting the travel time from the East to the West Coast from 118 days to just six.
Over 150 years later, the Donner Summit tunnels and 13 others in the Sierra Nevada built by Chinese railroad workers remain a testament to ingenuity and industry. But despite their historical importance, the Donner Summit tunnels—which can easily be accessed from the Pacific Crest Trail and a parking lot on Donner Pass Road (just west of Truckee) less than a quarter mile away—have never officially been recognized. Instead, with no active management or protection, they’ve been overrun by adventure seeking tourists and graffiti artists. Their activity, combined with a century-and-a-half of ice, snow and rain, earned the tunnels a place on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2021 list of the most endangered historic sites in America.
“This is really one of the wonders of California to me,” says Phil Sexton, the executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, when we meet at the Donner Summit in mid-October. The wind is howling and a dusting of snow covers the ground. Inside the tunnels, rivulets of icy water drip from the ceilings and the air is frigid and musty with ammonia.
“Competent railroad engineers said it couldn’t be done but the Chinese weren’t railroad workers and didn’t know it couldn’t be done,” he says as I reach out to run my hand over the pattern of drill divets in the wall like an acolyte in a granite cathedral to the past. When an entire class of middle schoolers comes tramping in, graffiti hiding on the dark, pockmarked walls flash in brilliant yellows and reds beneath the beams of their headlamps. Overhead, a central shaft dug to allow more workers to tackle the rock simultaneously, reaches for the Earth’s surface. Outside, a hand-built retaining wall of stacked granite boulders, dubbed the “China Wall” by historians, remains perfectly intact, despite having been built without mortar or cement of any kind.
Sexton, the former deputy director of the California State Railroad Museum and arguably the country’s foremost expert on the Donner Summit tunnels, along with the 1882 Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service and other stakeholders, has been trying to raise awareness about the tunnels for years. Although they haven’t been used since their tracks were removed in the mid-1990s and traffic diverted through newer, larger tunnels, they remain the private property of the Union Pacific Railroad. Technically, just entering them is illegal, though there is nothing to prevent people from doing so, not even the threat of fines. And so they come, hundreds per day in the summer months, some on bikes, some on foot, some with spray paint.
Chinese laborers began work on the Donner Summit tunnels in early 1866. The men were organized into gangs of 12, each with an English-speaking or white foreman and a cook. They worked in eight hour shifts around the clock, assaulting the granite with hand drills, a long curved metal bar held in place by one man as two others took turns slamming it against the rock with sledgehammers. A four-inch hole took eight hours to carve. They stopped only when the tea caddy, a young man carrying a yoke hung with jugs of tea, came calling.
Tunnel #6, the most challenging to build, was attacked from multiple sides. While one work crew dug the vertical eight-by-twelve-foot central shaft from the surface into the mountain, others dug from the west and east. The work continued through one of the harshest winters on record, less than a mile from where, 20 years before, the infamous Donner Party was trapped by raging storms and forced into cannibalism. The men, apparently, had heard the tale. It was one of the few things Connie Young Yu’s great-grandmother Chin Shee, who traveled from the village of Sun Chuen in southeastern China to San Francisco in the early 1870s to marry Lee Wong Sang, a former railroad camp head man in the Sierra, had heard about California.
“[They] were pioneers,” Young Yu, a historian, writer and long-time activist in Northern California’s Chinese American community explains. “The railroad represented so much to Chinese Americans. Nothing is so quintessentially American as the railroad in the 19th century.”The overwhelming majority of the workers at the Donner Summit tunnels came from five districts in the province of Guangdong, China. Some villages had so many young men that left to seek their fortune on the Transcontinental that they were known as “railroad villages.” Despite intense anti-Chinese racism, many went on to make a new life in California when the railroad was complete. Due to extreme poverty and armed conflict, “that whole area had for generations sent their men overseas,” explains Sue Lee, retired director of the Chinese Historical Society of America. “The handful of us who are third, fourth, fifth generation Americans come from those areas.”
Although it's a myth that most of the Chinese laborers were illiterate, according to Lee, scholars have yet to locate any journals or letters written by workers at the Donner Summit tunnels. “People never talked about their work,” says Young Yu,. “It’s hardship and labor. You don’t tell your parents you were nearly killed in an avalanche.” So most of what is known comes from historical records and the stories passed from generation to generation among their descendants.
Archaeological evidence provides some additional clues as to who the men were and how they survived on the mountain. “They probably lived in fairly cramped quarters in wooden cabins that seem to be just ad hoc construction, whatever the work crew put together,” explains Scott Baxter, senior archaeologist at Pacific Legacy, Inc., who conducted the first formal archaeological survey near the tunnels this summer in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service as a first step in defining the site for official recognition. It’s likely that the work crews mostly kept to themselves with each cooking their own food on keyhole-shaped wok stoves. Glazed brown stoneware jars shipped directly from China supplied the men with familiar foodstuffs: pickled and dried fruits, vegetables and meats, sauces and rice wine.
In the decades following their opening, every train to and from the East passed through the Donner Summit tunnels. “Everything for World War II in the Pacific and the nuclear bomb...the Chinese in the 1860s helped save the country 80 years later,” says Sexton. It would be another 145 years before the Chinese railroad workers' contributions were finally recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. The Summit tunnels are still awaiting their turn.
It’s not exactly clear why the tunnels have been so overlooked, perhaps it’s the rugged geography and recreational use of the area by skiers, hikers and climbers or the persistent legacy of anti-Chinese racism. But the biggest obstacle to honoring them and the workers who built them is the sheer number of stakeholders—the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort and Donner Ski Ranch, the U.S. Forest Service and the Donner Summit Historical Society, not to mention Union Pacific, itself—with vested interests that range from the need for parking lots and resort access roads to forest conservation.
Although Union Pacific had no comment on the dozens of people who visit the site daily nor its frequent vandalism, they did eventually respond to my calls and emails with a statement: “The tunnels are private property and Union Pacific posted signs warning against trespassing. While it is not an active rail line today, we use the area for limited purposes such as staging equipment for main line work and as an access point…History is incredibly important to Union Pacific [and we are] open to opportunities that honor Donner Summit’s history in a thoughtful and safe way.”
Ted Gong, executive director of the 1882 Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to building public awareness about the history and continuing significance of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and others are putting a lot of thought into how to better protect the site and share its stories. They are in favor of a private-public collaboration that might include basic infrastructure to mitigate the wear and tear on the site, such as an interpretive center and trail markers, as well as volunteer docents and educational opportunities.
One idea is to establish the Donner Summit tunnels as a National Historic Landmark (NHL), a designation that would protect them from new destructive activities and may provide some resources for planning and preservation without requiring Union Pacific to make any changes to the site, explains Gong. But the archaeological work done by Baxter last summer is just the beginning of a lengthy nomination process that will ultimately require approval from both the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior to go forward. “The NHL nomination is not a foregone conclusion,” says Baxter, but the slow crawl towards official recognition is, in 2022, closer at hand than ever before in the railroad’s history. “The Summit tunnels should be as evocative to us as when we hear the words Trail of Tears, the Underground Railroad, the Oregon Trail or Route 66,” says Gong. “It’s part of the Chinese American experience but every American should be proud of what’s represented there.”
Eric Norberg, whose great-great-grandfather Lum Ah Chew worked on the Donner Summit tunnels, agrees. “Just standing there and looking out over the whole valley below Donner Lake, it’s the same view my great-great-grandfather looked at,” he says. “To feel the rock and to know all the work that went into carving it is pretty astonishing. It should be recognized as a monumental feat. It shouldn’t just be allowed to be destroyed.”
Freezing rain is falling when we finally emerge from the tunnels and slowly walk the quarter mile back towards our vehicles in the Donner Summit parking lot. The granite crags of the Sierra Nevada blur in the mist. Winter is coming. Within weeks, these tunnels will be completely obscured by the snow, but the legacy of the Chinese laborers and the impossible tunnels they made possible can never be buried.