Cape Horn, which overlooked the Canyon of the American River and where the railroad was blasted out of the side of the mountain by Chinese workers, was one of the great engineering feats of the Central Pacific Railroad. It was often the site of tourist visits such as the one pictured above and was one of the most famous views in nineteenth-century California. The passengers here have detrained to admire the view. Notice the white dusters worn by the passengers to protect their clothing from dust and embers. This excursion, for some reason, appears to be largely, if not entirely, male.
The construction of Cape Horn is the stuff of railroad more and mythology. Oral tradition holds that the track bed was blasted out of the rocks by workers lowered precariously in baskets over the steep slope of the mountain. The construction of Cape Horn was impressive, but the efforts were unremarkable enough to escape mention in the newspapers of the time (The Sins of Stephen Ambrose).
From a Contemporary Tourist Guide
From The Pacific Tourist, 1884:
"Travelers going westward have often the pleasure of a delightful ride by moonlight across the famous scenes of the Sierras. Just at evening, when the sun casts its last glorious rays across the mountains, and lights up the peaks and snowy summits with slendor - the train arrives at Cape Horn, and the thrill of interest of the excited tourist, will never be forgotten. Take a good look from the point, westward down the grand canon of the American River. Step toward the edge of the cut, and look down the fearful precipice, which is often broken ere it reaches the lowest descent of 2,000 feet. It is a scene more famous in railroad pleasure travel, than any yet known"(Shearer, 251).
From Crofutt's Transcontinental Tourist's Guide, 1871:
"Timid ladies will draw back with a shudder, one look into the awful chasm being sufficient to unsettle their nerves and deprive them of the wish to linger near the grandest scene on the whole line of the trans-continental railroad. Now look farther down the river and behold that black speck spanning the silver line. That is the turnpike bridge on the road to Iowa Hill, though it looks no larger than a foot plank. Now we turn sharp around to our right, where the towering masses of rock have been cut down, affording a road-bed, where a few years ago the savage could not make a foot trail. Far above us they rear their black crests, towering away, as it were, to the clouds, their long shadows falling far across the lovely little valley no lying on our left and a thousand feet below us still"(Crofutt, 168).
Today, Cape Horn is noticeably bereft of tourists. The modern bed had been considerably widened and buttressed to accomodate today's trains. Comparing the modern railroad cars with those of the nineteenth century gives a sense of their difference in size and weight. Now, largely freight trains travel the Cape Horn tracks. Workers have fortified the cliff side of the tracks with a concrete retaining wall.