In fall 1865 Chinese workers embarked on the most daunting of all the challenges they faced on the Central Pacific: digging 15 tunnels, most of them at high elevations, through the Sierra Nevada, for a total of 6,213 feet/1894 meters.
“Summits Of Sierras 8000 To 10000 Feet Altitude.” # 187, Photograph. Courtesy of The Alfred A. Hart Photo Collection, Special Collections, Stanford University. [link
The most difficult was No. 6, the Summit Tunnel (Mile 105.5/Kilometer 170), cut through solid granite, 1,695 feet/517 meters long and 124 feet/38 meters below the mountain’s surface.1 Progress was agonizingly slow, with many kegs of black powder used each day, but to little effect in the hard rock. In an unusual move, a chemist mixed the recently developed explosive, nitroglycerine, on site, but it was very unstable and dangerous, and the risk of accidental explosions always remained high. Soon after Tunnel No. 6, the Summit Tunnel, the CPRR abandoned the use of nitroglycerine.
Crews dug at both the east and west face of the Summit Tunnel, but progress was still too slow for Charles Crocker. In order to move the work more quickly, a stripped down locomotive was hauled to the top of the tunnel and work gangs set about sinking a vertical shaft 73 feet/22 meters down into the center of the tunnel. Workers were let down into the tunnel and lifted out through the central shaft, and the debris was hauled out with buckets raised by the locomotive’s steam engine. Now work could proceed in four directions, at both the east and west faces, and inside out.
Always wanting to make quicker progress, Charles Crocker decided that faster, more experienced workers were needed for tunneling out from the center of the shaft. According to his account, the Central Pacific offered extra wages for Cornish miners to do the work, recruiting them from the Nevada silver mines. Miners from Cornwall in southwest England had gained a reputation as being among the best miners in the world.
Rather than putting the Cornish miners directly to the task, Crocker decided to set up a competition between them and the Chinese. He faced Chinese workers chipping away at the rock in one direction and the Cornish miners in the opposite direction. Setting up competitions, especially along ethnic or racial lines, was a typical management practice of this time; competition would help speed up the work, setting different groups of workers against each other.
As Crocker described the results of this competition: “We measured the work every Sunday morning; and the Chinamen without fail always outmeasured the Cornish miners; that is to say, they would cut more rock in a week than the Cornish miners did, and there it was hard work, steady pounding on the rock, bone-labor.”2
“Heading Of East Portal Tunnel No 8 From Donner Lake Railroad.” # 204, Photograph. Courtesy of The Alfred A. Hart Photo Collection, Special Collections, Stanford University. [link
Work continued through two of the harshest winters on record. Forty-four storms were counted in one winter, and snow at the summit averaged 18 feet/5.5 meters with a total snowfall reaching over 40 feet/12 meters. Snow from fierce blizzards often blocked tunnel entrances, and the workers shoveled out tunnels through the snow, as much as 500 feet/152 meters long; they dug open windows, and they rested and ate in their white ice caves after spending their shifts in the dark of the mountain. Louis M. Clement, one of the company’s main engineers, recalled that “during the winter months there was constant danger from avalanches, and many laborers lost their lives.” “In many instances,” James Strobridge recalled, “our camps were carried away by snowslides, and men were buried and many of them were not found until the snow melted the next summer.” A. P. Partridge, who was on a bridge-building crew, also remembered the treacherous winters, and he too said about the Chinese workers that “a good many were frozen to death” in 1867. Twenty workers died in one avalanche, and individuals disappeared in smaller snow slides. Some frozen bodies were found in the spring with their shovels or picks still in their hands.3
The Summit Tunnel was completed, graded and track laid on November 30, 1867. Because of the severe winter storms, the Central Pacific built 37 miles/59.5 kilometers of snow sheds to cover the tracks in 1868 and 1869. Locomotive engineers complained that traveling through all the sheds was like “railroading in a barn.” Others nicknamed the snow sheds the “longest barn in the world.”4
1 John R. Gillis gives a detailed description of digging the Summit and other tunnels to the American Society of Engineers. Read John R. Gilliss [sic], Civil Engineer, Member of the Society, “Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad, A Paper Read Before the Society Jan. 5, 1870, in Transactions, American Society of Engineers, Vol. 1. Published by the Society, 1872, 155-172.
2 Charles Crocker, testimony, US Congress, Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, February 27, 1877, 44th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Report 689 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1877), 667. For ethnic competition in industries in the West, see David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch, The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
3 Gillis, 154-157, 158; for snow totals see Appendix C, 168; Gillis quoted in George Kraus, High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific (now the Southern Pacific) across the High Sierra (Palo Alto, CA: American West Publishing Company, 1969), 145-148; David Haward Bain, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: Viking, 1999), 245, 246, 318; testimony of Lewis M. Clement, July 21, 1887, and James H. Strobridge, July 23, 1887, United States Pacific Railway Commission, vol. 5, 2577, 2580; “Reminiscences of A.P Partridge,” Lynn D. Farrar Collection, Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum website, accessed May 30, 2017, http://cprr.org/Museum/Farrar/pictures/2005-03-09-01-08.html
4 Kraus 158-159; Arthur Brown, superintendent of bridges and buildings, quoted in Kraus 190-191; Wesley S. Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962), 193; Mead B. Kibbey, ed. By Peter E. Palmquist, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart (Sacramento, CA: The California State Library Foundation, 33-34, accessed Nov. 5, 2017, http://cprr.org/Museum/AA_Hart-Mead_Kibbey_CSLF/Alfred_Hart.html; Bain, 322; “From Trail to Tunnel: A History of the Southern Pacific Company,” Southern Pacific Bulletin (July, 1927), 11-12.