Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Chinese Railroad Workers & the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Zina Abbott

Charles Crocker took charge of the Central Pacific Railroad operation with fearless optimism. He was merchant, not a railroad man, so he learned railroad construction by doing it. Getting laborers proved to be difficult. Most of the men who were hired worked for a grubstake for gold mining, then walked off the job as soon as they got paid. Crocker then considered hiring Chinese laborers, although his partners and foremen were skeptical. The Chinese men were small—about four feet, 10 inches tall and weighing only about 120 pounds—and it was believed they were not strong enough to do the work.

At that time there were about sixty thousand Chinese in California. Most were young single men who had come to America for economic opportunity. Many had emigrated in response to pamphlets put out by Chinese merchants residing in San Francisco. The merchant companies paid the men's passage and were repaid with a percentage of each man's earnings. The company honored its contract to send the immigrants home free of charge if they became ill. In case of death, they sent the person's bones home for burial.
Ravine Bridge near Colfax photo by Alfred A. Hart, ctsy Stanford Special Collections
By the end of 1866, Crocker had eight thousand Orientals and about two thousand Caucasians in his employ. The Central Pacific paid $30 per month to the Chinese, which was considered a good wage even though the men had to buy their own food. The Chinese proved to be outstanding workers. They excelled at teamwork, took few breaks, and became skilled at blasting. Caucasians monopolized the skilled work such as trestling, masonry, and laying rails; and they held the supervisory positions. The Chinese did the grading, made cuts and fills, felled trees, and did the arduous and dangerous work of blasting.
Cape Horn overlooking the American River by Alfred A. Hart, ctsy Stanford Special Collections
Beginning in the early summer of 1865, the Chinese workers began construction on one of the most feared stretches of the route. Nicknamed “Cape Horn,” it ran three miles along the precipitous gorge on the North Fork of the American River. The slope was at an angle of seventy-five degrees, and the tracks were to be laid along the mountainside between twelve and twenty-two hundred feet above the river. There was not even a mountain goat path for the workers to stand on while they blasted rock cuts on the sheer cliffs. Many engineers did not think it could be done.

Workers were lowered over the rim in chairs to place the black powder, and then fix and light the fuses. They then yelled do the men above to pull them up to relative safety. The Chinese workers informed their foreman that they had learned a better way from their ancestors who had built the fortresses in the Yangtze gorges. They wove waist-high baskets with 4 eyelets at the top, similar to the ones that their progenitors had used. Ropes ran from the eyelets to a central cable.
Locomotive on finished Cape Horn track by Alfred A. Hart, ctsy Stanford Special Collections
The Chinese workmen, hanging in their baskets, were much safer than they had been while perched in those precarious chairs. Due to the skill and dedication, the roadbed and track around Cape Horn were completed in the spring of 1866, much sooner than had been anticipated. But hundreds of barrels of black powder were ignited daily, and there were accidents. The Central Pacific did not record Chinese casualties, so the number of deaths is not known. From this dangerous operation came the phrase, “not a Chinaman's chance.”

Donner Pass terrain, typical of the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Clearing the roadbed was almost as bad as blasting on Cape Horn. Huge trees and other obstructions had to be removed from a twenty-five-foot path on each side of the road bed. One gang of three hundred men spent ten full workdays clearing a single mile of right-of-way. After the trees were hauled to the sawmills, the stumps had to be blasted from the soil. Ten barrels of blasting powder were often required to remove a single stump.

At Donner Summit, it took more than a year to cut the 1,659-foot tunnel—more than a quarter mile—through solid granite and then bring the track down the steep escarpment of the east slope in a meandering route past Donner Lake. From there, getting the line from Truckee to present-day Reno would be relatively easy since the line essentially followed the Truckee River and continued into the Nevada desert with its comparatively flat topography.

The east portal of Tunnel 6 and wagon road from Tunnel 7, photo by Alfred A. Hart, courtesy Department of Special Collections/Stanford University Libraries

However, Tunnel 6 proved be extremely difficult. It was one of 15 tunnels the Central Pacific used to conquer the Sierra and was by far the most challenging. It was all done by hand. The Chinese worked in teams of three, with one man holding the drill, while the other two workers swung hammers. Once a sufficiently sized hole was augered out, a man would fill it with blasting powder, light a fuse and hope for the best.

Tunnel 6 through Donner Summit, photo by Alfred A. Hart, courtesy Department of Special Collections/Stanford University Libraries

Snow on Donner Summit May 31, 2019
Progress was so slow that the executives decided to try using nitroglycerin, which was more powerful and less expensive than blasting powder. They found it to be safe if a fresh amount was manufactured each day. Two thousand blasts were made in the summit tunnel within less than two months, and not a single accident occurred.

 Summer snow drifts on Donner Summit during railroad construction, photo by Alfred A. Hart, courtesy Department of Special Collections/Stanford University Libraries

The severe winter of 1865-66 and 1866-67 called for superhuman courage to keep things going. There were forty-four separate storms during the winter of 1866-67. The snowpack was eighteen feet deep at the summit, and the only work possible was in the tunnels. There were accidents of all kinds, mainly from blasting powder. Sometimes the heavy explosions started avalanches, and entire camps of workmen were buried alive. In order to travel to and from the granite tunnels, the Chinese laborers dug snow tunnels from fifty to five hundred feet long. Windows and air shafts were bored through the snow walls, and the men lived in these labyrinths all winter.

Railroad tracks next to Truckee River, May 31, 2019
There was only light snow over the summit in Truckee Canyon, and Crocker was anxious to keep his men working throughout the winter. From there they could grade up the eastern face of the Sierra and also westward toward Nevada. There was only one major problem. How would they transport the necessary rolling stock and equipment over the summit? Crocker conceived and directed the tremendous undertaking of sledding three locomotive, forty cars, and enough material for forty miles of track on torturous mountain trails up over the summit and down into Truckee Canyon. This extraordinary feat was accomplished by Chinese workers and ox teams.

A locomotive over the Truckee River, photo by Alfred A. Hart, courtesy Department of Special Collections/Stanford University Libraries

The first locomotive from Truckee crossed the California and Nevada state line on December 13, 1867. By the end of the year, only one difficult section near the summit remained to be built. The tough work in solid rock above Donner Lake was completed on June 15, 1868, which ended the difficult work in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Emigrant Gap Tunnel and Snow Shed, photo by Alfred A. Hart, courtesy Department of Special Collections/Stanford University Libraries

Because of the problems the builders encountered while building the railroad, they knew the problem of heavy snows must be solved before trains could be operated year-round. They built forty miles of sheds, forming nearly a solid covering over the tracks. One railroader remarked, “I've railroaded all over the world, but this is the first time I've ever railroaded in a barn.” Gradually, as powerful rotary snow plows and improved snow fighting methods were developed, the snow-shed mileage was reduced. In 1955, less than six miles remained.

Snow Sheds still visible on railroad tracks today

Although my novel, Escape from Gold Mountain, does not take place during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, it is set on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and does have a Chinese heroine. Inspired by true events that took place in 1884-85, I hope you will enjoy reading this story about a woman from an American immigrant group that is often overlooked. Her situation was typical of many of the Chinese women to came to the United States in the nineteenth century.

Escapefrom Gold Mountain is currently on pre-order at a special sale price that will end the day after the book is released. PLEASE CLICK HERE for the book description and purchase link.

Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009), Pgs. 404-407.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

SAYING GOODBYE by Cheryl Pierson

Hi everyone! This is a sad post for me to write, but it's time. I've put it off for the last couple of months, but it seems that today is "the day" -- this is my birthday, too, and it just seems right to do it today.

I've got two massive writing projects facing me and I am having trouble carving out the time I need--so something has to go, and blogging at so many places is something I am going to have to cut back on. I've been here for such a long time--I feel like I'm leaving "home"--but right now there is just no other way around it for me.

Thanks so much for having me as part of your wonderful blog, Caroline, and thanks to all my fellow bloggers from days gone by through present day. So many faces have changed, but I love knowing that we are all part of this big wonderful sisterhood of writers--women who write about romance in the old west!

Friday, July 26, 2019


One of the things I am happy I haven’t done is travel across the country on a stagecoach. I’ve ridden one for about five minutes at a re-enactment village. That was enough for me. In my latest work, AN AGENT FOR MAGDALA, the Pinkerton Matchmaker series, my hero and heroine must ride the stage from Denver, Colorado to San Antonio, Texas.

Officially, a stagecoach was a closed four-wheeled vehicle drawn by horses or mules. Used as a public conveyance on an established route, it usually kept a regular schedule. That might be daily or once a week. Every ten to fifteen miles, horses or mules were changed at a station. Their average was five miles per hour. If the inside was filled with passengers, more could ride on top of the coach.  Rather than fares from passengers, the most profitable thing for the stage owners was a mail contract with the U.S. Government.

1869 Stagecoach

 The station where stock was changed might be nothing more than a soddie or dugout with a corral. Or, it might be a decent building in which a family lived. Stages stopped at a stage station only long enough for the animals to be changed. At a waystation, however, the stop might involve food of varying quality being served. Some way stations even had beds to rent for those travelers too weary to ride any further—but the stage kept going.

In fact, stages ran all night. Passengers slept sitting up. In addition, each passenger was supposed to use only fifteen inches of seat space. This puzzles me. My shoulder to shoulder measurement is twenty-six inches. Even if my seat requirements were not more than fifteen inches (way more), my shoulders bone to bone require more than that. Did people pack in and overlap? How did women with long skirts and several petticoats squish into the allotted space? What did the people riding on top of the coach do to sleep?

An example of a Concord coach
The driver was also called “the whip” or “Charlie”. If there was a valuable shipment, a second man rode on the bench with the driver. He was equipped with a shotgun and that meant he was called the “shotgun” or “shotgun-messenger”. You’ve probably heard children call, “I get to ride shotgun”, meaning the front passenger seat. The cash box was usually tucked under the driver’s seat.

A Wells Fargo stagecoach
Not all stagecoaches were equal. The classic used in movies and the one I identify as a stagecoach is the Concord. Even those were not always the same. They might have two or three rows of seats. If they had three rows, the center row had barely enough support to be called a back. This would be for nine passengers.

The windows had leather curtains which could be rolled down. The doors had pocket windows which could be raised. I suspect that even with the curtains down and door window up, a lot of dust and cold air in winter and hot air in summer poured inside the coach.

Coach for tourists at
Fort Worth, TX Stockyards

A Concord might also have only two rows of seats because the center seat was removable. Doesn't that sound like an SUV? Whether six or nine passengers, it had a suspension system that had the coach body riding on leather strapping called thoroughbraces. 

Cheyenne, Wyoming stage 1880

In his 1861 book Roughing It, Mark Twain described the Concord stage's ride as like "a cradle on wheels". Perhaps the vehicle in which he rode was new, although they were reported to be long-lasting.
Other passengers were not so kind. In 1880 John Pleasant Gray recorded after travelling from Tucson to Tombstone:
That day's stage ride will always live in my memory – but not for its beauty spots. Jammed like sardines on the hard seats of an old time leather spring coach – a Concord – leaving Pantano, creeping much of the way, letting the horses walk, through miles of alkali dust that the wheels rolled up in thick clouds of which we received the full benefit ... It is always a mystery to the passenger how many can be wedged into and on top of a stagecoach. If it had not been for the long stretches when the horses had to walk, enabling most of us to get out and "foot it" as a relaxation, it seems as if we could never have survived the trip.

A Celerity stagecoach with extra
seating arranged on top,
the Deadwood stage.

Another type of   stagecoach was the Celerity, also called a mud-coach or mud-wagon. It had a wider wheel-base and lower center of gravity. The Celerity often had canvas sides and top but also could have wooden sides. Many also had collapsing seats so that they made a bed. I suppose one side could be made a bed and the other remain as seats. There was no padding on the seats. I’ve never seen one of these coaches other than in pictures. They were best where the terrain was muddy or had steep grades.

Arizona (year unknown)
When rail travel became more available, stage lines suffered. What actually killed the stage coach travel was the Ford motor bus, also called a motor-coach. By 1918, only a few stagecoaches were in operation. Those were in mountainous areas or in national parks for tourists.

1906 Motor Coach

Photos: Google commons

AN AGENT FOR MAGDALA, Pinkerton Matchmaker Series, is now available for preorder for the August 9 release. Preorder and on August 9, POOF, the e-book magically appears on your reader. The buy link at Amazon is: https://www.amazon.com/Agent-Magdala-Pinkerton-Matchmaker-Book-ebook/dp/B07V3G4QHY

Here's a summary:

She craves adventure, but this may be too much.
His job means the world to him…
Capturing jewel thieves will test them…

Magdala leaps at the opportunity to become a Pinkerton agent. Learning that the position requires a paper marriage shocks but doesn’t deter her. She plans to get an annulment before her unusual family learns of the situation. She’s determined to prove she has the grit to be an excellent investigator. But, why does she have to be partnered with the one man who has been rude to her?

Douglas “Cloud” Ryan loves being a Pinkerton agent. Otherwise, he’d never go along with his boss’ crazy plan to marry him to a female agent. He’s certain women have no business dealing with criminals. After barely surviving the stagecoach trip from Denver to San Antonio Maggie needs to stay in the background and let him solve the case. He has reasons to distrust women, especially women like Maggie.

Can Maggie and Cloud catch the jewel thieves plaguing an historic San Antonio hotel without becoming victims? Will they take a chance on the love growing between them?

Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment so we know you were here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

School Supplies for the Prairie Pupil

As the heroine of my next book is the school teacher in the Belles of Wyoming series, I started to wonder just what the students in her classroom would use during their day. Did they have desks or would they sit at tables? Did they use slates? Were they able to pull out a box of crayons and color?

To answer the questions, I started by researching student desks. There are websites devoted to the history of school desks, believe it or not, and I easily found out that Grace Winkleman, my heroine would have to use tables for her students. John Loughlin invented and patented the first student desk, but it didn’t go into production until 1881. Since my book is set in 1880, I can't use them in my story.

Next, I considered chalkboards. Would Miss Winkleman have a chalkboard in her schoolhouse? Was chalk even marketed to educators in 1880? I relied heavily on the blackboard during my years as a teacher, and I was happy to learn that Grace Winkleman would have one in her Wyoming classroom. From 1840, blackboards have been commercially produced by applying thick paint to smooth boards. Poor communities even made blackboards for the schoolroom by nailing pine boards together and covering them with a mixture of egg whites and carbon from charred potatoes. It seems I’m not the only one who recognizes the value of a blackboard. 

Chalk also was available in 1880, both white and colored chalk. By that time, Grace would be able to order from J.L. Hammett’s company, the man who invented the blackboard eraser and partnered with the Milton Bradley Company to make school supplies easy for teachers to order.
To be honest, I very much want to include crayons in the supplies available to my fictional schoolteacher. I suppose I could fudge and pretend students had them. I hate to do that, especially since they wouldn’t be available until 1903. 

Lastly, I investigated the use of slates versus paper. Would the students need to bring slates to school? Here I discovered an interesting fact. Paper became relatively inexpensive after the Civil War. The process to turn wood pulp into had been discovered by then, making it much easier to make, Still, I learned paper was typically used by older students only. Younger children carried slates to school and practiced writing on those.

While my research into the school day continues, I now have a solid idea of the tools students had available to them. In my August blog, I'll discuss the school building itself.

About Marisa Masterson

Marisa Masterson and her husband of thirty years reside in Saginaw, Michigan. They have two grown children, one son-in-law, a grandchild on the way, and one old and lazy dog.

She is a retired high school English teacher and oversaw a high school writing center in partnership with the local university. In addition, she is a National Writing Project fellow.

Focusing on her home state of Wisconsin, she writes sweet historical romance. Growing up, she loved hearing stories about her family pioneering in that state. Those stories, in part, are what inspired her to begin writing.

Monday, July 22, 2019


Post by Doris McCraw
writing as Angela Raines

Photo property of the author
In 1879 the city of Colorado Springs was a growing place. According to the city directory as of August 20, 1879, the population was five to five thousand five hundred people living there. They added there was probably another thousand who were making a temporary home for 'health' or 'pleasure' purposes.

What fascinated me was the business. Again according to the city directory ... "at the end of July 31, 1879 lumber, grocery, flour, feed, grain, dry goods, boots and shoes, hardware, drugs, etc. etc. were sold to the amount of $2 million. In addition to this about $175,000 worth of wool was marketed here. El Paso County, of which Colorado Springs is the capital, now stands at the head of the wool-producing counties of the state. Probably 200,000 head of sheep are now pastured upon its luxuriant grasses. The wool clip from these past seasons aggregated over 800,000 pounds. Seventy-seven individuals and firms are engaged in wool growing in the county, most of them residing in, and all drawing their supplies from Colorado Springs. This is also the center of a large trade in horses and beef cattle. There are six liveries and three banks one of which is a national and two private banks also in the city."

Photo property of the author
As I've perused this early city directory I've found a lot of pieces of history to dig into. As stated above, wool and cattle were a side by side growing concern. Of the wool growers, two were women, Mrs. Sarah B. Reed, and Mrs. R. Gamble. Mrs. Gamble was also involved as a stock grower.

Out of twenty physicians in town, three were women a fourth was in the nearby town of Manitou Springs. All four women were married and doing well in their chosen field.

There were four stage lines, four printers, two plumbers/gas fitters, three sewing machine agents, and eight music teachers.

It is from these gems, along with historic newspapers, that characters and stories arise in my writing. Both fiction and non-fiction.

When I started my 'spicy' story "Duty" for the collection in "Hot Western Nights", I thought of these women who were working in what most think of as a man's job. Being surrounded by these pieces of history and military installations created my hero and heroine. It is a wonderful gift to have so much inspiration close at hand.

Below is a short excerpt from the story "Duty".

Riding toward the ranch house, as evening approached, Dan took in the corals, barn, and bunkhouse. Everything appeared in even better shape than it seemed when he looked it over before riding down. Like a small town with a road through the middle, with gates at each end. But it was quiet, too quiet. For a second time today Dan called out, as he closed the gate behind him, "Hello?"
He heard a door open at the side of the house. Turning that way, he saw someone step out. The sun broke through and Dan was greeted by a vision in a worn gingham dress. Her hair draped across her shoulders and down her back. Her stance showed no apparent fear.
She was tall, but not overly so. She stood quietly. So taken by her unexpected appearance, Dan failed to see the rifle barrel sticking out the window.
"Yes, may I help you?" came Miranda's rich voice as she spoke to Dan.

"Pardon ma'am, I was riding through and wondered if I might water my horse and pick up some supplies before moving on? I'll pay for the supplies if you have them to spare?" Dan asked as he shook the water from his hat.

Purchase from Amazon here

What inspires you? What kind of stories do you enjoy reading or writing? Are you like me and fascinated by those little tidbits of history?

Doris Gardner-McCraw -
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History
Angela Raines - author: Where Love & History Meet

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Legendary Texas Hotels & New Western Romance Series

A few months back I conceived an idea to write a western romance series revolving around historic Texas hotels, some no longer in existence, others still welcoming guests today. Due to life events such as having to tear apart my office before installing new carpeting, then unpacking and re-shelving my collection of books, I haven't gotten very far with the first book in this new series.
Bookshelves on one side of my office

However, I thought I'd share a little about the story and other settings I'm considering for future books. The working title for book one is Pirate's Bride. Set in Galveston a few years before the catastrophic 1900 hurricane, it's about a time traveling Spanish pirate (he calls himself a privateer) who is whisked two hundred years ahead in time to atone for a wicked deed he was forced to commit. He lands unceremoniously in the lobby of the posh Tremont House Hotel, practically at the feet of the heroine. I blogged about the Tremont a few months ago, so I won't repeat myself, but if you like, you can check out its dramatic history here: http://tiny.cc/bamv9y
Tremont House, 2nd incarnation; courtesy of Rosenberg Library

The heroine of this tale is the widowed daughter of a wealthy Texas businessman, and she has a young daughter who enchants the pirate hero. As you might imagine he's in for some mighty shocking sights in this world of the future, and he faces obstacles on his quest for redemption, greatest of all his growing affection for the beautiful heroine and her precocious daughter.

Two other hotels I plan to feature in this series are the Menger Hotel in San Antonio and the Paso Del Norte Hotel in El Paso. The Menger is the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi River. Opened in February 1859, the hotel featured wrought iron balconies and a stained-glass-roofed lobby. It was a huge success, bringing a touch of sophistication to the Texas frontier. It is also said to be one of the most haunted places in the Lone Star State. Hmm, maybe a ghost or two will appear in my book staged at the Menger. LOL
2005 photos by Ted Ernst; the 1865 historical photo hangs in the Cavalier Room of the Menger Hotel.
The Paso Del Norte Hotel opened in El Paso on Thanksgiving Day 1912. Standing one mile from the Mexican border, it allowed guests to watch skirmishes in Juarez, its sister city, between government troops and rebels during the Mexican Revolution. Revolutionary Poncho Villa took refuge in El Paso, another historical tidbit that could play into a fictional plot.
Paso Del Norte Hotel ca. 1913; illustration in public domain

So, what do you think of my idea for a series of hotel romances? And can you suggest other historic Texas hotels I might like to use as a setting?