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.


  1. Thank you, Zina for the in-depth post about the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad and those amazing Chinese immigrants. Great historic photos.

  2. I enjoyed learning more about the Chinese workers, Zina. I know they were often mistreated. I had no idea how much they accomplished. Thank you!

  3. This is so very interesting ! So much hard work done for the railroad, Thank you so much for sharing this information. Your book sounds like a very good story, I love the cover, it is Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this info and for sharing the pictures also. God Bless you Zina.

  4. You are an intrepid researcher, bringing to light great details about the Chinese migrant workers! Thank you for this piece so rich in your coverage.

  5. Excellent info! I learned a lot about the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific. Thanks for sharing your valuable research.


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