Hiking the Donner Pass Train Tunnels, a Triumph and Tragedy of Immigrant Grit

Maybe you’re seeking respite from the summer heat. Maybe you’d like to pretend you’re in the Halls of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. Or maybe you want to hike through miles of graffiti art. Whatever your reason for coming, the Donner Pass Train Tunnels near Truckee, California, offer a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking glimpse into the history of our country and of the predominantly Chinese immigrants who built the Western portion of North America’s first Transcontinental Railroad.

Summer Bucket List

When I learned that long sections of the tunnels were abandoned and you could readily hike through this construction marvel, I added it to my summer bucket list. The tunnels are within eyeshot of picturesque Donner Lake and a short drive from Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Ranch.

My family and I visited on our way home from a trip to Lake Tahoe. The tunnels make a wonderful summer day hike when they are thoroughly dry from winter snowmelt and a cool respite from the summer heat.

Anika Jensen

Brief History of the First Transcontinental Railroad

As you hike through the tunnels, you may not realize their significance. The first transcontinental railroad was begun in 1863, while the Civil War was ongoing and was completed in 1869, four years after the war’s conclusion. It connected the existing eastern U.S. rail network with the Pacific coast, first at the Alameda Terminal and then at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay.

The resulting coast-to-coast railroad connection revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West, bringing western states and territories into greater equality with the northern Union states. It made coast-to-coast transportation of passengers and goods quicker, safer, and less expensive.The rail line was built by three private companies over public lands.

  • Western Pacific Railroad Company built the railroad from Alameda/Oakland to Sacramento, California.
  • Central Pacific Railroad Company constructed from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.
  • Union Pacific Railroad built the railroad from the Missouri River settlements of Council Bluff and Omaha, Nebraska, westward to Promontory Summit.

Although the Central Pacific route was considerably shorter than Union Pacific’s, it had to contend with the daunting 7,000-foot Sierra Nevada mountains at Donner Pass into Nevada.

Construction involved blasting and digging cuts in deep rock, carving 15 tunnels through solid granite at high altitude, dumping massive quantities of dirt and rubble to create fills, building trestles across canyons, and constructing retaining walls.

The work was done manually with hand tools such as pickaxes, hammers, shovels, two-wheeled dump carts, and wheelbarrows. The only labor-saving devices were blasting powder and carts pulled by mules and horses.

Central Pacific’s Need for Chinese Workers

Initially, Central Pacific had a hard time keeping unskilled workers on its line. The Irish immigrants and other white workers they were trying to hire tended to leave for less dangerous and more lucrative mining options elsewhere, especially in the booming silver mines of Nevada.

Nonetheless, the CPRR had no intention of hiring Chinese workers. Leland Stanford, president of the railroad, had been elected governor on a program opposing Chinese immigration, calling the Chinese “the dregs” of Asia. Construction Foreman James “Stro” Strobridge expressed reservations about the Chinese being too small to handle the work and not fit to handle blasting powder.

However, Rail Superintendent Charles Crocker successfully argued for their hiring. He noted that the Chinese had built the Great Wall and invented gun powder. With white miners preventing the Chinese from mining the profitable claims in the Sierra, the Chinese were willing to take and stick with railroad work.

After an initial trial with successful results, the CPRR hired as many Chinese as they could. According to Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, they numbered 10,000 to 15,000 during high construction points and amounted to perhaps 20,000 in total between 1865 and 1869. In sum, they composed as much as 90 percent of the workforce for much of the construction.

For the most part, the CPRR used white workers to perform skilled work, such as putting in the masonry, building the trestles, and laying the rails. They hired the Chinese to perform the less skilled but more dangerous work of cutting down trees, grading, and blasting.

Carving Tunnels Through Granite

In fall 1865, Chinese workers embarked on their biggest challenge: digging 15 tunnels through the Sierra Nevada. The most difficult was No. 6, the Summit Tunnel, cut through solid granite, 1,695 feet long and 124 feet below the mountain’s surface. Progress was painfully slow, with numerous kegs of black powder used each day but to little effect in the hard rock.

Finally, a chemist mixed the recently developed explosive, nitroglycerine, on-site, but it was unstable and dangerous, and the risk of accidental explosions was high. Soon after the Summit Tunnel, the CPRR abandoned its use.

Crews dug at the east and west faces of the Summit Tunnel, but Charles Crocker still felt that progress was too slow. To speed the work, CPRR hauled a stripped-down locomotive to the top of the tunnel, and work gangs sunk a 73-foot vertical shaft. Workers were lowered and lifted through the shaft, and the debris hauled out with buckets raised by the locomotive’s steam engine. Now work proceeded in four directions, at the east and west faces and from the inside out.

Work continued through two harsh winters. There were forty-four storms in one winter, and snow at the summit averaged 18 feet, with total snowfall reaching over 40 feet. Blizzard snows often blocked tunnel entrances, and workers shoveled out as much as 500 feet; they dug open windows, and they rested and ate in their ice caves after working in the dark of the mountain.

Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers in snow
Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers in snow/Unknown author, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“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, on a bridge-building crew, also recollected the winters. He said of the Chinese workers that “a good many were frozen to death.

“The Summit Tunnel was at last finished, graded, and track laid on November 30, 1867. The four northern California businessmen who had formed the Central Pacific Railroad: Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker – the so-called “Big Four” – would go on to become immensely wealthy thanks to their railroad business.

Chinese railroad workers greet a train on a snowy day
Chinese railroad workers greet a train on a snowy day/”B&H,” illustrator; sketch by Joseph Becker (1841-1910), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What to Know Before You Go

There are a couple of ways to access the tunnels. You can see a map here. From Donner Lake, we came up the Donner Pass Road and parked at the pullout by the brass China Wall marker. If you get to the Donner Summit Bridge, you’ve gone too far. An outhouse was available at this location.

China Wall marker
China Wall marker/Karin Jensen

From the parking area, we walked perhaps 200 feet up the road to another interpretive marker labeled Highway 40 Scenic Bypass. This marker notes things to do in the area, such as viewing Native American petroglyphs on the nearby rock slabs.

Interpretive marker at the base of the path to the China Wall
Interpretive marker at the base of the path to the China Wall/Karin Jensen

At the Highway 40 sign, you’ll see before you a marked path that leads to the top of the retaining wall (the China Wall). From there, walk to the entrance of whichever tunnel you choose to explore first. From the sign to the first tunnel entrance was a walk of about 5-10 minutes.

Path to China Wall leading to the train tunnels
Path to China Wall leading to the train tunnels/Karin Jensen

Although the abandoned tunnels are a popular place to explore, be aware that they are still owned by Union Pacific Railroad. We did not see signage on our walk but do look out for and abide by any instructions you may see to avoid ticketing.

A train tunnel entrance
A train tunnel entrance/Karin Jensen

Do bring a flashlight, or be sure your cell phone is well charged if you plan to use it for light. There is natural light from openings in the wall and collapsed sections in the ceiling. It’s best to let your eyes adjust to the darkness for the best experience. However, some parts are pretty dark, and aside from wanting to watch your footing, you’ll want to see who else is in the tunnel with you.

Anika Jensen

On the day we went, motorbikers were riding the length of the tunnel, and we had to make way for their passing. Although we never saw them, other hikers mentioned seeing bats. We also met two young men who had come to escape the heat of Sacramento. They had packed snacks for the day and planned dinner at Donner Lake Village. Further, as it would be a new moon night, they planned to spend the late evening at Donner Lake to view the Milky Way.

Karin Jensen

Some parts of the tunnel are what was carved through the mountain. Other parts are the snow sheds that were built to protect the trains from avalanches. Throughout, the walls are covered in graffiti.

Avril Jensen

Because the tunnels are graded and hard-packed, the hike, once you’ve come up the moderately steep path from the parking area to the China Wall, is suitable for the whole family. One family we met was walking through with their three-year-old. The total mileage is about 5 miles (out and back) so that you can complete the tour in 2-3 hours.

Final Thoughts

As we walked the cool corridors of the Donner Pass Train Tunnels, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of immigrant workers who endured avalanches, blasting accidents, rock slides, icy cold, and exhaustion to earn their daily living and to make this possible. Aside from the usual restorative benefits of a long walk in the great outdoors, this hike offers perspective.


This article first appeared in NewsBreak here.

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