HomeChinese AmericanThe work of Chinese railroad workers endangered
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The work of Chinese railroad workers endangered

By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer

A national preservation group warns that vandalism threatens a piece of American history made possible by the Chinese who built the Transcontinental Railroad.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Summit Tunnels Number 6  and Number 7 and Summit camp as one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” for 2021. The National Trust wants to raise awareness about the threats facing one of the nation’s greatest treasures as part of our American history.

Chinese railroad workers dug and blasted hard granite for 15 months to build the Summit Tunnel near Donner Pass. The railroad abandoned the tunnel in 1993 after it rerouted the line. Since then, vandals have plastered the tunnel with ugly graffiti.

“Visitors who don’t understand its significance are not always respectful of the site’s remaining artifacts,” wrote the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Highlighting how Chinese laborers accelerated the development of the American West, and better interpreting and protecting these sites, would honor this important and often overlooked part of our country’s history.”

East Portal of Summit Tunnel. Photo by Alfred Hart.

From 1863 to 1869, The Big Four, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, oversaw the building of the western segment of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad. William T. Sherman said, “If it is ever built, it will be the work of giants.” Their most formidable obstacle was the Summit Tunnel (Number 6) of Donner Pass, amid the Sierra Nevada mountains, in California.

The Central Pacific Railroad steam locomotive rolled through the Summit Tunnel on November 30, 1867. After this national breakthrough, the Central Pacific Railroad raced across the Great Basin Desert to link the First Transcontinental Railroad, with Union Pacific Railroad, at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

“Without the Chinese migrants, the Transcontinental Railroad would not have been possible,” Dr. Gordon H. Chang of Stanford University, wrote in his book The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Summit Tunnels 6 & 7 and Summit Camp Site tell the story of
thousands of Chinese railroad workers who constructed the Transcontinental Railroad through the Sierra Nevada mountains from 1865 to 1867. These workers, making up approximately 90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce, risked their lives to cut and build railroad beds and dig tunnels in incredibly difficult working conditions and extremely dangerous terrain and weather—all while being paid less than their white counterparts.

Profile of Tunnel No. 6 and Tunnel No. 7. Figure from “TUNNELS OF THE PACIFIC RAILEOAD,” 1870.

The 15 tunnels covered a serpentine route of about 62 miles through the Sierra Nevada near Lake Spaulding and Donner Lake; the tunnels paralleled the Truckee River, northwest of Lake Tahoe. It was a single-track line with 2% grades, with a mix of eight tangents and seven curves. The 15 tunnels totaled 6,213 feet in length.

In August 1866, the company of  Chinese railroad workers (100 total) began their challenging work on the tunnels. They worked three shifts per day under the supervision of two Irish foremen. From November 1866 to May 1867, 44 snowstorms dumped  44 feet 7 ¾ inches of snow.

Chinese railroad workers were organized into four crews. They dug and
simultaneously blasted from the west and the east with two crews. From the center, in a central shaft (8 feet by 12 feet), two crews dug the center out towards both ends. They applied black powder and nitroglycerine to blast the solid granite.

At an elevation of 6,931 feet, Summit Tunnel was the longest tunnel at 1,659 feet. Its greatest depth was 124 feet below the surface. Its dimensions were a rectangular 16 feet by 11 feet with a semi-circle arch of a radius of 8 feet. The Chinese railroad workers completed, graded, and tracked the Summit Tunnel on November 30, 1867.

The Summit Tunnel Conservation Association’s mission is to protect and
preserve the 1867 Transcontinental Railroad Tunnel Area in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are pursuing the National Historic Landmark designation from the National Park Service. It will illustrate its significant historical meaning for Americans.

Ted Gong, President of Summit Tunnel Conservation Association, noted: “Considering its vital role in building and providing for the defense of the American nation for over 150 years, it is remarkable that the site is not already a national landmark. And, given the amazing stories of its construction and the heroism of its builders, it is disgraceful that the defacement of the site continues. Rampant graffiti is even defended.”

He argues for the Summit Tunnel as a national landmark because of the majestic nature of the national effort and the individual stories of the Chinese railroad workers at the Summit Tunnel.

Gong further argues: “A National Historic Landmark elevates the stories of the Chinese railroad workers. It puts to rest finally the “champagne photo” that has dominated the American image of a national construction effort completed without the significant role and heroics of the Chinese railroad workers.”

The Summit Tunnel Conservation Association wants to establish a storytelling and research center about the Summit Tunnel.

Profile of Tunnel No. 6 and Tunnel No. 7. Figure from “TUNNELS OF THE PACIFIC RAILEOAD,” 1870.

Gong concludes: “As the nomination of Summit Tunnel for National Historic Landmark status moves steadily forward in the United States Department of Interior and as resources for an interpretive center gain support, a public-private collaborative can provide the stewardship needed now.”    

Phil Sexton is Vice President of Summit Tunnel Conservation Association. He is a cultural and natural history interpreter and historian for the 1882
Foundation in Washington DC.

Sexton noted that Donner Pass was the ancient route for Native Americans and a wagon trail for American pioneers. For the Central Pacific Railroad, Southern Pacific Railroad, and Union Pacific Railroad, the line lasted 125 years until 1993. Taggers have desecrated the Summit Tunnel with their graffiti. Its preservation is urgent as a National Historic Landmark.

He says the proposed interpretative center would hold artifacts and
exhibits. It would be a gathering place for students, volunteers, and docents near the Pacific Crest Trail, extending from the Sierra Nevada to the Cascades.

Along with Gong, Sexton is very optimistic in their pursuit of the National Historic Landmark designation of the Summit Tunnel.

The Summit Tunnel exemplifies the Chinese railroad workers’ determination to build the First Transcontinental Railroad. It took two years to build the
tunnel. It was the longest and highest railroad tunnel in the world in 1867.

When the Summit Tunnel was completed over the Sierra Summit, everyone realized that the Transcontinental Railroad would succeed. It is an amazing story of American engineering, built with Chinese labor. 

All Americans should know the significant role of the Chinese railroad
workers in developing our American West and in recognizing the historical significance of the Summit Tunnel. 

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