Explorations Around Donner Summit (California)

Research for an upcoming book prompted a plan to hike to the China Wall at Donner Pass. Mom must be humored at least one day a year (Mother’s Day). Driving an hour to Donner was an opportunity to get the family out of the house and learn some local history.  Other than me, the dogs were the only members of the family who were truly enthusiastic about the outing from the get-go.  But as the day wore on, everyone found something interesting to capture their imagination.

Donner_Lake_as_seen_from_Donner_Pass

Taking in the expansive views overlooking Donner Lake and trekking over gargantuan, sun warmed slabs of granite, one can not help thinking about the ancient hands that pecked away at the rock faces some 1,500 to 4,000 years ago. Nomadic bands of Great Basin Indians spent many pleasurable hours here. They quenched their thirst from the streams that burble their way down to the lake below as they labored to record their thoughts and ideas in stone. The exact meaning of the 200 rock art designs has been lost in the annals of time. Today’s viewers are left to fill in the blanks in an attempt to guess at their story.

Not far above the petroglyphs, and in more recent history (just a meer hundred and fifty years ago), another story with blank pages exists – the names and personalities of the people who built the China Wall and train tunnels.

In its day the railroad moved people and products faster than ever. This new mode of transport was responsible for booming business and for populating the west. As one historian put it, the railroad would be comparable to the internet today.

Charles Crocker was in a hurry to make progress on his section of the railroad. Government incentives offered sizable rewards for the company that could lay the most track in the shortest amount of time.

Facing the problem of getting his project over Donner Summit, Crocker wondered if the Chinese, who’d invented fireworks and built the Great Wall, could help. Starting off with only 50 workers, Charles soon discovered that his guess was right. Determined, dependable and with specialized knowledge of nitroglycerine the Chinese proved that they were the right people to accomplish the task. Within a year, 8000 pioneering immigrants were hard at work tunneling through the rock. Granite is one of the hardest minerals on the planet. Progress consisted of making their way through the span of a large man’s hand (14 inches) per day. With wages at $28 per month, these workers were a bargain, even by 1850 standards.640px-Chinese_railroad_workers_sierra_nevadachinese built trai tunnel

Donkey steam engines lowered men in baskets down along the steep rock cliffs. (*see below for update) Holes were drilled, filled with black powder, packed and tamped. Men scrambled for safety as fuses were lit. Once the air cleared after the blast and the debris was moved away, men went back down to repeat the process.

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9-2015 update – additional research has pointed out that the artist rendering of the baskets lowered over the cliffs may have been ‘railroad hype’ to entice train travelers. Bosuns chairs, similar to what tree climbers and sailors use, were likely employed to gain access to the steep cliff faces.

baskets and bosuns chairs

cape horn plaque cropped
Near Donner Summit is Cape Horn – another treacherous cliff face that Chinese railroad workers tamed.

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In the Tunnels Today

My dogs were surprisingly sedate, while we strolled through the cool, dark and dripping, tunnels. A quiet hush permeated the space even though plenty of visitors were never far away. Did the dogs sense something that I could not?  As I gazed up at the high jagged walls antiqued with residue from the coal smoke that spit from the mouths of long retired locomotives, my thoughts reached back to span the years between then and now.  Grasping at unknown stories of the men responsible for this feat of engineering, I anticipate the time when I am ready to sit across from my keyboard to tap out a tale that gives definition back to the blank faces that ignorance and prejudice caused to slip into historical obscurity.

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0510151350The photographer in me, delighted at the colorful urban art along the smooth walls of the snow sheds. Does it connect in some way to the Native Americans and Chinese people who occupied this place?

The mom in me cringed as my 10 year old son stood reading some of the uncomfortable statements that were written five feet tall. Like any art form, it moves us to think outside of our respective boxes… This is usually a good thing.0510151318

Protected from the fading rays of the sun, these ever changing urban designs remain vibrant and saturated. I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself coaxing photography clients to join me and my camera in this fascinating spot filled with so many intriguing layers of history.

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donner summit tunnel

If you’re going:

Map of the Donner Summit Area

Donner Summit Historical Society -Tunnel 6 – PDF

Donner Pass History –  Blog – On the Summit

Chinese History Videos:

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