The Donner Pass Tunnels

The story of the Donner Pass Tunnels is one of the great stories of American history. It’s also one of the least known.

Below, some basic information relating to the tunnels.

  • The Donner Pass Tunnels sit at 7000 feet above sea level in California’s High Sierra Mountains, with each of these 15 genuinely great works of engineering located within a short drive from where members of the ill-fated Donner Party were trapped by weather during the winter of 1846–1847.
  • Work on the tunnels began in May of 1865, one month after the ending of the American Civil War and two years after newly-elected California governor Leland Stanford shoveled the first load of dirt at a transcontinental railroad groundbreaking ceremony in Sacramento.
1863
  • Work on the tunnels was completed in June of 1868, one year after Alaska was purchased and a year before the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in Promontory, Utah, and drove a ceremonial (golden) last spike into the rail line that connected their railroads, thus marking the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad.
Golden Spike Reenactment (18:16)
  • The tunnels were constructed through the most treacherous part of the Sierra Nevadas using hand drilling equipment, black powder, and nitroglycerin.
  • Before the Donner Pass Tunnels and the transcontinental railroad opening, it took four to six months to travel 2000 miles from the Missouri River to California by wagon. In 1870, five years after the digging of the last Donner Pass tunnel and two years before the Golden Spike Ceremony, it took approximately seven days and cost as little as $65 for a ticket on the transcontinental line from New York to San Francisco; $136 for first-class in a Pullman sleeping car; $110 for second class; and $65 for space on a third — or “emigrant”- class bench.
  • Six of the fifteen Donner Pass Tunnels are still in use (1–5 and 13), with the nine that are not in use (6–12, 14, and 15) having been taken out of service in the 1990s, this after 125 years of continuous use.
1866–1867
  • Tunnel 6 (aka the Summit Tunnel) is the most famous. Essentially hand-carved through solid granite, it is the longest by far, with work on the tunnel having begun in August 1865 and completed on November 30, 1867.
Image Credit: © Sunny Wu (Naturetastic Photography). Image used with permission.
  • For an excellent two-minute read describing the history of Tunnel 6, click here, with this read produced by Bill Oudegeest, a retired public school teacher and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. Another good read describing the history of Tunnel 6 can be found by clicking here. This Donner Summit Historical Society produced this one.
  • For those wanting to see the still-in-use Donner Pass Tunnels (1–5 and 13), the best way to do it is aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr Train. I suggest boarding in Sacramento, overnighting in Truckee, and then taking the train back to Sacramento the following day.
Drone chasing Amtrak‘s California Zephyr train in the direction of a Donner Pass Tunnel (3:21)
Drone chasing Amtrak‘s California Zephyr train into and out of a Donner Pass Tunnel (4:54)
  • For those wanting to see the no-longer-in-use Donner Pass Tunnels (6–12, 14, and 15), the best way to do it is to hike the Historic Donner Pass Train Tunnels Trail. Click here for the Trail Guide.
  • If you plan to visit the tunnels, please do not collect any artifacts (spikes, rocks, wood fragments, etc.) Also, please do not add to the graffiti already found on the tunnel walls . . . if only out of respect for those who created these historically important tunnels.

The digging out of the fifteen granite Donner Pass Tunnels required backbreaking manual labor, with most of this labor performed by 15,000–20,000 hardworking, brave, and to this day still relatively unknown and not well understood Chinese workers. Below, fifteen questions related to these workers.

  1. Where did the Central Pacific’s Chinese workers come from?
  2. When and how did these ‘Railroad Chinese” get to California?
  3. Were the Chinese paid for their work or were they enslaved?
  4. When and where did the Chinese first start working for the Central Pacific?
  5. Did the Chinese, in the run from Bloomer Cut to the Summit Tunnel (aka Tunnel 6), produce any notable work?
  6. Did the Chinese, in the run from the Summit Tunnel to Promontory, produce any notable work?
  7. What, where, and how did the Chinese eat?
  8. Where and how did the Chinese sleep?
  9. What did the Chinese do during their off-hours? (Games, song, poetry, prostitution, opium?)
  10. How did the Chinese mourn the loss of one of their own?
  11. To what extent did the Chinese know the story of the Donner Party when working on Tunnel 6 during the winter of 1869?
  12. To what extent did the Chinese leave behind any written record?
  13. Did any of the Chinese appear in the famous Promontory Point photograph?
  14. Where did the Chinese go and what did they do after the completion of the transcontinental railroad?
  15. How did the work of the Chinese change America?

To learn the answers to each of these 15 questions, I first asked the students enrolled in my summer school, six-week, four-hour-per-day US History course to search the internet.

Below, the websites the students learned the most from:

I then asked my students to reach out to various experts with questions they could not find answers to on the internet. Experts who responded included Phil Sexton, Jerry Blackwill, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Roland Hsu, just to name a few.)

Then, to learn even more, I went to see the tunnels for myself.

  • On day one of my trip, and in the car from Los Angeles to Sacramento, I listened to Gordon Chang’s highly informative and very well-written audiobook Ghosts of Gold Mountain. I live in Los Angeles with the six-hour drive to Sacramento giving me enough time to work through the entire book.
  • On day two, I toured Sacramento’s California State Railroad Museum and its Chinese Railroad Workers Exhibit.
  • On day three, I hiked to and through several of the Donner Pass Tunnels with Jerry Blackwill, the president of the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and a board member of the Museum of Truckee History. Afterward, Jerry and I lunched in Truckee. Jerry then gave me a tour of the Truckee Railroad Museum and the new Museum of Truckee History. What a wonderful day that was!
  • On day four, I spent time with Phil Sexton at his ranch in Auburn just west of the tunnels, a visit that included a chance to see something called Bloomer Cut and Cape Horn. Phil is a former Deputy Director and Director of Public Programs for the CA State Railroad Museum. Currently, he serves as the Executive Director of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society. I so enjoyed learning from Phil.

Lastly, I turned to various artists known for “wanting to draw the story of the Chinese workers back into history,” with this outreach resulting in artist Linglei Lu providing me with permission to include six of his paintings in this post (though each of his paintings relates more directly to the Chinese who helped build Canada’s first transcontinental railroad.)

I then wrote The Chinese Railroad Workers and the Donner Pass Tunnels: For those wanting to learn about the thousands whose backbreaking work in California’s High Sierras changed America

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Peter Paccone

Peter Paccone

High school APUSH teacher with much in-class and online teaching experience. Also a blogger, keynote speaker, editor, podcast host, and conference presenter.