Expanding America’s Diverse History Inside the Sierra Summit Tunnels

by Terry Guen, FASLA, Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, Member & Landscape Architect Expert

Summit Tunnels 5 and 6, near Donner Pass, Tahoe National Forest, CA
Summit Tunnels 5 and 6, near Donner Pass, Tahoe National Forest, CA / image: TK Gong, 1882 Project

Running in near darkness towards the proverbial light, we did not expect this impromptu jog through Summit Tunnel to be life changing. In early November 2018, I joined a two-day historic preservation field trip, organized by the 1882 Project, United States Department of Agriculture, United States Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, and the Bureau of Land Management, to visit Chinese Railroad Worker Sites in California’s Tahoe National Forest. Arriving by luxury bus, it was hard to imagine 152 years prior, over 10,000 Chinese workers lived year-round in encampments, exposed to the elements, and surviving ten-foot-deep snows.

View of Tunnel #6 opening, near Donner Pass, Tahoe National Forest, CA
View of Tunnel #6 opening, near Donner Pass, Tahoe National Forest, CA / image: TK Gong, 1882 Project

Entering the west portal’s graffiti-laden face, we found the third-of-a-mile long tunnels #5 and #6, carved through the hard granite peak. Passing below the vertical tunnel shaft, our footsteps resounded. The tunnel excavation had started from above; granite spoils were hauled out by bucket at a rate of one foot per day until the tunnel floor where we stood was reached. Continuing to blast by hand, workers mined “day and night in three shifts of eight hours each,” from the portals inwards and center shaft outwards (Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad, 1870). After 18 months the Chinese rail workers broke through, accomplishing what many said could not be done. The total of six tunnels constructed within a two-mile stretch breached the Sierra mountains at an elevation of 6,690 feet, laying the 2% railbed, driving eastward to Promontory Summit, Utah, and the connection of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Chinese immigrant laborers building the Transcontinental Railroad
Chinese immigrant laborers building the Transcontinental Railroad / image: The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum

Exiting the now-abandoned tunnel facing east, we carried a new-found appreciation. The Transcontinental Railroad was essentially the internet of the 19th century, transforming the US and its economic and social development through the physical connection of America’s east and west communications and markets. And it was this place, Summit Tunnel, where innovation and toil breached the final obstacle. While unremarkable in outward appearance, this tunnel embodies the little-told heroic story of the Chinese Railroad Workers who not only built, but transformed America.

Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shoo, 3 of the 8 Chinese workers who put the last rail into place in 1869. Photo from the fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1919. / image: The Amon Carter Museum of American Art Archives, Fort Worth, Texas

May 10, 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad. A re-enactment will be staged at Promontory, Utah—sinking the Golden Spike, portraying original Central Pacific Railroad investor and visionary Leland Stanford. It is said that the efforts of the Chinese Workers was celebrated at the Transcontinental’s 50th anniversary; however by the 100th Anniversary in 1969, this attribution was forgotten. This article is not intended to be about race politics, but about how we as citizens need to update our collective history, creating new cultural expectations and opportunities for future generations. As such, this year I will attempt, with others, to establish a consortium to try to place the Summit Tunnel on the National Register of Historic Places. Attributed significance occurs on many levels, in addition to as-yet-unofficially acknowledged contributions by Chinese-American ancestors in building the American West.

Flashback to 2011: I received a call from the Obama White House, requesting that I serve as a volunteer on the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation (ACHP). As a landscape architecture expert and member for the past six years, through the Council I am an advisor to the President and Congress on matters of historic preservation. My experience joining federal agencies at the table has provided some insight for our profession.

As a landscape architect in practice, frequently on multidisciplinary projects, I tend to solve design problems by bringing together a myriad of factors. This sometimes seems like anathema to how other professions appear to work. My experience on the federal advisory council tells me that the landscape architect’s innate skills, balancing and integrating the needs of people with place, history, and nature, are critical. We are motivated to understand what makes places which endure, can be easily managed, attract people, and sustain the planet through naturalized systems and plants.

And as Americans we have work to do, to bring forward the stories of less represented, particularly immigrant, groups to be included in the American heritage canon. Of over 40,000 properties listed in our National Register of Historic Places, less than 9% of sites combined are attributed to our diverse populations. We improve tolerance via appreciation of differences. Learning from cultural landscapes, we know our lands can be shaped toward sustainability and survival. These lessons can bind us more strongly as a people and nation. And this work must be done by us, those who are here to tell stories which reveal newfound light at the end of the tunnel.

Inside the Summit Tunnel / image: TK Gong, 1882 Project

Terry Guen, FASLA, is a landscape architect, urban designer, and principal & founder of Chicago-based Terry Guen Design Associates (TGDA). This blog post reflects her personal comments and do not necessarily reflect views and official policies of the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.

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