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.

Continue reading