More than 150 years ago, thousands of Chinese laborers bored through solid granite to construct miles of railroad tunnels on Donner Summit, an astonishing engineering feat and a crucial link in the Transcontinental Railroad.
Now, on any given summer day, a hundred or more people stroll through the old, abandoned railroad tunnels. They're an easily accessible jaunt, just a few hundred feet from Highway 40.
Most people know the story of the Donner Party , the snowbound pioneers who were trapped at the foot of the pass and resorted to cannibalism for survival. But far fewer realize these railroad tunnels were built by Chinese immigrants who endured two deep and snowy Sierra winters. Not only did they avoid the same fate as the Donner Party, they built one of the nation's greatest infrastructure achievements.
"The railroad, figuratively and literally, united the nation and set it on course to become the greatest national power in the world," said Ted Gong, executive director of the 1882 Foundation , a civil rights organization that aims to build awareness, education and a deeper understanding about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law that prohibited an ethnic group of people from immigrating to the United States. For the past several years, the 1882 Foundation has focused on telling the story of the Chinese immigrants who built the railroad tunnels on Donner Summit.
While many historians and textbooks focus on the image of two trains coming together in Utah to celebrate the Transcontinental Railroad's legacy, Gong and a growing group of historians argue that the more dramatic event is the one that happened on Donner Summit.
"That story includes the ability to tell what can be accomplished when diversity and inclusion are integrated into a national effort and national purpose," Gong said. "Every one of those workers earned their spot in America and we need to remind [ourselves] of that fact, especially in these times of social stress."
A historic landmark covered in graffiti
In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Donner Summit tunnels, and several other historic sites near the old railroad, on its list of America's most endangered historic places.
As the National Trust points out, vandalism threatens this historic site. Graffiti — both elaborate works of art and scribbled profanity — covers the walls of the tunnels; it's also spilling onto Forest Service lands. Trash and litter are a notorious issue on Donner Summit: Plastic water bottles and wrappers are discarded in the bushes, and that’s just the beginning of the problem. Historians fear the archeological remains of this site won't last with such high visitation, especially if the public remains unaware of the significance of this place.
The 1882 Foundation is working to build a coalition of land owners, historians and stakeholders to nominate an area on Donner Summit as a National Historic Landmark. This summer, an archeological survey is underway at a site known as China Camp (not to be confused with the state park in Marin County), where thousands of Chinese workers lived while they built the railroad. The nomination process is still in the beginning and conceptual stages. When the survey is completed, its findings will be included in a document to nominate the site for landmark status, a process that goes through the National Park Service and the Department of Interior, Gong said.
A landmark designation marks the area as "important to us, in preserving and telling the invaluable stories of individuals and industries and of nation building," Gong said.
Hiking up to the train tunnels today, there is no signage, no historical interpretation and no infrastructure to protect the archeological artifacts that still exist there. Anyone can walk through the tunnels, which are on private property, according to the Forest Service.
The Forest Service has been trying to build more awareness about the history of the railroad on Donner Summit. In 2019, they organized tours for descendants of railroad workers on Donner Pass. And last year, the Forest Service released a documentary film about the railroad, called “Legacy.”
The railroad on Donner Summit should be "on par with some of the other great, monumental achievements of Americana culture," said Joe Flannery, spokesperson for the Tahoe National Forest. The Forest Service supports the 1882 Foundation's efforts to nominate the site as a National Historic Landmark, Flannery said. (According to Flannery, the Forest Service would remain the government land manager, even though the landmark designation goes through a separate government agency.)
The legacy of Donner Summit
Because of the concentrated flow of travel, all mountain passes are a nexus of history. But here, evidence of human presence spans thousands of years, making Donner Pass one of the most significant routes through the Sierra Nevada.
A few hundred feet below the tunnels, an interpretative sign points out ancient petroglyphs that are thousands of years old and trace back to the ancestral people who once lived here. The only barrier preventing people from walking on top of the ancient carvings — which are just next to a popular hiking trail — is a small row of stones. Today, the petroglyphs are so faint on the granite slab, it's difficult to make out their details.
The trail continues up a sloping granite bed, where historians say the Chinese laborers camped. This site is China Camp, and it’s on Forest Service land. It is the heart of the nomination for the historical landmark.
Then, the trail keeps going up to a retaining wall that props up the railroad bed. Historians call it China Wall, and it is its own stunning display of craftsmanship and engineering. It rises about 75 feet and stands solidly without any mortar or cement. Chinese laborers built the wall from boulders and debris from the excavated tunnels. Every single stone was placed by hand.
"It's like a jigsaw puzzle," said Phil Sexton, executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society. "And if you look closely at [the stones], you can see the coring marks. You can see the tool marks. It's beautiful."
But the wall was not designed for anyone to look at or contemplate, Sexton pointed out. When trains traversed Donner Summit, they passed on top of the wall, and nobody could see it. Even today, most people walk on top of the retaining wall, not knowing the history of the ground they stand on.
At the precipice of Donner Summit, one tunnel goes straight through granite cliffs overlooking Donner Lake for 1,654 feet. To drill through the rock, laborers used gunpowder, then experimental and unstable forms of nitroglycerin explosives, working at a pace of inches a day. The explosives exponentially increased the danger of the work.
Historians don't know the exact number of railroad workers, but some estimates say as many as 15,000 laborers on Donner Summit were Chinese — about 90% of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce. They were hired to move mountains of granite. From 1865 to 1867, workers constructed 15 tunnels to route the transcontinental railroad up and over the Sierra Nevada, according to historians at Stanford.
"All this is so bound up in this site. It tells a national history in ways that other places can't really begin to tell," Gong said.
With so much rich and powerful history, it's easy to wonder why this pass was named after one of its worst moments.
The Donner name perpetuates one narrative. And even then, it was not the first wagon party to cross the summit. Three years before snowstorms trapped the Donner Party, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party successfully crossed the pass in October 1844.
Before first contact with white settlers, the pass was also a known meeting point for trade between the Northern Maidu tribes in the west and the Washoe tribe in the east, according to a historic summary of the pass that Sexton compiled.
Can history save a place from itself?
Ming Poon is a professional photographer who lives in Lake Tahoe. His father immigrated to the United States from China.
"My grandparents and my dad really made it possible for that progression to happen, for me to be in this place of so many options and choices," Poon said. His family lineage doesn't trace back to the railroad workers, but when he comes to Donner Pass to snowboard or climb, he appreciates the connection he has to the people who came to the United States before him, who were also seeking more options and choices.
"More people, if they knew the history, they would learn from it and change their perspectives and have a totally different outlook," Poon said.
Today, one of our country's most vital arteries, Interstate 80, traverses Donner Summit. And along the winding road of Old Highway 40, hundreds of people are setting off for daily adventures in the mountains. Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Hill are two of Tahoe's oldest ski areas, and in the winter, the terrain on the pass is a popular zone for backcountry skiing. Come summer, the Pacific Crest Trail takes backpackers over the pass. Climbers arrive to test their might on the dozens and dozens of rock climbing routes here. Cyclists flock to Donner for the uphill climb. Dirt trails weave across the mountains all around the pass. And at the heart of it all, Donner Lake glistens.
Once inside the tunnels, hikers walk beneath vaulted domes of blackened rock. Daylight disappears and a silence settles in. You can hear bats squeaking in the cracks of the rock. But now, with so many people in the tunnels, echoes disrupt the silence and flashlights bop against the darkness, revealing the layers and layers of graffiti that have accumulated in recent years.
The graffiti, itself, is another form of art and expression. Some of the graffiti is pure vandalism, scribbled names and profanity. But other works are more mural-like. Still, Gong questioned its place and context. Would graffiti artists paint on the Smithsonian Museum, he asked. Or the Gettysburg Battlefield?
For a long time, the contribution of the Chinese on the railroad was erased in history books. At the centennial celebration for the Transcontinental Railroad, in 1969, Transportation Secretary John A. Volpe told a crowd at Promontory, Utah: "Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?"
A representative from the Chinese Historical Society named Phil Choy arrived at the centennial to honor his people's heritage and contribution to the railroad. But the event organizers and American government officials snubbed Choy and never gave him the chance to speak. Some accounts say that John Wayne, the movie star, showed up at the last minute and took Choy's speaking spot.
In 2019, at the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad, many Chinese historical and cultural advocates, including the 1882 Foundation, worked hard to revise that narrative and include the contribution of Chinese workers in the historical record. Their efforts increased awareness significantly.
Still, despite the hundreds of visitors who arrive every day come summer, the railroad tunnels on Donner Summit feel more like an abandoned warehouse covered in graffiti than a site of historic importance to the country.
"There is no official marker of the place," Gong said. "This is such an outstanding and amazing piece of work, construction, engineering and the number of workers that were there. It changed the American experience. And it's such a significant linkage to the building of the American nation. You wonder, why hasn't this been nominated or selected as a national monument?"
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