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Dynamite, Snow Storms, and a Ticking Clock

Dynamite, Snow Storms, and a Ticking Clock Chinese workforce achieved enormous engineering feats on Donner Summit railroad during extreme weather
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When Charles Crocker, an executive for the Central Pacific Railroad, suggested in 1864 the company hire Chinese immigrants to help build the railroad, he was met with laughter. The defense against hiring Chinese was that the men were small in stature and building railroads required brute strength. At the time, Central Pacific was charged with building the railroad from the west coast to Utah, and Union Pacific was building their portion from the east coast to Utah much quicker — so Crocker was feeling pressure. Many Chinese men had immigrated to the U.S. to try and get a piece of the gold rush, but as jobs in mines dwindled, Central Pacific decided to capitalize and hired 50 men on a trial basis. The experiment went well — by 1865, there were 3,000 Chinese working on the railroad. Unlike the Irish workforce, who liked to get into their cups of whiskey after work, the Chinese would enjoy occasional opium, but other than that were generally much healthier, according to the Donner Summit Historical Society.

The railroad construction was moving slowly in the West, but the pressure of a deadline from the U.S. Congress forced workers to keep moving. As crews reached Donner Summit in the fall of 1866 they hoped that snowfall would hold off as long as possible. But the tempestuous Sierra had other ideas. Early snowstorms led into one of the harshest winters in history. During this arduous weather, railroad crews were tackling the task of building tunnels through the hard granite rock on Donner Summit, a feat many said could not be done.

Traditionally, tunnels were built starting from both sides and crews would meet in the middle. But in an effort to speed up construction of Tunnel 6, the longest tunnel of the Central Pacific Railroad at 1,659 feet long, the Chinese workers drilled a shaft down into the center of the planned tunnel and from there they worked from the inside out. You can still see the shaft hole today if you walk almost exactly to the center of Tunnel 6 and look up. The builders would work in shifts usually lasting around eight hours, according to Jerry Blackwill of the Truckee Donner Railroad Society. They would start by clearing rock debris left from the previous shift by loading it into the large bucket they had come down the shaft in, which would be raised and lowered by a stationary locomotive above. Then, using only hand tools, they would get to work chiseling 2-inch-deep holes into the granite and filling them with gunpowder, or as they called it, black powder. The whole crew less one would then ride up the shaft bucket to the top toward safety. The remaining worker would light the explosives and ride up the shaft quickly before the detonation. The next shift of workers would repeat the procedure. The laborious process moved at a painfully slow pace of 14 inches per day — if they were lucky.

The rate of progress was doubled when nitroglycerin, more commonly known as dynamite, was brought to California in 1866. At first, this explosive was very unstable — in one instance, a package was moved just slightly and suddenly exploded in a San Francisco Wells, Fargo & Co. building, killing 15 people. The company banned shipments of liquid nitroglycerin from then on. But Central Pacific still wanted to use it for constructing tunnels, and so in 1867 a powder form invented by Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (who is the namesake for the renowned science award) was used. Central Pacific brought the powder to Donner Summit and began mixing nitroglycerin on site. The dynamite was still very volatile, but mixing it onsite at least reduced the instances of exploding packages, and allowed the company to produce exactly as much as needed. By using nitroglycerin instead of black powder the Chinese workforce was averaging 22 inches a day.

Although the views around Donner Summit are gorgeous, the work crew never got to enjoy them. In the winter of 1866, there were 44 storms that came through and snow slides were a common danger. The workers built snow tunnels from their camps down near Donner Lake to the entrance of the shaft and ventured back and forth from the site each day, rarely seeing outside the tunnels. They subsisted off a “varied diet of oysters, abalone, cuttlefish, dried bamboo sprouts, dried mushrooms, vegetables, rice, and salted cabbage” according to the Donner Summit Historical Society, and remained civilized by electing one of their crew to cook for everyone. Unlike the Irish workers who drank directly from streams, the Chinese boiled all their water and stored it in old dynamite bins for tea. This practice resulted in almost no cases of dysentery, whereas the infection was very common in the Irish crews.

Tunnel 6 was completed in August of 1867 — one year after drilling the initial shaft into the center. Chinese crews, along with the Irish and Americans employed, continued to work with the railroad until May 10, 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was finally completed. The Chinese workers, once doubted, proved to be indispensable.

To volunteer as a docent at the Truckee Donner Railroad museum visit

Read about other jobs that challenge the norm in Night Crawlers, here.

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May 10, 2018