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Journeys: Walk through a 150-year-old railroad tunnel that Chinese immigrant workers built by hand

Visitors to make their way through the Donner Pass Railroad Tunnel Hike in Truckee, Calif. in July of 2022. | Han Li/The Standard

Looking into the mouth of the tunnel, I adjusted my headlamp, took a deep breath and wondered. 

“My ancestors really dug this by hand 150 years ago?”

Though Donner Summit has long been known for its ill-fated “party” and as a spot to ski and stay if you don’t want to drive the extra hour to Lake Tahoe, a far more significant landmark lies nearby: A 1,659-foot tunnel built by Chinese laborers in the 1860s that served as the engineering linchpin for the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Even more incredible? You can hike through it—and land in a largely unknown chapter of California history.

Visitors make their way through the Donner Summit Railroad Tunnel near Soda Springs, Calif. in July 2022. | Han Li/The Standard

The Summit Tunnel is the longest of a series of rail tunnels that have become a unique hiking destination since being decommissioned by the Union Pacific in 1993. Just a bit over a 3-hour drive from San Francisco drops you near the parking lot for Donner Ski Ranch and the starting point for a hike through the tunnels. 

Also called “Tunnel No. 6,” the biggest bore measures 1,659 feet long and it was blasted out between 1867-1868. Approximately 12,000 of the 15,000 laborers who toiled on these High Sierra tunnels were Chinese nationals, recruited from abroad, and between 500-1,000 lost their lives doing the dangerous work. The completion of these Central Pacific Railroad tunnels through 7,000-foot granite peaks in the late 1860s was critical to completing the Transcontinental Railroad—a milestone that revolutionized the nation’s trade and transportation.

But when Leland Stanford drove in the final golden spike in 1869, officials made no mention of the contribution of Chinese laborers. Neither was attribution given when the centennial celebration took place in 1969. It took until 2019 at the 150th-anniversary ceremony when I was in Utah to witness U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao—herself a Chinese American immigrant—formally describe the incredible achievement.

Summit Tunnel laborers | Alfred A. Hart for the CPRR/Courtesy Donner Pass Historical Society

“We need to reclaim this history,” said David Lei, a long-time Bay Area community activist and Chinese American historian who led the sort-of “pilgrimage” group to visit the tunnel that I had joined in July. “It’s for remembering and learning from our ancestors.”

Between Sacramento and Reno, the railroad route penetrated through many granite monoliths in the Sierra Nevada mountains as these early immigrants built a series of 15 tunnels. Earning about $30-$35 per month and working 8-hour shifts, 24-hours a day, 6 days a week, the Chinese, overcame incredible hardship through their hard work and completed Tunnel #6 in less than one year—reportedly one-third of the time engineers expected it would take. 

Each team of workers slammed a sledgehammer into a drill bit to bore holes in solid granite where explosives could be set off. Another team would come in and remove the blasted rock. Teams could remove about 14 inches of rock per day. The winter conditions were extreme, with dozens of feet of snow falling and frigid working and living conditions. (Click here to read more about the achievements of the Chinese workers and their living conditions.) 

The tunnels are just one of the Chinese workforce’s construction achievements on display near Donner Summit. To bridge the ravine between tunnels 7 and 8, a 75-foot wall was built and another retaining wall was built above this section of tracks. Called the China Wall, these two fortifications were constructed with stones placed by hand and still stand today. The workers also built “snow sheds” to cover the railways between the tunnels at the highest peaks and keep winter snow from piling up.

An exterior of Donner Pass Railroad Tunnel in Soda Springs, Calif. in July of 2022. | Han Li/The Standard

Into The Summit Tunnel

On that hot July summer day, we walked through the length of Tunnel #6, which is more than five football fields long. It takes quite some time to walk from one side to the other end because the base of the tunnel is quite rocky.

There’s no lighting inside the tunnel and even in the summer, it’s chilly inside. A flashlight, warm jacket, and waterproof hiking boots are recommended. A walking stick may be useful, too.

In the light of my headlamp, I could see the blasted rock in sharp shapes all around me. There was graffiti everywhere and dripping water from the ceiling. In that chilly air, I felt a strong sense of the importance of Chinese American history.

An unspecified figure stands near the east portal of the Central Pacific Railroad Summit Tunnel on the Donner Pass, a mountain pass in the northern Sierra Nevada, California, circa 1867. This image is one of a series depicting the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, photographed between 1864 and 1869. | Alfred Hart/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ted Gong, the director of the DC-based nonprofit 1882 Foundation, is working to get the area designated a National Historic Landmark.

“[The tunnel] deserves to be a landmark,” said Gong, adding that his group is in the process of evaluating the archaeological situation and will submit an application to the federal government soon. “It represents American values.”

But as these extraordinary tunnels become more popular, they have become a target for vandals. The National Trust for Historic Preservation now classifies the site as endangered due to visitors damaging the site and painting graffiti on the tunnel’s walls.

David Lei is concerned that more people coming to the site might further degrade conditions at the tunnel, but agreed that the increasing visitation from the public can bring well-deserved attention to the state’s buried history and raise awareness for more protection of the site.

Emerging from Tunnel No. 6, I scrambled up to the top of the mountain. The view of Donner Lake and the surrounding valley is breathtaking. You can keep walking through tunnels 7 and 8 to see the China Wall, but I turned back for another look at the magnificent work and sacrifice of early Chinese immigrants. 

Views near the Donner Pass Railroad Tunnel in Soda Springs, Calif. in July of 2022. | Han Li/The Standard

Summit Tunnel #6 makes for a perfect day trip on the way to or from Lake Tahoe. The tunnel hike is located near Donner Summit off Interstate 80 near Soda Springs. Navigate to “Historic Summit Tunnel” on Google Maps or “Donner Pass Railroad Tunnel Hike” on Apple Maps. Allow 2-3 hours to complete the hike through the tunnels. The hike is only possible from May to October when there is no chance of snow. For non-hikers, the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento has a model of the tunnel and details about its historic significance and the Donner Summit Historical Society’s 20-mile driving tour of Old Highway 40 provides views of the China Wall and other nearby landmarks. See more historic photos of the tunnels on the Donner Pass Historical Society site.