Ships and travelers braving high wind, monstrous waves, and frigid temperatures sailed around the legendary Cape Horn near the southern tip of South America as a main trading route between the Indies and Europe between the 1600’s and early 1900’s. In addition, travelers used this same passage during the 1849 California gold rush when gold seekers traveled from the east coast of the United States to California. Not surprisingly 20 years later, those same gold seekers who helped build the transcontinental railroad decided to name the railroad passage, “Cape Horn,” around a formidable, steep, and rocky, outcropping 1300 feet above the north fork of the American River.
Cape Horn passage posed the greatest challenge because they needed to lay tracks around a steep mountainside. Engineers outside of Central Pacific Railroad considered the idea preposterous, but Central Pacific completed the job with the help of Chinese workers.
In the summer of 1865, Chinese workers began side hill rock cutting. To begin establishing the railroad bed on the side of the mountain, Chinese workers were likely lowered by rope down to the level of the planned roadbed until they were able to excavate a foothold through pick, shovel, or explosives.
Clearing the railroad bed was a difficult, time-consuming, and dangerous. Rocks, large trees, stumps, and other vegetation needed to be removed. When using black powder, the explosion sent pieces of rocks, trees, and soil flying through the air at high velocity, which often accidentally killed Chinese workers. Stumps, especially were difficult because it took over ten barrels of black powder to remove a large stump.
While visiting the Colfax area, one reporter wrote about Chinese workers: “They were a great army laying siege to Nature in her strongest citadel. The rugged mountains looked like stupendous ant-hills. They swarmed with Celestials, shoveling, wheeling, carting, drilling and blasting rocks and earth…”
Ultimately, Chinese workers finished excavating the railroad bed and laying the tracks during the spring 1866. The route eventually became popular with travelers because of the panoramic view from Cape Horn; trains often stopped at Cape Horn to allow passengers to appreciate the view. This brought Cape Horn and Central Pacific national publicity, and tourist guides soon began re-imagining and rewriting how Cape Horn was built. Authors began writing that Chinese workers were lowered in chairs or baskets to excavate the railroad bed using explosives. However, there were little first-hand accounts during the Cape Horn construction to support these reinterpretations.
Between 1913 and 1915, the railroad abandoned the original tracks that rounded the mountain in favor of inside tracks that accommodated two tracks through the mountain. But by 1929, the railroad reclaimed the outside track to accommodate eastbound traffic while the inner tunnel track retained the west-bound traffic.