Between 1880 and 1883, crews, including large groups of Chinese laborers, constructed the railroad grade, track, and tunnel through Montgomery Pass. Chinese crews tediously dugout hills and filled divots with dirt, as they laid tracks imported from Sheffield, England, along a gradual grade of 3% in order to haul cargo over the mountain. Engineers made a concerted effort to avoid having to make tunnels through the mountains, which resulted in many sharp, 20-degree turns of the railroad track. However, a tunnel was necessary through Montgomery Pass, and Chinese crews used dangerous explosives to construct a 247-foot tunnel through the mountain. The mountain pass tunnel was the highest of its time at 7,138 feet, surpassing in elevation even the famed Southern Pacific Railroad summit tunnels through Donner Pass.
Businessmen established the Carson & Colorado Railroad Co. in 1880 to build a railroad between the Carson and Colorado River. They speculated that the Inyo-Mono mining economy would soon take off. The engine named, “Slim Princess,” travelled on narrow rail gauges, which were spaced 3-feet apart, from Lone Pine, California, to Carson City, Nevada.
Without Chinese labor, the cost of building the 300-mile railroad would have been prohibitively expensive. The owner of the railroad convinced the bank to lend him the money to fund the railroad, by citing Chinese labor as a central means of keeping the cost of producing and maintaining the railroad low. In 1899, Chinese laborers were paid only $30 per month for their labor maintaining the railroad.
Because the mining economy did not boom as hoped after the railroad was built, the railroad racked up debt over the next twenty years while barely subsisting on traffic from borax and soda from the nearby Owens Lake Alkali flats. One notable shipment on the Carson & Colorado, was 200 carloads of marble from Inyo Marble Works to San Francisco. The marble was used to construct the D.O. Mills building, which still stands today in the financial district.
In 1901, the silver mining economy finally boomed in nearby Tonopah, Nevada, and a gold rush occurred in Goldfield, Nevada, leaving the Carson & Colorado with a monopoly on shipping mining supplies for several years. The Carson & Colorado Railroad provided a passenger service until 1932 and hauled freight until 1960. During its heyday in the 1920’s, John Hungerford recalls that “it was not uncommon for 1,000-1,800 carloads of sheep and 400-500 carloads of cattle to be shipped out in a season.” Thus, despite its financially rocky start, the railroad provided an invaluable contribution by connecting people and markets throughout the Eastern Sierras to those in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the rest of the United States.
Today, little evidence of the railroad tracks remain because the wood and metal pieces were scrapped. A couple hundred feet from the opening of the tunnel is a rock pile the Chinese stacked for a signal to warn of incoming trains. The mouth of the tunnel is partially covered by soil that collapsed on the mouth of the tunnel. The tunnel still stands tall, and a few shards of Chinese porcelain bowls and glass medicine bottles revive the memory of the Chinese laborers who built and maintained the track and tunnel of the historic Slim Princess.
Submitted by: Olivia Flechsig, USFS
Chinese labor site, Mining, Railroad