The Chinese helped complete the transcontinental railroad by building much of the western portion of the transcontinental railroad. Railroad work was low-paying, physically demanding, and dangerous, and therefore Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) had a difficult time hiring laborers. CPR only had 800 mainly Irish immigrants, but they needed thousands more laborers to complete the job. Charles Crocker, founder of CPR, entertained the idea of hiring Chinese laborers for the job, but racist critics thought the Chinese workers were too small, weak, and inexperienced for railroad work. Crocker answered back, “Let’s give them a try. They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?” Beginning earnestly, they hired 50 Chinese workers for simple tasks. As the Chinese excelled, CPR gave them increasingly more complex, difficult, and physical-demanding work, and the Chinese continued to prove their worth. Later, Crocker stated, “Wherever we put them, we found them good… and they worked themselves into our favor to such an extent that if we found we were in a hurry for a job of work, it was better to put Chinese on at once.” After Chinese proved they were very strong and capable, CPR needed even more Chinese laborers, and began recruiting in the ports of southeast China. After successful recruiting, CPR ranks swelled to 12,000 Chinese workers, which was 80% of the CPR workforce.
Building the railroad through the Sierra Nevada was the most challenging aspect of the transcontinental railroad. Engineers surveyed the railroad to run through 13 tunnels of solid granite. Chinese laborers had to initially bore through rock using 8-pound sledge hammers and chisels by candle light or lantern to create 2-feet deep by 2.5-inch wide holes, which took hours for a 3-man crew to create. The Chinese laborers first filled 1/3 of the hole with blasting powder, and then clay/hay/sand to secure the fuse. The workers lit the fuse, ran, and the subsequent explosion sent rock debris, dust, and black powder residue into the air, which made breathing difficult. After the blast, Chinese laborers moved the heavy rock into baskets or carts and out of the tunnel. Chinese laborers moved at an excruciating slow pace of 14 inches per a non-stop 24 hour period, but towards the end of the project, they increased their pace to 22 inches per day when they began using the newly developed nitroglycerin.
Aside from dangerous blasting, numerous Chinese men lost their lives during the harsh and windy winters. During the winter of 1866-1867, 44 storms dumped an incredible amount of snow that winter. Many of the storms dumped over 6 feet per storm. Avalanches often swept groups of Chinese workers to their deaths. Chinese laborers had to resort to working and traveling through the snow in excavated snow rooms and snow tunnels connecting where they worked to where they lived in their bitterly cold huts resembling dog kennels, which were made of wood shakes 4 feet high by 6 feet wide and 8 feet long.
After beginning work in the Sierras in the fall of 1865, Chinese laborers laid the tracks through the most difficult of the 1,687-feet Summit Tunnel #6 on November 30, 1867.
However, after the heavy winter snow storms, CPR realized that locomotives with plow attachments could not adequately remove snow from the tracks. Therefore, in summer of 1867, engineers began designing and experimenting with wooden snow sheds, which protected the tracks from avalanches and snow buildup. Eventually they built 37 miles of snow sheds through the Sierra Nevada by 1869. As snow removal improved, many wooden snow sheds were unnecessary, and therefore many were removed. Those that were still needed were eventually replaced by concrete snow sheds, which remain today.
Trains no longer use the Summit Tunnel and the portion of the historic Transcontinental Railroad that crosses Donner Pass. The tracks and rails have been removed, and train traffic has been diverted elsewhere. Union Pacific Railroad owns this historic segment of the Transcontinental Railroad, but unfortunately, these historic tunnels have fallen victim to graffiti and vandalism.