Locally known as “Catfish Pond,” this green pool of water at the top of Donner Pass in the Tahoe National Forest is home to dozens of small, whiskered catfish. Catfish are not native to the Sierras, nor are they naturally found at such high elevation (approximately 7,000 ft.). This pond has no streams that feed into it. Therefore, it is thought that this pond was stocked with catfish in the late 1860’s to feed Chinese workers. Those workers were building a stretch of the Transcontinental Railroad nearby, including the labor-intensive six and seven number Summit Tunnels which go straight through mountains of granite. The descendants of these stocked fish have survived in the pristine pond for over 150 years, and continue to thrive in this unusual environment even as the pond is covered with around ten feet of snow each winter.
Chinese railroad workers were generally in better health than their Irish counterparts, because they had a more varied diet, and refused to eat the “manly” diet of beans and beef. While others drank water from communal dippers, Chinese laborers preferred to drink tea and hot water, reducing the incidence of dysentery and other illness-causing microbes that were killed during the boiling process. They preferred to eat Chinese foods, including dried fish, dried vegetables, dried oysters and rice.
The Central Pacific Railroad gave exclusive rights to Sisson, Wallace and Company, to provide food and to other provisions to the railroad workers. As the railroad tracks gradually extended through the Sierra Nevada’s, a train car labeled “China Store” would follow the work camps to the end of the tracks so that Chinese workers could make purchases. In groups of 12 to 30 men, crews could pay for a Chinese cook prepare their meals. These cooks were highly valued, and often compensated better than the hard laborers they were feeding. In addition to all of the meal preparation, they brewed barrels of tea each day. It was evident from the fish bone remains found at camps, that the Chinese supplemented their diet with fishing from local waterbodies. At other Chinese camps in the Sierra Nevada’s, bone remains from pigs and cows indicate that locally-sourced pork and beef was consumed by Chinese workers even deep in remote, forested areas. In ways, Chinese railroad workers adapted and maintained their rich, and varied food culture even while working a grueling and dangerous job, in a foreign land.