The Tehachapi Pass Railroad Line was constructed in the late 19th Century at a time when major rail expansion helped fuel the settlement of the American West. Similar to how the Central Pacific/Transcontinental Railroad (1869) famously connected the U.S.’s east and west, the Tehachapi Pass Railroad Line (TPRL) helped connect California’s north and south, contributing greatly to the early growth of Southern California. The Tehachapi Pass Railroad Line was classed by the American Society of Civil Engineers as “one of the seven wonders of the engineering world.”
The Tehachapi Pass Railroad Line was built during the 1870s and 1880s by Southern Pacific Railroad (SPR), which succeeded the Central Pacific Railroad (CPR). The line rises from the San Joaquin Valley through the Tehachapi Mountains, as the last leg of the first railroad linking San Francisco with Los Angeles. Since their beginning, the TPRL was celebrated as an engineering marvel. The railroad’s 50 plus track miles traverses the steep Tehachapi Mountain Range, steadily reaching an elevation of 3,600 feet with the help of the Tehachapi Loop. The Tehachapi Loop included “S” curves that weaved back and forth up the Tehachapi Creek watershed to ease the grade and overcome the steep incline. [Visualize the Loop as a “helix” or corkscrew.]
The project was constructed under the leadership of Southern Pacific’s civil engineers, James R. Strobridge and William Hood, using a predominantly Chinese labor force. The Tehachapi Loop took under two years to complete, featuring 18 tunnels, 10 bridges, and numerous water towers for the steam locomotives. Between 1875-76 about 3,000 Chinese workers equipped with little more than hand tools, picks, shovels, horse drawn carts and blasting powder cut through solid and decomposed granite to create the helix-shaped 0.73 mile loop with grades averaging about 2.2 percent and an elevation gain of 77 feet. In 1882 the line was extended through Southern California and the Mohave Desert with 8,000 Chinese men working under Strobridge and another man. Both of the men came out of retirement after working on the Central Pacific Railroad.
Today, the Tehachapi Pass Railroad Line continues to be recognized for its engineering ingenuity, and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Railroad World. It remains in active use and is one of the most heavily utilized tracks in the U.S., carrying an average of 36-40 freight trains daily. The TPRL is one of many surviving railroad lines built by early Chinese American laborers that continue to contribute in modern-day American society.
Submitted by: S. Chung et. al., Chinese American Citizens Alliance