There aren't many places in California where at least three important lines of the state's history cross, but Donner Pass, in the High Sierra, is one of those places. With Bob Taylor, my brother-in-law, I spent Saturday exploring up there while our wives were off doing wifely/sisterly stuff.
The three lines we took a look at are the state's pre-European Indian citizens, the Gold Rush pioneers, and the Central Pacific/Trans-continental Railroad.
I had wanted to explore Tunnels Six, Seven and Eight, as they are called, for a long time. Right off old Highway 40 at the top of Donner Pass, at 7,000 feet, they are at the very highest point of the Central Pacific in California and were built in 1866 and '67 by Chinese workmen. (You can see Tunnels Seven and Eight here - and always, click on the photo to make it larger.) Building them involved the first use of nitroglycerine. The stuff was a very powerful explosive, far more powerful than the black powder that was being used, but very unstable. Result: Men died. So the railroad returned to casks of black powder to blast these tunnels through solid granite. I'm interested in this not least because I have a little history with drilling and blasting tunnels through granite. For more on this, see Hard Rock Gold Miner.
There's lots to see here - the three tunnels themselves, the Great China Wall, as it's called, Tunnel Six, seen here, which was bored from both ends and from both sides of a shaft sunk into the stone at the tunnel's midpoint, the huge cap that covers the opening of that vertical shaft, the remains of the 1860s wagon road that mostly follows and replaced the original pioneer trail, and the Indian petroglyphs just below all this.
The Great China Wall is a mortarless stone wall - dry mortar, the technique is called - below the upper entrance to Tunnel Eight that is composed of huge blocks of rock, all cut and placed by hand by those workmen nearly 150 years ago so that it would retain the fill required to bridge a shallow canyon between Tunnel Seven and Tunnel Eight. It remains in top shape. Those guys knew their jobs.
And the petroglyphs, faint as they are, lie there in the bright sunshine on glacially polished rock below all this, evidence that the people who first roamed here had something to say and perhaps something to tell us.
As you scan this area, you can see the concrete snow sheds, as they are called, placed to help keep the tracks clear during Donner Pass' legendary blizzards. I am not particularly interested in those - and in any case, they are covered in graffiti placed as though to prove that some people are, indeed, idiots. But I sure am interested in the tunnels themselves, made at great human cost so long ago.
Especially interesting to me is that vertical shaft in Tunnel Six. It's not easy to find because it's very dark inside Tunnel Six, the longest of these three. You have to know it's there, where to look up, and you have to have a powerful flashlight to find it. But patience and curiosity have their rewards.
Equally interesting is the entry point, topped by a 12 x 12 concrete weir-like construction that wears a rusted cap made of 1/8th-inch sheet steel. It's just off the highway - people no doubt drive past this every day without a clue what it represents. Just adjacent to this I found a large chunk of broken stone bearing several drill holes. Are these the fingerprints, as it were, of those long-dead tunnel builders? No way to know, but I like to think maybe so.
In fact, as I stood up there on Donner Summit looking eastward toward Donner Lake, with no traffic noise, nobody but Bob around, a gorgeous, warm summer's day - I thought just for a minute I could smell coal being burned in an engine's firebox, see 40-foot snow drifts, hear the echo of a steam locomotive, and, inside Tunnel Six, catch just a fleeting whisper of the ghosts of drillers, blasters, gandy dancers and more from so long ago.
Nah, couldn't be. Could it? I sure hope so.