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A look inside the Donner Summit train tunnels.

Chinese Immigrants - Unsung Heroes Of Truckee

Since the dawn of America’s history, immigrants have played a key part in nearly all of the engineering marvels. In Chicago, the Irish helped build the canals to reverse the river. In New York, Italians played an important role in many public works projects in the 19th century like the subway. For Truckee, the unsung heroes of building the Transcontinental railroad were the Chinese immigrants. If it wasn’t for their hard work, the Truckee we know now wouldn’t exist.

How It All Started

Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, it took months to travel from one side of the country to the other and was dangerous as well as expensive. A need arose to connect the western United States to the east. To solve for this, the federal government created the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. Two companies were chartered and competed to lay as much track as possible to see who would get to Promontory, Utah first. The Central Pacific built east from Sacramento, Calif., while the Union Pacific built west from Omaha, Neb.

Silver Fever Is A Problem

Around the same time as the Transcontinental Railroad was being built, another “boom” was happening. Not the Gold Rush as you would think, but a Silver Boom in Virginia City. Due to this, the Central Pacific Railroad couldn’t hire and keep enough workmen to construct the railroad. New hires would leave for the silver mines shortly after they were hired. The solution? In 1865, they began to hire former Chinese gold miners.

California’s Gold Mountain Inspired Chinese Farmers

This was then followed by hiring all Chinese workers that were in California. It was such a success that the railroad hired a contractor to recruit Chinese laborers from mainland China. Poor farmers from the Guangzhou district in what is present day Hong Kong were lured by stories of “California’s Gold Mountain.” As Chinese laborers were hired, an agreement was made that they would pay off their Pacific passage by working for the railroad. In addition, if they died working for the railroad, they would be transported back to China. 

The Building Of The Tunnels

One of the most crucial connections across the 2,000 mile transcontinental railroad is a stone’s throw from the historic town of Truckee - the Donner Pass Summit Tunnels. Over 12,000 of the 15,000 laborers that built these High Sierra tunnels were Chinese.

Dangerous Work

Walking through the 1,659’ tunnel, the first thing you’ll come to marvel is that these were primarily built by hand. Through the use of hand drilling, black powder, and nitroglycerin, the dozen tunnels took over fifteen months to dig. This work was so dangerous that more than 500-1000 Chinese laborers lost their lives in helping create this vital connection.

Chinese Helped Propel Truckee Into A Lumber Magnate

As the final golden spike was laid in 1869, Truckee’s access to this vital connection helped propel the sleepy town into a lumber magnate. Many of these hardworking Chinese laborers made Truckee their home. In 1870 in a town of 1,467 people with 731 dwellings, more than a quarter of the population were Chinese living in Chinatown. At that time, it was located on the corner of Spring and Jibboom streets, behind Front Street in a triangular area.

Virginia City’s Mines Lead To A Boom

From roughly 1870 until 1875, the bloom on the Comstock Lode brought riches to Truckee. Fueled by the need for materials, the Central Pacific heavily exported lumber and cords of wood to Virginia City’s silver mines. Chinatown was a bustling area. As the New York Times said in 1868, it was “filled with long streets of Chinese laundries, barbers shops, tea stores, peanut stands, and nondescript booths.” The Chinese represented woodcutters, merchants, laundrymen, doctors, and more.

Depression Leads To Anti-Chinese Resentment

Like any mining boom, it’s a matter of time before the rare metals dry up and the miners leave. For Virginia City, it was around 1878 when this happened. To give you an idea - when the mines peaked in 1877, $36 million was being extracted annually, and by 1878, it drastically fell to $19 million. This is when 50% of the sawmills in Truckee shut down, leading to significant layoffs of skilled mill labor and mounting resentment of the Chinese. Chinatown subsequently caught fire THREE times in 1878 and was assumed the work of anti-Chinese vigilantes, known as the “Caucasian League.”

The End Of Chinatown In Truckee 

This economic panic wasn’t just in Virginia City and Truckee but across the entire nation. European settlers cast unfair blame on the loss of jobs everywhere to the Chinese immigrants. And on May 6, 1882, President Chester Arthur signed a federal law that blocked Chinese workers from coming legally to the country. In fact, it even stopped Chinese immigrants who were already living here from becoming US citizens. This anti-Chinese sentiment was especially prevalent in Truckee with prominent members of the community including Charles McGlashan championing the movement. The goal was to push out all the Chinese from town by boycotting the Chinese businesses. And it did just that by the summer of 1886.

What’s Left Of Chinatown

Today, the only building left from Truckee’s Chinatown is the Chinese Herb Shop located at 10004 South East River St. The little shop, built in 1878, is a brick fireproof building with iron metal shutters that’s survived many fires. During the roaring twenties until the 1960s, it was used as the Truckee Bottling Works by the Englehart family and was rumored to have the finest bootlegged whiskey in town.

Truckee Today -  Preserving Chinese History & Protecting the 1867 Transcontinental Railroad Tunnel Area

For many years, this history was lost or rarely spoken about including the exclusion act of 1882. With the help of the 1882 Foundation, the stories about the Chinese and Asian American experience in Truckee are finally being told. Along with strengthening public education about their experiences, another organization - the Summit Tunnel Conservation Association - is seeking to preserve the incredibly historic tunnels and ensure future generations can see it for themselves. 

Keep Reading - These Chinese immigrants opened the doors to the American West, National Geographic.

Watch Legacy - Chinese Railroad Worker Documentary Film

About the film: Over 150 years ago, Chinese Railroad Workers blasted and chiseled their way through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains near Donner Summit on the Tahoe National Forest while completing the Transcontinental Railroad. Despite this monumental achievement, the Chinese Railroad Workers’ contribution was excluded, ignored and forgotten from history. Today, grassroots groups and the US Forest Service are working together to retell the story of these workers’ lasting legacy.

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