Crazy Judah and the Chinese
I noted my recent visit to Donner’s Pass in “Promised lands.” Trains go through that gap as well as trucks and cars, as Kevin Baker, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, learned when he went through there while research his July 2014 piece on the state of American long-distance passenger trains, “21st Century Limited.” (The article huddles behind a pay wall at http://harpers.org/archive/2014/07/21st-century-limited/.)
Eastbound aboard the California Zephyr as it climbs through the foothills of the Sierras, Baker recalls that the travel alternatives in the 1840s made even Amtrak look attractive – five to six months in a wagon or sailing around stormy Cape Horn or across the fever-ridden Isthmus of Panama. He writes
A young railroad man from Connecticut had another idea. Theodore Judah talked so obsessively about the idea of building a railroad across the continent that people began to call him Crazy Judah. By 1860, after four years of searching, he was sure he had found his route — the one we are taking now through the Donner Pass.
The transcontinental railroads did great harm in the West and its people, and to the world’s financial markets, but they were greeted enthusiastically by most Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, who signed a law that authorized a massive giveaway of public lands to the companies building them. Baker continues.
Despite this subsidy, nobody was sure the job could be done. The Donner Pass route that Judah proposed might be compared to a great ramp up the mountains from Sacramento. Climbing it today, we can still appreciate how gradual it is, perfect for a means of conveyance clamped around two metal rails. But just past Donner Lake was a thousand-foot rock wall, and all along the route were granite ridges, liable to sudden rock slides and thirty-foot snowfalls.
The work required 13,500 men to hack away at the Donner Pass with the most primitive of tools—picks and shovels, wheelbarrows, and one-horse dump carts. Progress slowed sometimes to as little as two or three inches a day. The solution was nitroglycerine and Chinese immigrants.
Why Chinese? The Irish wouldn’t touch nitro, mainly, and the Chinese were cheap.
Lowered along the rock walls in gigantic baskets, they drilled holes fifteen to eighteen inches deep, poured in the nitroglycerine, capped the hole, then set the nitro off with a slow match. They worked carefully and well, but the real benefit to the Central Pacific [Railroad Co.]was that nobody much cared how many of them got blown up. Estimates vary widely as to how many died cutting their way through the Sierras, obliterated by the nitro or crushed under the rock slides it set off. It was carnage enough to provoke even these desperate men to go on strike, though they won a raise of only five dollars a month.
A handful of white settlers died traveling halfway across a continent while trying to make a better life for themselves and their families, and their story is legend. The highway brass plaque at the rest stop that today sits at the summit of Donner Pass tells their story, delicately omitting the cannibalism. The Chinese? They died traveling halfway across the planet to make a better life, and we didn’t even bother to count their dead.