Built by Chinese immigrants in the 1860s, the caverns cutting through Donner Summit helped unite the country
By Shoshi Parks, Freelance writer, January 12, 2022
A summer hike led me straight to the yawning maw of the Donner Summit tunnels high above Donner Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Not even the longer of the two, a man-made cavern 1,659 feet in length, appeared on my map. There was no historical marker, no plaque, no interpretive signs—no signage of any sort.
I had no way of knowing that I’d accidentally stumbled on one of the most important engineering marvels of the 19th century, the one that united America.
The Sierra Nevada, the 400-mile-long range of granite peaks that form the backbone of California, was the most formidable obstacle in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
The only way past them was through. But in the mid-1860s, an era without dynamite or heavy machinery, the task seemed insurmountable. The granite was too hard, the mountains too steep, the 7,042 foot elevation where snow arrived early and stayed late was too treacherous for train travel.