The building of the Transcontinental Railroad changed commerce and the ethnic diversity of California, and the country, forever.
In the 1860s, hundreds of Chinese laborers braved freezing temperatures, blizzards and unbelievably hazardous conditions to drill the 1,659-foot-long Summit Tunnel near Donner Pass, enabling the Central Pacific Railroad to move trains over the summit even in the worst of Sierra winter conditions. The train route follows major wagon routes of early emigrants that preceded the booming railroad era. And, hidden in the rock near the tunnels are ancient Native American petroglyphs, a testament to the importance of Donner Pass as a route for the first people of the Sierra Nevada and those explorers and pioneers who surmounted it to find a new life in California.
You're invited to travel through this rugged terrain in the comfort of a train room on Amtrak. You'll learn about the nostalgia, the trials, tribulations and triumphs building this major trans-byway presented by local historians. All aboard!
History of the Transcontinental Railroad
Central Pacific Railroad began laying track eastward from Sacramento, California in 1863, and the Union Pacific Railroad started laying track westward from Omaha, Nebraska, two years later in July, 1865. To meet its manpower needs, the Central Pacific hired thousands of Chinese laborers, including many recruited from farms in Canton. The crews had the formidable task of laying the track crossing California's rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range and had to blast fifteen tunnels to accomplish this. The crew of the Union Pacific, which was composed largely of Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans, had to contend with Indian attacks and the Rocky Mountains. On May 10, 1869, after completing 1,776 miles, 4,814 feet (2,859.66 km) of new track, the two rail lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah.
Travel through the snowsheds of the Sierra Nevada on Amtrak!
Traveling by rail over the infamous Donner Summit allows passengers to see the monumental feat the Chinese accomplished by building the snowsheds and tunnels through the Sierra Nevada granite. You'll also pass through small towns built by the railroad that still hold on to its romantic heritage, such as Colfax and Cape Horn.
Sacramento's Amtrak train station is located immediately adjacent to Old Sacramento and the California State Railroad Museum. Trained volunteer docents from the California State Railroad Museum provide narration aboard Amtrak's California Zephyr in both directions between Sacramento and Reno. This train travels over the original route of America's First Transcontinental Railroad and over the infamous Donner Pass where you can learn more about the tragic events and see the railroad snowsheds. The narration is offered daily, with some exceptions during busy holiday travel periods. Click here to learn more about the Zephyr route over Donner Pass.