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Railroad Snowsheds of Donner Summit

Donner Summit snowsheds.

Photo © Bruce C. Cooper for Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum

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.

About this Establishment

California State Railroad Museum

To learn about the Transcontinental Railroad and the impact of railroads that shaped the life in the Sierra Nevada and California, a visit to the California State Railroad Museum is a must do, especially during your trip to the Sierra Nevada.

The Museum is located at the corner of Second and "I" Streets in Old Sacramento. Guided tours and interpretive film screenings are offered daily. Many other opportunities abound at the Museum, including related historical attractions within Old Sacramento State Historic Park.

Throughout the main Railroad History Museum building, 21 meticulously restored locomotives and cars and numerous exhibits illustrate how railroads have shaped people's lives, the economy, and the unique culture of California and the West. Included are a Pullman-style sleeping car, a dining car filled with railroad china, and a Railway Post Office that visitors can actually step aboard.

A visit to the California State Railroad Museum is a not-to-be-missed experience that will be enjoyed by persons of all ages and abilities. But there's a lot more to see and do in Old Sacramento and the Capital City, too!  Click here to take a virtual tour of the museum.

Time Period Represented: 1863-1869

Hours Open: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Visitor Fees: Adults $9, Youths 6-17 $4, Children under 5 Free

Seasons Open: All Year; except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.

 ADA Accessibility Notes
ADA Accessible
 Pet Friendly Notes
Only service animals are allowed in the museum.

For More Information, Contact:

California State Railroad Museum
125 "I" Street (Old Town), Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 445-6645

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Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

Longitude: -120.321389000
Latitude: 39.315833000
Elevation: 6987 FT (2130 M)
Lynn Campbell
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Lynn Campbell
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