Sunday, November 22, 2009
Ghost Hunt - Summit Tunnel No. 6, Donner Summit
Constructing a railroad 88 miles over the rugged Sierra Range between Newcastle and Truckee, California, took 12,000 men 3 years and 2 months (February 1865 to April 1868). The Sierra crest, the most challenging section, required 14 tunnels to maintain a maximum grade of 105 feet to the mile. The longest and most difficult tunnel was tunnel number 6, Summit Tunnel, under Donner Summit. It was 1659 feet long.
Working conditions near the Summit were extremely hazardous. The Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) imported Chinese labor to do the work because of their fortitude, endurance and willingness to work for a far less than normal pay. The Chinese laborers worked in shifts around the clock from August 1866 until November 30, 1867. When not working the Chinese had to live in tunnels that they'd carved into the snowdrifts during the winter; makeshift shanties on site during the warmer months. Many of them died.
Despite non-stop digging and 300 kegs of black powder a day, the rock was so hard that the laborers could advance only 8 to 12 inches per day. To expedite the work on Tunnel No. 6, a vertical shaft seventy-five feet deep was sunk so that crews could work four headers, two from the middle out and two towards the shaft. Workers were lowered into the shaft by rope. (There is now a historical marker near the cap on top of the tunnel).
Many laborers lost their lives while setting charges to blast a road bed out of the rock solid cliffs. Chinese railroad workers, assigned the task of blasting tunnels through solid granite, died in untold numbers from black-powder explosions and in avalanches triggered by the blasts. After a year of using blasting powder quite ineffectively against the unyielding Sierra granite, the CPRR deployed a new high explosive called nitroglycerin; probably the first to do so in the United States. Nitro had a nasty reputation for exploding at unexpected times. After several fatal accidents while transporting the explosive, the decision was made to manufacture nitroglycerin on site.
The winters of 1866-7 and 1867-8 were severe in the Sierra. 44 storms dumped nearly 45 feet of snow and generated deadly avalanches. The biggest storm produced 120 inches in 13 days. An avalanche in 1866 wiped out an entire work camp; when the bodies were discovered the following spring, work tools were still clutched in their frozen hands. A slide near Tunnel No. 9 swept twenty Chinese laborers to their death. The following winter was no better. Sub-tropical storms dumped more than 40 inches of rain in December 1867, causing extensive flooding. In early March 1868, a fierce blizzard dumped 10 feet of snow in five days. The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise newspaper stated, “This winter has been pretty rough on the Chinese along the line of the railroad, and a great number of them have been killed and crippled by similar accidents at various points on the road.” Despite the harsh weather conditions, work continued.
The Summit Tunnel was closed down in 1993, after some 130 years of use. The tracks and water sheds are gone. The temperature of the tunnel remains cool year round, and there are standing puddles of water along the floor. Water seeps in from the roof and walls. Dripping water constantly echoes throughout the dark tunnel. Although our investigation was in the late afternoon and the weather warm, we wore light jackets, sturdy shoes and carried flashlights.
The sound of dripping water, and the crunch of gravel underfoot contaminated my digital recordings. I heard only our footsteps, voices, and an occasional passing car. While we were at the halfway point, just under the vertical shaft, my digital recorder picked up a loud bang. Mona, Paula and I were the only people in the tunnel during this time, and none of us had dropped anything. Directly above us, the vertical shaft is capped by a large metal sheet. I could not rule out something hitting the metal cap and the sound traveling down to us. The noise was picked up on Paula's equipment also, followed immediately with her losing power to her camera. She headed back toward the west entrance, while Mona and I continued east.
Mona's camera kept picking up some unusual light anomalies. There appears to be colored auras around the east entrance and along the nearby walls. I took several pictures of the same area. My pictures show light from the tunnel entrance and reflections off the water, but no auras.