Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ghost Hunt - Summit Tunnel No. 6, Donner Summit

My friend and fellow ghost hunter Mona grew up in Truckee, California. She has interesting (and eerie) stories to tell. Truckee began as a supply stop along the transcontinental railroad that was being built in the 1800s. It has a compelling history. Many buildings built back in the 1800s still stand today, and ghost stories abound. Mona had caught some interesting pictures while exploring the Summit Tunnel No. 6, one of the most difficult portions of the railway built. She asked if Paula and I were interested in joining her to investigate the tunnel further. Not knowing much about the history of this area, I went online and found out more about this incredible feat of engineering.


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.

By the spring of 1868 the great railroad tunnel east of Cisco (between Emigrant Pass and Norden) had opened. Only nine miles remained to be built to connect with the rails previously laid at Coburn's (current Truckee). Four thousand men worked continuously for twelve days to complete it. In June, 1868 the CPRR made its first run from Sacramento to Lake's Crossing (Reno, nowadays) at the eastern foot of the Sierra in Nevada Territory. Coburn's burned down the same year and residents quickly rebuilt, renaming the town, "Truckee". The final link in the transcontinental railroad was completed the following year, 1869, at Promontory, Utah. In comparison, the railroad from Truckee across the desert to Promontory, Utah, a distance of 571 miles, took only 5,000 men just one year and 27 days.
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 walls along the tunnel still bear blast marks, and bore holes where explosive charges were set. I got an eerie feeling here, especially when I thought of the countless men who lost their lives here due to explosions. As we advanced further into the tunnel, I marveled at the thought of these same men toiling in the darkness with only candles and lanterns to light their way.
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.

Mona and I headed back toward the west entrance and were met by Paula. Paul's digital recorder had picked up the sound of whispers near the entrance, but we have been unable to make any words out.

As the sun was beginning to set, we decided to end the investigation. Because we did pick up a few sounds we haven't been able to explain, I would really like to return to these tunnels and spend some time just sitting quietly in one spot and record.


Eric said...

in this picture, in the center top there is a rock outcropping.. I can see a man's full head and face in that rock.

The Haunted West: said...

I took a closer look at that particular photo and I see what you are talking about. I always wonder if this is just matrixing or truly a manifestation. I will have to go back and look at the rest of the photos I shot in the tunnel that day. Thanks for pointing this out.

Anonymous said...

I am happy to hear there are ghost hunters active on the summit. I grew up on Donner Summit. I know several first hand real ghost stories of things that occurred to our family (and other families) from 1964 - 1972 approximately. The incidents largely occurred surrounding Sugar Bowl and Serene lakes, but elsewhere as well. Donner Summit is definitely haunted. If interested you can contact me to discuss further.

Anonymous said...

This is very cool. I like this new blog. Glad there are ghost hunters on the Summit. I grew up on Donner Summit and my family experienced some very creepy incidents while living in Serene lakes. It would be fun to corroborate with you on this. contact me at if interested. Thanks, Matt

The Haunted West: said...

Matt- I would be most interested in hearing about the Serene Lake area. Donner Summit is an interesting place for the paranormal, lots of history. We investigated a ski inn up there this past fall and got some crazy data. I would also like to investigate the Donner party sites during the winter. Maybe have to snowshoe in...

Anonymous said...

June 27 2016 was my first time up at the tunnels. This was supposed to be a hike but quickly turned into a paranormal investigation. I had alot of fun. Picked up a few unexplainable light anamoly's and orbs. One of my friends caught the name John Young ( pronounced Yawn Young) who was one of the men who slaved in the tunnels and ended up dying. Once we headed back, we all said we wanted to come back and camp and do another investigation. July 16, 2016 was the night we returned as the sun was getting ready to set. The group consisted of 6 females and 5 guys. We all enjoyed ourselves. Some actually had a conversation with men who worked the tunnels as well as some of us being able to visually see them. Mary was one whom had followed us from the start of the tunnel. Lots of individual experiences, pictures,orbs and anamoly's. Two game cameras went completely dead within 15 minutes and I replaced batteries in my digital camera 4 different times. Our equipment was constantly going off. At 10:30 pm, the fun came to end and fear set in. Three people headed back ( unclear as to why at that moment). Me and 2 others ( females) wanted to go further. As we began to continue we came to a stop. Above us,on a hill I could see a shadow and I felt like we didn't need to be here. The other two seen who was looking at us. The other 6 joined us and at that moment one said " head back now. Myself and another started running and one of the guys yelled do not run and do not look back. We did just that. The whole way back we all were in fear. Once we got near our cars a women called my husband's name a few times one of the females caught evps and pictures. One picture she took was clear as day. Two ghosts in the picture. The one on the right was a Indian Chief the other possibly female. I caught some very interesting pictures that are unexplainable. The fear had such an impact that all females refused to go back. Keep in mind we stated (F You) to describe that no way will we return.