Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn

From: "David Mathes"

Dear CPRR Museum

Please remove the works of ET Strobridge until he has finished his research. The rough drafts are not to scholarly standards. There are many questions yet to be answered. And there appears to be the assumption of personal experience in the 20th century inserted into the 19th century.

I have no agenda, work for no group, belong to no minority and have no financial interest. I simply think that in reading this account it does not belong in a museum but in a chat room. Please do find scholarly works to publish.

David Mathes


As a rail buff I am aware that the Legend of Cape Horn is controversial. Your research raises more questions than it answers as any attempt to prove a negative would do so. However, in the account and research of the Legend of Cape Horn there seems to be huge gaps in understanding and research as if this was a hastily written article to promote - without evidence - your childhood experience in landsurveying and development.

While you are entitled to your opinon, I expect a higher standard from the museum and ask that the article be withdrawn from the website and museum as heresay and personal opinion. The research is in adequate, the account is personalized, and the results do not pass the proverbial smell test nor English 101 standards.

In my opinion you overlooked a number of obvious things in your assessment. I am a bit disappointed on this article. You have presented the barest of evidence and in fact rely on the absence of evidence in order to prove a negative.

Now, I'm not a historian nor an asian, nor do I even care about railroad history normally. Yet, I realize that myths come and go, and we may never know the "truth" as it were of what really happened. However, this article leaves open all sorts of windows while trying to slam the door on a supposed myth.

If only the rocks could talk...perhaps a future archeological dig will find at the botton of the heap the right type of markings in making blast holes...still wouldn't tell us whether rope, basket or bosun chair was used.

Two interesting items are the "bosun's chair" and the name Cape Horn itself. How did it get that name? And what is a bosun's chair.

Sailing was a well developed means of travel in the 19th century requiring lots of rope to hoist and control the sails. The Chinese sailed from China; the Europeans sailed around Cape Horn. Working with ropes was nothing new and in fact, quite easy for most of the actual workers (non-surveyors).

I have been on survey crews in California. We didn't climb over cliffs on ropes to do surveys. In my opinion you are replacing one myth with another.

In the prelaser days we used triangulation even to draw contours. I know of no account of any survey crew using ropes for the actual survey. I'd like to see the proof that a California survey crew did just that and the earliest account.

Furthermore, I have walked that area. The place is slipper in the driest of summers. We almost lost a car over the side in one section where the same material is. So it's reasonable that the CPRR did not want to lose any equipment OR people, and roped them both up just in case they needed to haul them back up the mountain.

Where did the rope, the bosun's chair, and the baskets come from?

Well, the Gold Rush created a huge amount of stuff left over from the ships sailing around Cape Horn to the Gold fields. The closest you could get was Sacramento in a ship, and eventually San Francisco Bay was so full that many ships were simply burned for various reasons.

Typically, the ships were stripped of rope and cloth. Levi's came out of sail cloth. And the ropes were used for construction of all sorts as well as transportation. Rope was a necessity of life in California whether it was unloading the ships, mining the Gold Fields, building San Francisco, or even traversing sections of the Sierra.

So, rope was available, CPRR wanted to do things cheaply, the merchants of San Francisco had multistory mansions and used various seafaring laborers who were used to bosun's chairs...

But a bosun's chair requires all the tools and equipment be lowered to you by rope. Wouldn't it be more efficient and cheaper to use a "basket" of some sort? Now, you might want to disprove the basket theory by lack of bamboo. Yet, many of the Indian tribes had basket weaving. I wonder if the Chinese and Indians ever got together to trade baskets.

Then again, the "crows nest" on sailing vessels were refered to as a basket. A ncessary and vital part of the ship, these could be stripped to carry stuff having already provde themselves worthy at sea.

Also, the Chinese used baskets for shipping goods. Were any of these baskets even available for use? Where they a "poor man's" duffle bag? How much weight was allowed in a basket?

Is there any Chinese history that indicates in California, China or elsewhere that baskets even exist and could support the weight. I refer you to modern construction methods using bamboo on skyscrapers as a start.

Finally, one might ask if there were other roads or rails in California that were constructed by people on ropes. Oh...the Yosemite road was done that way and there are pictures of people on ropes. A more comprehensive search would be appropriate to determine the use of baskets"

I daresay the preponderance of circumstantial evidence is piling up that the possibility exists, and the proof that something did not happen is a premature condemnation. I sincerely hope you have not personalized history in order to immortalize yourself regarding Cape Horn at the expense of others who actually did the work.

I do not believe your work represents a scholarly review but presents a biased opinion, one that does not reflect American values nor properly represent history.

I ask that the work be removed until such time that your research is complete and thorough. I strongly recommend that should you continue your myth busting approach that your writings take an honorable and professional approach.

Thanks in advance

David Mathes
Rocklin, California