Monday, January 02, 2006

Visiting the Sierra Grade


I'm studying the Donner Pass before I ride Amtrak this March. I have found the information on the CPRR Museum site fascinating. I have also read Donner Pass by John R. Signor, and Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen E Ambrose.

I was wondering about tunnel #6 – the last train went through in 1993. In Ambrose's book he talks about riding through this tunnel on the way to Railfair 99 in Sacramento. He writes about the engineer saying the location of the center shaft. Has the track been replaced? If not what route is now used?

This summer I would like to drive up to take a look. What is the best way in to find tunnel #6, 7, & 8? Also can you recomend any more books?

—Tom Comyns


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Bruce C. Cooper" BCC@CPRR.ORG

Thanks you for your note and question about the Summit Tunnel. The story of the abandonment of Track #1 between Norden (MP 194.7) and Eder (MP 196.7) is a sad one. According to retired SP valuation engineer Lynn Farrar, by far the leading expert on these matters, the decision to remove the original CPRR line through summit tunnels (#6 to #12) and snowsheds to the crossovers at Eder was made at the "urging" of a man named Moyers who had been recruited by Southern Pacific Transportation Company from the Illinois Central. Mr. Moyers apparently believed that the relative paucity of traffic over Donner summit compared to the very high cost of upkeep of the sheds and tunnels (especially during the winter months) on Track #1 in that area (which was the original CPRR line built in the 1860's) made this stretch too expensive to operate efficiently. It was he who called the shot to remove this section of track as well as the second track in Nevada between Parran and Rose Creek (roughly Lovelock to Winnemucca.) The thought was to use the removed material for second track purposes on the Sunset Route between Los Angeles to El Paso, something followed up by the UP after their takeover of the SP in September, 1996. (Mr. Farrar retired from the SP in 1985 but continued consulting for SPT until the UP take over and then helped the UP during the transition period setting up their financial breakdown of the acquisition price.)

All traffic (both East and West) now passes through Tunnel #41 (aka the “Big Hole”), the nearby almost two mile tunnel through Mt. Judah opened on September 19, 1925. Located just South of the original route, this tunnel shortened the original route by 1.29 miles (and lowered the summit crossing by 132.7 feet), but because it also reduces this section of the line to a single track it also can lead to unnecessary delays and more complicated traffic management. (See the USGS topographical on the Donner Summit images page which shows the location of Tunnel #41.)

As the six tunnels (6-12) between Norden and Eder are now abandoned and no longer tracked they can be visited and walked through on foot. To reach them by car, take US I-80 to the Soda Springs exit and follow Donner Pass Road (the old “Lincoln Highway”) east about five miles. On the right of the road you will see an open area which was the former site of the old summit turntable and station where you can park and walk a couple hundred feet to the west portal of tunnel #6. If you follow Donner Pass Road another mile or so further you will find a scenic turnout on the left from which you can view Donner Lake, Mt. Judah, Donner Pass, the “Chinese Walls”, tunnels 6-8, and the snowsheds. (For maps and views of this area see the Sierra Grade Exhibit.) If you are planning to walk through the tunnels, I think that you will find March will be much too early to do so comfortably as this area often still has snow on the ground until May or sometimes even June.

John Signor’s book on the Donner Pass (which you already have) is the best on this topic. If you are interested in period accounts of travel over the Sierra Grade, I recommend my current book, “Riding the Transcontinental Rails” (see below), which contains a dozen first person accounts of travel over the Pacific Railroad between 1865 and 1881. (For further information see

Thanks again for your question. I hope this information will be helpful for you.

—Bruce C. Cooper

Now available! "Riding the Transcontinental Rails: Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad 1865-1881" Compiled and Edited by Bruce C. Cooper – In addition to original new materials, within the 445 pages of this beautiful volume are the complete texts of twelve remarkable but hard-to-find "first person" accounts of coast-to-coast "Overland" travel on the then just recently completed (May, 1869) First Transcontinental Railroad. Written by some of the very best writers, journalists and adventurers of that era, most of of these gems of travel writing have been out of print for more than a century, and one especially thrilling accout has never before been published anywhere! Profusely illustrated with almost 100 period engravings and 11 maps, the book also includes 32 pages of reproductions of original period timetables and other "Information for Travelers." Editor Bruce Cooper's great great grandfather was Lewis M. Clement who was Chief Assistant Engineer and Superintendent of Track of the CPRR from 1862 to 1881. Clement was largely responsible for much of the original location and construction engineering of the CPRR grade from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, UT. 445 pages; $22.95 (+$4 S&H by USPS Priority Mail).
To order or for more information please visit

1/02/2006 9:49 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"
Subject: Tunnel 6

I too rode the train that Mr. Ambrose was on in 1999, he was in the last car much of the time with an SP Vice President, and then, following our leaving Truckee, he rode in the locomotive.

Tunnel 6, 7, 8, and the snow sheds have been abandoned since the mid-1990's, rails and fittings were lifted in 1993 or so.

Ambrose went thru The Big Hole, as have ALL trains since the sheds were closed.

Tunnel 6 is open to be walked thru, as are the snow sheds as this is written. The UPRR did put up a gate a few years ago, however it is now gone.

If you have the time, and arrive here AFTER July 1, I'd be pleased to show you all that remains. I do not charge for my service.

I say after July 1, as by that time the snow is melted up on Lookout Peak, and you can get to the building built in the 1870's to watch for fires.

The Ambrose book is a disaster of magnificent proportions. I urge you to 'google' The Sins of Stephen Ambrose for a critique of the mess he wrote. ...

—G J Chris Graves, NewCastle, Cal.

1/02/2006 10:03 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Thank you for the quick response.

I enjoyed all the information you took the time to send me. I will also order your book and look forward to reading it.

Thanks again.

—Tom Comyns, Petaluma, California

1/04/2006 8:32 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Bruce C. Cooper"

Thanks for your note. I think you will very much enjoy visiting the original CPRR grade at Donner Pass. This would be a easy day trip from Petaluma from which you could reach the area by car in about two-and-a-half hours by way of US I-80. I would also encourage you to accept the invitation of Chris Graves of NewCastle, California, who knows the grade very well and could show you many other interesting places along it. Chris took me on an extraordinary tour of the grade in August, 2003, which resulted in an extensive photographic exhibit on our family's CPRR Museum website.

I think you will find that my book will very much enhance your enjoyment of visiting the grade and will give you a good idea what the hardships of travel “over the hill” by train were like when the CPRR first opened. I also recommend that you visit the website of BA Productions (previously known as "Donner Rails") which has produced a series of excellent videos about rail operations over the Sierra grade, and also visit our page describing the original construction of the tunnels over the grade.

Thanks again for your interest.


1/04/2006 8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good evening! I stumbled upon this website while searching for information about Donner Pass.

I'm considering driving up to the summit area later in the year and take a look for myself at the showsheds and tunnels. This website has been a big help.



2/25/2006 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, as a boy my family used to go up to Donner state park every summer and I would literaly hike the grade from standford curve up to shed 47 all day! This was between 82' and 84'. God I used to love that loud whinning sound of the dynamic braking coming down off schallenberger ridge! Still puts chills up my spine! The details provided by Bruce are very well done. I would add that I wasn't exactly sure about what you wanted to know about the shaft for tunnel #6. My father and I went throug these when the #1 track was still in place in the mid 80's (when you'd sometimes see 2 or 3 train an hour!) The shaft is still there. It is accessible although it's often tough to find in the summer time when the dirt bike riders are usually thrashing through the rocks. I'd like to go up again and hike through the area but I was really broke up about the line removal. I see that UP also recently removed the double tracking at Yuba Pass? :-(

Ken Rinehart
San Jose, CA

7/19/2006 11:13 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See related discussion of the Central Pacific Railroad & Donner Pass authored by Bruce Cooper.

6/30/2011 3:56 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hello and thank you I am a retiree living in Florida and I like railroads I was thinking in late summer to do a circle trip around the United States basically to drive from Sacramento to Norden to see as much of the old railroad route as possible I am confused has to wear the big hole enters Mount Judah in Norden and comes out at either because according to Google Earth the track from either and then goes somehow to the northern side of the shallenberg ridge and through the old tunnel I must be missing it on the Google photo and someone shed some light on this for me thank you how HAL SHULER 954 270 4827. The email is thanks I then intend to make a plaster mock-up of the major points of interest between Sacramento and Truckee in a very small gauge the sections will be Hollow in the center and the sections will be stackable if you know of someone in the country that has already done this and I could see it could you perhaps tell me? I will be driving from Fort Lauderdale New Orleans the Great Southwest, Durango Silverton, Grand Canyon Boulder Dam Las Vegas Death Valley Big Bear Lake in California Pacific Coast Highway , Yosemite, Sacramento, truckee, Salt Lake City Denver Air Force Museum in Ohio Smithsonian Aviation Museum at Dulles airport Washington New Jersey Cape May Delmarva Peninsula Outer Banks Lost Colony Route 17 to Jacksonville and back to Fort Lauderdale

3/11/2017 5:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See the two mile long tunnel #41 ("The Big Hole") as the long straight "Railroad Tunnel" on this topographic map.

3/12/2017 2:56 PM  

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