Thursday, July 27, 2006

"Chinese ... were forced to camp, in thin canvas tents, under ten- to twenty-foot snow drifts"

"And the Chinese tunnelers were forced to camp, in thin canvas tents, under ten- to twenty-foot snow drifts. For month after month, they lived like seals, huddled together in padded cotton clothes."

This description of the Sierrra summit camp in winter seems highly implausible, especially that thin canvas tents were in use under twenty feet of snow. Can anyone help to debunk this? Not sure what of this is made up and what can be verified as historically accurate. The description of "one and two-story houses, built quite strongly" (see below) seems much more credible. Here is what we have found so far:


"Snow overtook the Central Pacific crews in December of 1866. That winter was one of the most severe on record. But Crocker ordered the workers to start tunneling Donner Summit. The Chinese lived practically entirely out of sight of the sky that winter, their shacks largely buried in snow. They dug chimneys and air shafts and lived by lantern light. They tunneled their way from the camps to the portal of the tunnel to work long, underground shifts. A remarkable labyrinth developed under the snow. The corridors in some cases were wide enough to allow two-horse sleds to move through freely, and were as much as 200 feet long. Through them, workmen travelled back and forth, digging, blasting and removing the rubble."

"TUNNELS OF THE PACIFIC RAILROAD" Van Nostrand's Eclectic Engineering Magazine, Vol. II, 1870 pp. 418-423 has sections giving detailed descriptions of Snow-Storms, Snow-tunnel, and Snow-cuts.

"The Pacific Railroad — Unopen" by Robert L. Harris in the "Overland Monthly," September, 1869, pp. 244-252 describes:

"October, 1867 ... the 'Summit Camp' ... This is really a small town of one and two-story houses, built quite strongly, to resist the weight of winter snows ... After a hearty welcome at the Summit Camp from brother engineers, and a substantial supper, I gladly coiled myself under as many bed-clothes as the human frame could stand, awakened only in the night by the dull boom of blasts in the tunnel, three hundred feet distant. ... "

Lewis M. Clement’s first person account in his 1887 Statement to the U.S. Pacific Railway Commission stated:

"As we neared the summit of the Sierras winter was again upon us, granite tunnels to bore, deep rock cuttings to make, and retaining walls to construct. Rock cutting could not be carried on under snow drifts varying in depth from 20 to 100 feet. It was decided, no matter what the cost, that the remaining tunnels should be bored during the winter. To reach the faces of the tunnels the snow drifts were tunneled and through these snow tunnels all rock was removed. Retaining walls in the cañons were built in domes excavated in the snow — the wall stones raised or lowered to their places into the dome through a shaft in the snow."


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

The Report of the US Pacific Railway Commission of 1887-88, page 3150, testimony by James H. Strobridge:

"There was a good deal of the winter that the road was blocked, and then in those bad winters we did not keep it open. WE TOOK OUR MEN TO TRUCKEE CANYON DURING THOSE LAST TWO WINTERS, EXCEPTING THE MEN WHO COULD BE WORKED IN THE TUNNELS." [emphasis added]

The Alfred Hart photo #202 shows the East portal of Tunnel 6 and the East portal of Tunnel 7. Insofar as the steam from the Old Black Goose is streaming from the stack over the central shaft of Tunnel 6, and no rails are in sight, I would guess that construction is still progressing. That is of interest, as in the photo I see 16 wooden buildings, and not one single tent.
I recall that further testimony in the RR hearings noted that 20 Chinese were supervised by one Anglo, the Anglos worked 12 hour shifts, the Chinese 8 hour shifts, around the clock, in Tunnel 6. Computing four shifts working (80 men) and 160 men resting, those 16 wooden buildings would have held 10 men in each.

Hope this helps ...

—G J Chris Graves

7/27/2006 9:27 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

There is ... a comment [somewhere in the 1887 Report] from one of the principals saying that housing had to be built in the Sierra for the tunnel workers. But,in 5,000 pages, where ... was it?


7/27/2006 10:40 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Checking Summit photos.

Hart #116 shows the camp - with cabins, not tents.

Hart #196 shows the Shaft House - and cabins.

Hart #199 shows the East Portal - and cabins.

Hart #202 shows the East Portals of tunels 6 and 7 - and cabins.

If you want tents, you have to go to Nevada - Hart #313, 316, 327, & 347.


7/28/2006 7:52 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Edson T. Strobridge"

I had the occasion to read Stan Steiner's book cited below when I was writing my challenge to "The Legend of Cape Horn " as nothing Steiner wrote rung with any truth. I read it from cover to cover and found it to be one of the most inaccurate books ever written about, not only about the Central Pacific Railroad, but about the history of the Chinese role in the building of our nation. Steiner was a social activist and wrote to pander to minorities in order to sell his books. He took advantage of a proud people who wanted to learn more about the participation of their ancestors and he gave them "FUSANG, The Chinese Who Built America", a badly written, inaccurate, embellished and plagiarized story with his own imaginative renditions of what he thought his readers wanted to hear. In my opinion Steiner was a fraud when it came to writing a history.

The eleven pages he devotes to "The Chinese Railroad Men" contains few factual stories and most of them are wrong. He spends much of his text discussing the abuse and discrimination the early Chinese laborers were subjected to based on newspaper diatribes and other undocumented sources. When he finally gets around to telling of the construction activities his stories are his own made up descriptions. He tells of Chinese building a 100 foot high and 500 foot long trestle at "Deep Gulch", "built of logs, felled and tied by hand" when in fact the trestle was built by Arthur Brown and white carpenters using sawn timber and iron bolts. The only thing he reported correctly was the height, length and location of the trestle. He follows with his description of the "Celestials" "on a high sheer cliff towering above the gorge of the American River, the roadbed climbing 1400 feet up the sides of the precipitous rock face" and their use of waste high reed baskets, with four eyelets, and on and on. His description has been plagiarized from Corrine Hoexter's book "From Canton to California", a midyear children's book and offers no citations or credits and fails to even mention Ms. Hoexter work in his bibliography. His next reference is his description of the Chinese "forced" to camp in thin canvas tents under ten to twenty foot snow drifts for months on end; his greatest exaggeration is his description of how the "three locomotives were hauled over the Summit by hand." "Hundreds of young men from Kwangtung hitched themselves to mule teams --" The men cleared a path 200 feet wide through the forests on the mountainsides - a roadway in the snow that was miles long. On log sleighs they were greased with pork lard, they pulled the locomotives and an entire wagon train of highly volatile nitroglycerine and supplies up the mountainside."

This is only a small sample of Steiner's writing. It gets worse. I would suggest that no concern at all should be placed on any of Stan Steiner's writing. He even makes the claim that "two of the three railroad men, crouching beside the tracks as they drove in the Golden Spike, were Chinese!" Hmmmmmmmmmm!

Steiner never understood the information he copied from others.


7/28/2006 5:28 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Lynn Farrar"
Subject: Chinese in winter.

I am sorry to have to say to you that I think you are making a grave error in listing anything on your website by Stan Steiner. His work is so ludicrous as to make any knowledgeable historian shake his head in disbelief. Especially his saying the Chinese lived in tents in winter while working in the Sierra. There is not one shred of evidence that I have found in my very extensive studies of the building of the first railroad across the Sierra to support anything even close to what Steiner wrote. He is the very worst historian it has been my misfortune to read about. You are the boss in what you put on the web but I most sincerely regret that you are using Steiner's trash. It takes away from the marvelous work you have done.

—Lynn Farrar

8/01/2006 1:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your clearly articulated warning which will alert website visitors and future authors. It may be more useful in combatting nonsense to clearly call attention to it than to attempt to ignore it, lest it be believed by people who are intellectually honest but not sufficiently expert to detect the factual errors.

8/01/2006 2:30 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Lynn Farrar"

Thanks for the answer. I agree with your comments because there are a lot of "unknowledgeable" readers, viewers, etc who may be prone to believing everything they read. Perhaps a disclaimer of some kind about the output of Steiner would be enough. Anyone who has been thru a winter of heavy snow will immediately realize that a tent would be crushed and any inhabitants buried alive. But not all people have had such an experience. Kyle Wyatt is right on when he mentioned the structures of wood in winter photos. I had never run across this author Steiner in my many years of research. I guess I have led a sheltered life. If you know anything about the man please find time to let me know. Many thanks.

—Lynn Farrar

8/03/2006 6:47 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Steiner obituary.

8/03/2006 6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Department of the Interior, Report of condition, equipment &c. of Central Pacific Railroad of California
Received Feb. 11, 1869, Dated Jan. 25, 1869
From Special Commissioners, CPRR of California
Lloyd Tevis, Sherman Day, and Brvt. Lt. Col. USA RS Williamson

Page 19:

"In the earlier construction and operation of the Road wooden buildings of a temporary chaaracter were put up, but they are now being replaced by others of a more permanent nature. ... "

Addendum, Oct. 7, 1867, page 5:

" ... The company were compelled to build a number of expensive wagon roads along preciptious ridges and deep ravines. ... In opening a new section of line (between Cisco and Truckee) this was the first thing to be done. ... Then the building for the camps had to be erected, and in the mountain regions they are required to be made strong and capable of resisting the pressure of snow so as to protect the inmates from the inclement storms of this elevated mountain region. These camps are generally built about one mile apart and consist of Store houses, power houses, blacksmith shops, kitchen, eating and sleeping rooms, and stables for mules, horses and oxen. These, with the small buildings erected by the Chinese laborers for their own use, make quite a village."

8/18/2006 11:46 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"
Subject: Chinese laborers in the snow

A few days ago, a commentator, unknown to this writer, was concerned about the Chinese workers living in substandard conditions while working for the CPRR of Cal.; this over the Summit.

To assist that person understand the challenge that he surfaced as not being valid, the following is offered.

Quoted herewith is a report dated October 7th, 1867, addressed to "Hon. O. H. Browning, Secretary of the Interior," and is signed by Thos. J. Henley, John Bigler and Frank Denver, US Railroad Commissioners. I have taken the liberty to highlite those items that are of general interest.

"To build a Railroad through such a mountainous rock country, (The Summit of the Sierra) we need not assure you requires very expensive preparations. The Company were compelled to build a number of expensive wagon roads along precipitious ridges and through deep ravines, to enable them to transport ... lumber, tools, provisions and other supplies ... Then the building for the camps had to be erected, and in the mountain regions they are required to be made of strong and capable of resisting the pressure of snow so as to protect the inmates from the inclement storms of this elevated mountain region. These camps are generally built about one mile apart and consist of Store houses, power houses, blacksmith shops, kitchen, eating and sleeping rooms and stables for mules, horses and oxen. These, with the small buildings erected by the Chinese laborers for their own use, make quite a village. A large number of teams are kept constantly employed in transporting tools, powder, grain, hay, provisions and all kinds of supplies, from the terminus of the Railroad to the various camps.

The laborers on the Tunnel (#6) have been principally Chinese. They worked in gangs of three shifts of eight hours each per day laboring steadily day and night during the storms of one of the severest winters ever known in California."

Please note that no tents were mentioned in this report; to the contrary, the writers made specific mention of wooden buildings and sleeping rooms. This report then validates the Alfred A. Hart photo showing construction of Tunnels 6 and 7.

This report was found attached to a major report addressed to the Department of the Interior, received Feb. 11, 1869, and dated January 25, 1869. The major report was signed by Lloyd Tevis, Sherman Day, and Bt. Liet. Col. US Major of Engineers.

Thank you all for taking the time to read this far, and for understanding the quality of life in the Sierra during construction was not as awful as has been suggested by writers with an inflamed sense of hostility towards the Anglo supervisors of the loyal Chinese workers.

—G J Chris Graves, NewCastle, Cal.

8/19/2006 3:50 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Lynn Farrar"
Subject: Tents in snow

In reading Myrick's new Western Pacific book I ran across the following on page 126. WESTERN PACIFIC SURVEYS / Reconnaissnce surveys began (on the Northern California extension from Keddie to Bieber) on February 25, 1929, and three parties entered the area in March when the melting snow and mud above Westwood necessitated travel on sleds pulled by Caterpillar tractors. Location surveys soon followed. R. J. Banish, a young draftsman, joined another group of 20 which left San Francisco in three Chevrolet delivery trucks. Pitching canvas shelters on a vacant lot in Bieber, the men nearly suffocated during the first night because fresh snow collapsed their tents. Their work commenced the next day, April 4, a day well remembered because of the miserable rain and snow capped by finding their suitcases floating in six inches of water upon returning to their camp. A hurried examination revealed that their campsite was on the lowest place in town. etc. I had to send this to provide demonstrable proof that tents would have been an impossible method of surviving in the high Sierra in winter, or even early Spring. Steiner was an activist with an axe to grind but not a great talent for historic research.


8/22/2006 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it the great "white man's burden" or what?

From the comments posted here, perhaps the critics should do a bit of research of their own.

I've read all the remarks and it seems to me that the Commission documents support a lot of what was written by the original author.

Can't verify the Sierra, but you should take a look up north in Canada because their are photos documenting harsh winters and tent communities. I can't imagine how the Chinese survived but we all them a huge debt despite the racism, which was even considered controversial back then.

- Rick

5/17/2010 1:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Photographs taken in Canada do not inform our knowledge of the Central Pacific Railroad which was in California. The Central Pacific was different in a number of ways even from its sister railroad, the Union Pacific, for example, treating its workers better, establishing a hospital, doing first rate rather than shoddy construction, etc. So looking at another railroad and making guesses that contradict the available evidence about the conditions in the Sierras during the CPRR construction is unhelpful.

Anti-Chinese sentiment was despicable in 19th century California, but the best evidence is that the CPRR did not engage in racism, but instead that the CPRR is an excellent example of how market forces require employers to overcome their prejudices due to economic necessity.

The Chinese survived because they didn't attempt live in tents at the Summit in the Sierra winters. Only a very few were killed in an avalanche. As quoted above, most of the Chinese (except those working on the tunnels through the winter) had been relocated and were not even at the Sierra summit in winter.

Please provide specific quotes and citations for the claim that "the Commission documents support a lot of what was written by the original author."

5/17/2010 11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Then the building for the camps had to be erected and in the mountain regions they are required to be made strong and capable of resisting the pressure of snow so as to protect the inmates from the storms. ... These camps are generally one mile apart and consist of store houses, power houses, blacksmith shops, kitchen, eating and sleeping rooms ... " —Edwin B. Crocker, October 7, 1867

6/13/2012 8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Back-to-back monster winters (1867 and 1868) paralyzed railroad construction over Donner Pass. During the winter of 1866-67, 44 storms of varying intensity dumped nearly 45 feet of snow on the region. ... On the first day of winter, Dec. 21, [1867] a subtropical atmospheric river swamped Northern California. For 10 days, downpours of rain and gale force winds thrashed the region. Rainfall at Nevada City that month exceeded 40 inches. In the higher elevations, rain turned to snow and destructive snow slides snapped trees 3 feet in diameter. Buildings in the Sierra were buried to their second stories; firewood cut from treetops was shoved down chimneys. ... A cold wave in January 1868 froze the deep, water-saturated snowpack into a solid block of ice. ... March came in like a lion in the first week with 10 feet of snow. ... " Mark McLaughlin

3/21/2023 8:05 AM  

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