There’s a great engineering accomplishment near El Dorado County that was once described as rivaling the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Egypt. Its construction changed our nation and world history and yet, today it is mostly hidden and forgotten.
The transcontinental railroad is a storied chapter in the history of the West. And yet, a book about it has never been published. That omission will be corrected this fall when “The Hidden Wonder of the World,” Granite Bay videographer and historian Bill George’s first book, is released.
We think we know the history of the Central Pacific Railroad from the feature films we’ve seen and from the oral history we’ve been told from other Californians, but much of what we think to be true about the building of the transcontinental railroad has been coated with hype and exaggeration like the soot inside a railroad tunnel.
George scrapes the soot of myth from the story, telling not just how “The Big Four,” Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Charles Crocker built the railroad, despite a campaign of ridicule and vitriol by the then high and mighty. Renowned California historian, Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote, “Many said that those Sacramento merchants who had ventured upon it would sink their personal fortunes in the canyons of the Sierra.” While critics railed at their impetuous dreaming, The Big Four went about doing the back-breaking work of building a railroad across the most formidable natural barrier ever attempted — the Sierra Nevada.
Stanford became the advocate and chief executive, merchants Huntington and Hopkins coordinated materiel and logistics, and Crocker – experienced at managing men – became the construction boss, hiring Chinese workers in 1865 “to push the project through the mountains.”
That the effort was conceived 150 years ago at the beginning of the American Civil War was not one of its obstacles, George explained. “The fact that the Civil War was occurring gave it a sense of urgency. There was real concern about linking the nation and preventing western states from being absorbed into the Confederacy, because no one knew how long the war might last.”
“One of the biggest and continuing controversies,” George wrote was whether federal “subsidies” and giveaways were unneeded or overly generous. He busts the myth, citing that without government funding, the Big Four incorporated the CPRR and set about the tall task of building 18 tunnels through the mountains and laying track at a cost of $88,425 per mile, all the materials of which needed to be shipped around the tip of South America, “a jaunt of 16,000 miles.” Yet, despite what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles, all bonds were paid off by 1899, with the government collecting all its principal plus nearly $150 million in interest, not including the nearly billion dollars in discounts the railroad gave the federal government for mail services and shipping.
Kyle K. Wyatt, curator of history and technology at the California State Railroad Museum is quoted as stating, “The government received/saved much more money in the deal than the railroads received.” Compare that to the catastrophic losses the federal government has made in this century underwriting new technologies and innovations in transportation.
Although little of the original route is used, today, some 11 railroad tunnels built in the 1860s, can still be visited and George’s book leads readers to them.
“There’s nothing like putting your hand inside a drill hole a Chinese worker made to bring the story to life,” said George. On U.S. 40, just a short walk from the scenic viewpoint overlooking Donner Lake, there’s an easy path that leads you to them.
The story of Chinese laborers being lowered over the face of Cape Horn Promontory — a magnificent overlook considered in the 1860s along with Yosemite Valley and the redwoods as one of the state’s scenic wonders — to a point 1,332 feet above the canyon floor, is debunked by George as a myth.
He writes, “Walking the route and examining the evidence, you will see that it is NOT a sheer drop to the canyon floor. The American River is visible, but not immediately below the Cape. Indeed, you could not hang off the side by a rope if you wanted to — the slope is not that steep.” And the rock didn’t require blasting, as it was easily carved metamorphic fissile.
What happened, George surmises from his past experience as a newsman, was that “imaginative railroad public relations writers later spun a story for the entertainment of tourists.” Repeated, it became lore.
Other popularly accepted notions about a high death rate and poor pay experienced by Chinese workers are similarly unsupported by firsthand investigation, George noted.
“Crocker paid Chinese workers $30 a month. That seems low by today’s standards, but back then it was a good wage. You have to consider that an Army private made only $13 a month,” when a Union soldier’s life truly was on the line. George found that less than 100 Chinese workers died from railroad and construction-related accidents during the seven years the railroad was built, though many died from disease, brawls, avalanches and other causes.
Although racism and intolerance were a fact of the period. It wasn’t just directed against the Chinese, but universally against any person of foreign birth. George noted, “The Chinese were not acquiescent, as many have portrayed them to be. Instead, they fought for their interests and used the courts. By the time the railroad began, they had lived in California for 13 to 14 years. Their experiences during the Gold Rush, and their industriousness allowed them to move easily from the mines to building railroad tunnels,” where they made history.
It is a history, however, that is largely forgotten. At least historian Bill George hasn’t forgotten, and neither will readers of “The Hidden Wonder of the World” when it becomes available this fall. For more about the book, email: email@example.com.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.