- Historic Sites
The Transcontinental Railroad
What it was like for the first travelers
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
The bracing air of the Sierra, however, was a perfect restorative for the weary travelers. With two locomotives pulling the cars, the train slowly climbed the winding canyon of the Truckee River, rising eighty feet to the mile. Pine and fir replaced the dreary desert sagebrush, and then came a spectacular view of Donner Lake encircled by forested mountains. The guidebooks told the travelers all about the gruesome tragedy of the Donner Party during the winter of 1846–47. And then, as one observer wrote, “after snorting and puffing, whistling and screaming, for an hour and a quarter, our pair of Iron Horses stop in the snow-sheds at the station called ‘Summit.’ Here we have a good breakfast, well cooked and fairly served; although we could not expect waiters enough to attend in a rush such as they have when the passengers, with appetites sharpened by mountain-air and a long ride, seat themselves at table, and all with one voice cry, ‘Steak! coffee! bread! trout! waiter! a napkin!’”
From the summit of the Sierra to Sacramento was 105 miles, a drop from 7,017 feet to thirty feet above sea level. According to William Humason, fifty miles of the descent was made without the aid of steam. “The conductor and brakeman ran the train with brakes on most of the way.” For some travelers the ride down the western slope of the range was terrifying, and the coasting trains made so little noise that unwary railroad workers, especially in the snowsheds, were often struck and killed. “The velocity with which the train rushed down this incline, and the suddenness with which it wheeled around the curves,” said William Rae, “produced a sensation which cannot be reproduced in words. … The axle boxes smoked with the friction, and the odour of burning wood pervaded the cars. The wheels were nearly red hot. In the darkness of the night they resembled discs of flame.”
Corresponding somewhat to the biggest drop and swing of a modern amusement park’s roller coaster was Cape Horn, nine miles below Dutch Flat. The guidebooks warned timid passengers not to look down upon the awful gorge of the American River two thousand feet below, and John Beadle said that although Cape Horn offered the finest view in the Sierra, the sight was not good for nervous people. “We’re nearing Cape Horn!” someone would always cry out, and the next moment the train would careen around a sharp curve. “We follow the track around the sides of high mountains,” said William Humason, “looking down into a canyon of awful depth, winding around for miles, until we almost meet the track we have before been over—so near that one would think we could almost throw a stone across. We have been around the head of the canyon, and have, therefore, ‘doubled Cape Horn.’”
Almost as fascinating as the scenery and the rollercoaster ride were the Sierra snowsheds built by engineer Arthur Brown. When passenger service began, these sheds—built with sharp sloping roofs against the mountainsides so that deep snowfalls and avalanches would slide right off them—covered forty miles of track between Truckee and Cape Horn. After numerous passengers complained that the walls blocked their view of the magnificent mountains, the Central Pacific responded by cutting windows at the level of those of the passenger cars. The result was a series of flickering scenes somewhat like those of an early motion picture, but even this pleasure was denied Sierra travelers during the snowy months of winter when the openings had to be closed again.
“A blarsted long depot—longest I ever saw,” was the comment of an oft-quoted anonymous Englishman as he passed through the snowsheds, and another British traveler said he had never seen “a more convenient arrangement for a long bonfire. The chimney of every engine goes fizzing through it like a squib, and the woodwork is as dry as a bone.” To prevent fires the Central Pacific kept watchmen at regular intervals inside the sheds, with water barrels and hand pumps always ready to extinguish blazes set by sparks from locomotives. There was little they could do, however, against the forest fires which sometimes swept across sections of sheds. And sturdy though the structures were, an occasional mighty avalanche would crush one of them. The train on which Lady Hardy was traveling was delayed all night by the collapse of a shed while fifty male volunteers from among the passengers went ahead to clear the tracks.
The snowsheds not only covered the main track, they also enclosed stations, switch tracks, turntables, and houses where workmen lived with their families. Children were born in this eerie, dimly lit world where without warning a huge boulder or avalanche might crash through the roof, where trains derailed with disastrous results, and at least on one occasion wild animals escaped from a wrecked circus train to terrify the inhabitants. As snowplows were improved, some sheds were removed, others were replaced with concrete, and the army of workmen declined to a handful of lookouts and track walkers.