History | January 17, 2022 3:19 pm

Can Tunnels Used by the Transcontinental Railroad Be Saved?

Exploring the history of the Donner Summit tunnels

Donner Summit
How does one best protect the Donner Summit tunnels?
Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0

Throughout much of the 1860s, a host of workers were immersed in a seemingly impossible task: clearing a path for the Transcontinental Railroad to make its way across the United States. The workers, including thousands of Chinese immigrants, accomplished what were at the time marvels of engineering — including digging tunnels without the use of dynamite or something similar.

Several of the tunnels in question can be found in the Donner Summit, located in California. The tunnels remained in use for over a century, but ended up being replaced by larger tunnels in the 1990s. This, in turn, begs a question — what will the fate of the original Donner Summit tunnels be?

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Places called attention to the condition of the tunnels. “Vandalism currently threatens the tunnels, resulting in extensive graffiti, as well as physical damage to cultural and natural resources at the site,” the organization noted.

They went on to reiterate just why these tunnels matter. “Highlighting how Chinese laborers accelerated the development of the American West, and better interpreting and protecting these sites, would honor this important and often overlooked part of our country’s history,” they wrote.

An article at Smithsonian Magazine offers an update on preservation efforts around the tunnels. This includes work by several nonprofit groups looking to preserve their history, and could lead to the tunnels being designated as a National Historic Landmark. For now, though, efforts to preserve and educate continue, hearkening back to a fascinating moment in history.