Over and Under (and Through) with the Shiny Irons

Over and Under (and Through) with the Shiny Irons

The building of a railroad is really the science of taming the terrain… regardless…. The railroad goes from point “A” to point “B” by the shortest route available. Going around is expensive, time-consuming and inefficient. Particularly in the case of very high-speed passenger railroad lines, “going around” may well defeat the purpose of the rail line. It’s just better to go over than to go around. And it’s better to go through than to go over. In the United States, the opening stanza of “going through” was sung in June of 1833 with the opening of the Allegheny Portage Railroad’s Staple Bend Tunnel. Thought to be the first railroad tunnel in the U.S., it forces its way through a peak in the Appalachian mountains near the town of Mineral Point, Pennsylvania. Construction began on the tunnel in April, 1831, and over the next two years, a hole 901 linear feet was bored through the mountain. The 14,900 cubic yards of rock was removed in the old way – by hand. For $13 per month plus room and board, working 12-hour days six days a week, workers drilled and blasted the mountain into submission.

Famous in song and legend, the “steel drivin’ man” John Henry drilled 36” deep holes in rock walls to build these tunnels. As difficult as this work sounds, the reality is even harder. The drill John Henry wielded was a steel rod about 1 inch in diameter with a cross-shaped point. The drill was held with the point against the rock wall and the other end was struck with a 9-pound hammer.


The resulting trauma blasted a hole in the rock… about a quarter-inch deep. Repeated blows each yielded another centimeter of rock dust until the drill reached the required depth. Several three-man crews worked the wall at one time, enduring a cacophony of racket – the grunts of the men swinging the hammer, the shriek of the steel, the crunch of rock, loathe to be removed. And dust… dust from floor to ceiling, choking, blinding, dust. Bellows operators pumped air into the tunnel to provide at least a minimum of breathable atmosphere but for these workers, safety regulations of any kind were many decades away. After the required number of holes had been drilled, the drillmen retired to lunch. Powder setters pressed black powder charges, wrapped in paper, into the holes, set fuses and ran. The resulting explosions cleared rock to about half the depth of the drilled holes, this 50% return on investment leaving its detritus on the floor of the tunnel. The workers spent the afternoon clearing the mess and, the next morning the process was repeated, pushing the rock wall another 18” into the mountain. For the Staple Bend Tunnel, for the Alleghenies, the option of going around would mean either laying track over the top of the hill or in a serpentine path around it… neither is optimal, but either would be much less effort than drilling through. The efficiency comes from the fact that you have to go around every time… you only have to go through ONCE!!! Other options, while undesirable, were at least available. Later, the Irons would approach mountain peaks where going around or over was simply not possible.

In 1832, while John Henry and company were bludgeoning the Staple Bend Tunnel through Pennsylvania, a New York doctor and businessman was writing a seminal article for the New York Courier and Enquirer. The great-grandson of Mayflower passenger John Carver, Dr. Hartwell Carver knew a bit about pioneering, and was stumping for a railroad across the continent. In 1847, he submitted to Congress a proposal for a charter to build just such a railroad. Recall, this was a time when the most famous cross-country emigrant road was only a few years old, and was strewn with misery and death as travelers clawed their way across an unforgiving wilderness. The good Doctor Carver was going to build a railroad across this expanse of unknown?? From the opening discussions in the late 1830s, Congress debated and squabbled over details, over routes, over financing, until…. In the rapidly expanding California country, a businessman named John Sutter was having a sawmill constructed on the South Fork of the American River. Construction contractor James W. Marshall spied some shiny flakes of metal in the water, and, with a shout of “Eureka” (the California State motto), announced the beginning of the Gold Rush. Gold in the west meant people moving west, and people moving always means business opportunity. Even Congress could see this, and quickly authorized Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to settle the picayune questions of routing and engineering. In a massive engaging of science and technology, Davis sent geographers and geologists, architects and engineers, cartographers and stenographers into the wilds to find a way through which to push the Irons across the land. The Pacific Railroad Surveys returned a veritable encyclopedia of new knowledge about the west, and laid (at least on paper), the way for the transcontinental railroad. Not only was the survey work scientifically demanding, it was also difficult and dangerous. On October 25, 1853

Paiute Indians attack U.S. Army Captain John W. Gunnison and his party of 37 soldiers and railroad surveyors near Sevier Lake, Utah. Gunnison and seven other men were killed, but the survey party continued with its work and eventually reported its findings to the United States Congress.

The final decision on the route for the upcoming rails would remain a political decision, tied, as were so many decisions in the pre-Civil War era, to the intractable issue of slavery. The path on which the Irons would lay was not chosen until after the southern states seceded, leaving the political decision in the hands of northern politicians. Jefferson Davis’ survey crews mapped the paths of five prospective routes, ranging from the Northern Route which left the western tip of Lake Superior and tracked through northern North Dakota, Montana and on to Oregon, to the Southern Route, spanning a much more temperate clime from New Orleans through Texas and along the Rio Grande to California. The route chosen was called the Central route, running from Omaha, Nebraska through the high plains of Nebraska, and Wyoming, then through the roughage of Utah and Nevada to Sacramento, California. While the portions of the route through the fertile soils of the plains offered their own challenges, and while the construction of a railroad through the scrub lands and deserts of California and Nevada could never be called “easy”… it was in the granite canyons of Wyoming, Utah and Nevada that John Henry and his drill really earned their keep. But, before the Irons could tackle the new bridge engineering required to cross the rivers and ravines, before John Henry and his crews could bull their way through the Sierra Nevada, the planners had to solve one other problem….

The Shiny Irons at the Office – and at the Bank. The administration and management of the project presented nearly as many obstacles as the terrain presented. From the beginning, an undercurrent of intrigue surrounded the whole undertaking, with various factions (usually united by money) conspiring to manipulate the route, the financing, even the name of the line. Asa Whitney, a New york dry goods importer, envisioned a route paid for by the sale of land along the route, however, his proposal resulted in no action. As Chief Engineer for the California based Central Pacific Railroad, Theodore Judah surveyed a workable route for a railroad through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the time these mountains were considered the biggest obstacle to a “central route” which would end in the Northern California gold field area. In 1859, Judah received a letter from Daniel Strong, a California storekeeper, offering to show Judah a route through the Sierra which was gradual enough for a railroad. The two ended up incorporating the Central Pacific Railroad, securing investment backing from four other California businessmen, known as the “big four”. In the east, a former medical doctor named Thomas Durant gained control of the Union Pacific Railroad by buying a controlling amount of shares. Financial wheeling and dealing on both ends of the line resulted in no small amount of scandal, and some of the names involved ended up with some tarnish… some of the political actors ended up with prison records. Nonetheless, John Henry and his fellows were eventually put to work.

The Shiny Irons Go Over. The soft soil and gentle hills of Nebraska presented their own challenges, but when the Shiny Irons reached Wyoming, the order of the day changed from one of crossing terrain to one of going over, under, and through it. The hardscrabble, wrinkled lands of southern Wyoming added new emphasis to the engineering of bridges… there were rivers to cross, ravines to span, rough, rugged, gulleys, gulches and gorges to conquer.

Dale Creek Bridge, Sherman, Wyoming

Just west of the now-ghost town of Sherman, in southeastern Wyoming, the Irons encountered what would be the most difficult obstacle on the eastern (Union Pacific) leg of the cross-continent trek. Rising to nearly 8000 feet, the intrepid track-layers cleared a smooth groove in the boulder-strewn granite badlands for the rail line. After clearing nearly a mile of solid rock, the workers beheld a 650-foot wide, 150-foot deep scar in the landscape… the Dale Creek gorge. Naught but a trickle in the summer and fall, the snowmelt from the Wind River Mountains to the northwest swelled the springtime creek to a torrent. For the Irons, there were, as always, two choices; go on or go back. In December, 1867 the first stonework began, and in April of the following year rails were laid on the bridge. A wooden trestle, the bridge was every bit as frightening as it looked. Author Henry T. Williams wrote of his impression of the structure:

“Dale Creek Bridge — is about two miles west of Sherman. This bridge is a light airy structure, but is really very substantial. The creek, like a thread of silver, winds its devious way in the depths below, and is soon lost to sight as you pass rapidly down the grade and through the granite cuts and snow sheds beyond. This bridge is 450 feet long, and nearly 130 feet high, and is one of the wonders on the great trans-continental route. A water tank, just beyond it, is supplied with water from the creek by means of a steam pump. The buildings in the valley below seem small in the distance, though they are not a great way off. The old wagon road crossed the creek down a ravine, on the right side of the track, and the remains of the bridge may still be seen. This stream rises about six miles north of the bridge, and is fed by numerous springs and tributaries, running in a general southerly direction, until it empties into the Cache La Poudre River. The old overland road from Denver to California ascended this river and creek until it struck the head-waters of the Laramie. Leaving Dale Creek bridge, the road soon turns to the right, and before you, on the left, is spread out, like a magnificent panorama…”

In sharp contrast to this somewhat pedestrian description of the bridge, author Ellen G. White describes her 1873 adventure of crossing the bridge:

The scenery over the plains has been uninteresting. Our curiosity is excited somewhat in seeing mud cabins, adobe houses and sagebrush in abundance. But on we go. From Cheyenne the engines toiled up, up the summit against the most fearful wind. The iron horses are slowly dragging the cars up the mountain to Sherman. Fears are expressed of danger, because of the wind, in crossing the Dale Creek bridge–650 feet long and 126 feet high—spanning Dale creek from bluff to bluff. This trestle bridge looks like a light, frail thing to bear so great weight. But fears are not expressed because of the frail appearance of the bridge, but in regard to the tempest of wind, so fierce that we fear the cars may be blown from the track. In the providence of God the wind decreased. Its terrible wail is subdued to pitiful sobs and sighs, and we passed safely over the dreaded bridge. We reached the summit. The extra engine was removed. We are upon an elevation of 7,857 feet. No steam is required at this point to forward the train, for the down grade is sufficient for us to glide swiftly along.

As we pass on down an embankment we see the ruins of a freight car that had been thrown from the track. Men were actively at work upon the shattered cars. We are told that the freight train broke through the bridge one week ago. Two hours behind this unfortunate train came the passenger cars. Had this accident happened to them, many lives must have been lost.

Even with guy wires extending down to the gulley floor, the bridge was very unstable, and trains had to slow to 4 mph to cross. Compounding the terror of being suspended above the abyss on what appeared to the uninitiated to be knitting needles, the roaring winds of the canyon would regularly threaten to blow the train cars off the bridge – occasionally making good on this threat!!

The Shiny Irons Go Under. After crossing the ridge which at the time was considered the Continental Divide, the Irons traversed the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming and Utah on the way to Promontory Summit (or wherever the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads might meet) and the waiting Golden Spike. As it transpired, the desolate country north of Utah’s Great Salt Lake would host the joining of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific and the opening of the transcontinental rail line joining Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. In addition to the bridges previously discussed, the eastern leg of Irons contained four tunnels forged by hand and by explosives through the granite obstacle of the Rocky Mountains. It was on the western run from California to Promontory that the true tunneling test was met. In contrast to the U.P.’s four tunnels, the Central Pacific “went under” fifteen times!

The technology of the day relied heavily on muscle power to bore through the mountains. The steam powered construction and earthmoving equipment of the day, while powerful, was large, cumbersome, and unreliable. In addition, the unimproved “roads” and the mountainous terrain made moving large equipment impossible. In the west, however, the task of pounding a path for the Irons through the unyielding Sierra Nevada would fall to “John Henry” only in the most metaphorical sense. The vast majority of the construction of the Central Pacific was done by immigrants from China. Chinese began arriving in the mid-1850’s as contract laborers, on the heels of the discovery of gold in California. Subject to relentless discrimination, the immigrants found it very difficult to work. During this same period, the Central Pacific Railroad was having trouble finding workers. The allure of gold fields enticed large numbers of manual laborers, anxious for a quick (though equally hard-earned) buck. Though it was argued by some that their smaller stature made them undesirable laborers, Chinese workers had already helped build the California Central Railroad and the San Jose Railroad. 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad began to recruit Chinese labor. The Shasta Courier carried this advertisement on January 2, 1865:

The Central Pacific Railroad Company advertises for 5,000 laborers to work upon the road between Newcastle and Illinoistown [Colfax]. It is the intention of the company to employ at once as many men as can be advantageously worked on the distance between these points — 23 miles. The iron for laying this additional amount of track is already in Sacramento and it is expected that the cars will run to Illinoistown by August next. The above opportunity affords a chance for those out of employment.

Heading east from Sacramento, the Central Pacific almost immediately felt the heavy hand of the Sierra Nevada. The terrain they were tasked to tame rose a staggering 7000 feet in only 100 miles. Over the next 3 1/2 years, 12,000 laborers, 2/3 of whom were Chinese, laid the Shiny Irons across, over, and under the Sierra and into the Great Divide Basin. The “last peak” to be conquered was the 7000-foot Donner Pass.

The route which Daniel Strong had advanced to Theodore Judah as an “easier” alternative to crossing the Sierra had a macabre history even in 1865. Twenty years prior, this same pass had been touted as a shortcut on the “California Trail”. Said to cut 300 miles off what was at that time a journey of over four months, the “Truckee Cutoff” was tested by 87 pioneers in a wagon train led by George Donner. Arriving in late October, Donner found the pass which would later bear his name choked by six feet of early-season snow. Blocked by snow in front and behind, the Donner party was trapped, destined for a gruesome and well-documented fate. The Central Pacific workers arrived better prepared. At $28 per month plus room and board, the workers building the Summit Tunnel earned just over twice the wage seen by those who built the Staple Bend Tunnel three decades earlier. Using mostly the same tools and techniques, they drilled and blasted the 1,659-foot Tunnel #6 through rock that was just over twice as hard, working in conditions which could be charitably described as just over twice as bad! The Donner Pass area annually records 51.6” of precipitation, most of which falls as snow. To work the construction site during the winter, tunnels were dug under the snowdrifts. These access tunnels allowed the movement of workers and supplies, even while under sometimes tens of feet of snow.

Tunnels were dug beneath forty-foot drifts and for months, 3,000 workmen lived curious mote-like lives, passing from work to living quarters in dim passages far beneath the snow’s surface. . . . [There] was constant danger, for as snows accumulated on the upper ridges, avalanches grew frequent, their approach heralded only by a brief thunderous roar. A second later, a work crew, a bunkhouse, an entire camp would go hurtling at a dizzy speed down miles of frozen canyon. Not until months later were the bodies recovered; sometimes groups were found with shovels or picks still clutched in their frozen hands. [The Big Four, Oscar Lewis, p. 74. {instead on p. 81 in the New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1941 edition which contains a bibliography but cites no source for this information}]

In addition to the tunnel, the workers built earth retention walls where the tracks skirted the side of the mountain. It is not sufficient to just notch the side of the mountain and lay rails, as the earth above the tracks will slide down onto them, and the earth under the tracks will be washed out. To forestall such calamity, the engineers design stone walls above

“Chinese Walls” between Tunnel #6 and Tunnel #7, Donner Summit

and below the track, as these photos show. The retention structures have come to be known as “Chinese walls”.

On to The Golden Spike. With the completion of the Donner Pass summit construction, the Central Pacific Railroad moved into Nevada, then on to Utah to meet up with the Union Pacific Railroad and connect the coasts. On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford drove the last spike to signal the completion of the “Pacific Railroad”. In just six years, 1,912 miles of Shiny Irons were laid across, over, under and through the western half of the continent. The building of the transcontinental railroad in the mid-19th century has been compared to an attempt to travel to Mars today. New engineering and construction techniques were developed, new construction methods were invented, several million man-hours of labor were expended, and a divided nation was made one. Since then, untold numbers of steel wheels have passed this way as the railroads continue to

keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!!

Ten Miles In One Day

One of the most amazing accomplishments during the building of the cross-country railroad occurred on April 28, 1869. By the time the Central Pacific had come down from the Sierra Nevada, the C.P and U.P. were engaging in an unofficial race to see who could lay the most track. Obviously, the farther east the point at which the railroads joined, the more revenue the C.P. could claim from cross-country shipping, and vice-verse for the U.P. Additionally, there had become a point of pride between the work crews of the two railroads. One (very) productive day, a U.P. track crew laid an astonishing six miles of track. Charles Crocker, Central Pacific Railroad founder, and his work crews were invited to a “beat THAT” party. C.P.’s crews did… by a mile, also giving rise to a metaphor which continues to this day. Union Pacific work crews responded by laying 7 1/2 miles of track in one day… though that “day” did last from 3AM until midnight.

A gauntlet had clearly been tossed in the direction of the C.P.’s tracklayers. While some of the following may be a bit fuzzy, the actual hammer-and-spike events were documented carefully by officials from both railroads – this had become much more than a friendly rivalry. One of C.P.’s foremen said, out loud for all to witness, that the C.P. would lay ten miles of track in one day!! To add impossibility to the already incredible, the claim was made that the feat would be performed in a standard twelve-hour day… no candlelight vigil needed!! These blasphemies found the ear of Union Pacific Vice-President Thomas Durant, whose ire and ego conspired to get the better of his judgment. He offered to wager the then- phenomenal sum of $10,000 that such a thing could not be done. The bet was covered, and the game was on. The C.P. work crews prepped the area, laid out all the materials and sharpened all the edges… everyone was briefed on their duties, on the timing and on the goal. Wheels were greased, boilers topped off, backup everything was laid out… and on the appointed day, a deep breath was drawn and…. a locomotive jumped the rails. This one-day setback was repaired while the hoots and hollers of the U.P. work crews (at this time only a few dozen miles away) only served to make the C.P. workers more determined. At 7:00 the next morning, Crocker’s well-trained, experienced spike-drivers toed the line again. When the foremen called off the work at 7:00 that evening, a jaw-dropping ten miles and fifty-six feet of Shiny Irons lay where only prairie had been the day before.

When the forward march was halted at 7 o’clock, ten miles and 56 feet of new track had been added to the Central Pacific. Jim Campbell, boarding boss and later superintendent of the division, jumped into a locomotive and ran it back over the new line at a clip of 40 miles an hour just to prove that the job had been well done.

A record for hand-laid track, this was never equaled. Today, very little of the Irons are laid by hand, complex automatic equipment can lay track with greater accuracy and much more safely than human track crews – though the the robots’ 3 miles per day rate of return totally pales in comparison to the record of ten miles a day!!

In India, a Harsco track laying machine puts the Shiny Irons in the dirt:

Here, a Plasser machine does maintenance on existing track. The system unfastens the rail from the ties, lifts the rail, pulls the old ties out, scoops up the ballast, cleans it, lays new ties, clips the rails in place and reapplies the ballast!! Scrap railroad ties and trash and debris from the dirty ballast are dumped into open gondola cars for disposal.

Play a Train Song

Stumping for “old school” railroad technology, “There’s a Light at the End of the Tunnel”

from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Starlight Express”

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