Donner Summit


High & Dry parked in a somewhat muddy parking area just in front of the famous Tunnel 6, and after looking into the darkened concrete tunnel covered with colorful and passionately executed graffiti, decided to enter. We were near the summit of Donner pass at 7056 feet above sea level.

We had spoken at length with Norm Sayler at the Donner Summit Historical Society, down the road now called Donner Summit Road that was once known as Highway 40, and before that the first transcontinental highway: The Lincoln Highway. Perhaps it is more accurate to say Norm spoke with us as he was a fount of information about everything from the advent of snowboarding for which he deserves most of the credit to the Donner Party. Most have heard of the Donner Party, trapped by one of the snowiest winters on record in this area known as the most snowiest in the United States.

Norm credits the name from this unluckiest of pioneer parties as being the major reason for the interest and the fame of this pass. The word cannibalism is synonymous with Donner. In early November of 1846, once trapped at the pass, the party of 81 emigrants had to winter over. Only 45 survived to reach California; some of these had resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The tunnel was dark, and full of dripping and standing water from a late spring snowstorm. We sauntered in and immediately I thought of every horror picture that had slimy cold-blooded, carnivorous monsters in it ready to jump out at its next victim. This genre is obviously one of my cinematic weaknesses. It was cold and very damp, and as we crept along, the shadows increased in length and darkness.

Along the way ice and snow had flowed into the rectangular vault. We realized that if we weren’t careful, we could easily slip and fall. There was a concrete curb against the ragged rock wall, and we sidled along it. The water and ice glimmered in the weak light. I felt dangerously ill-at-ease with thoughts of cannibals and ghost trains suddenly charging out of the dark. It beat the Haunted House ride at Disneyland all to hell.

The tunnel, built to shield the early trains from becoming bogged down in heavy snows has been abandoned for quite awhile. The timid trains take a new easier route off the pass. As we went along we could see the marks that the Chinese workers had made with mining tools against the granite. Even holes for blasting are still clearly visible. At first they drilled holes, filled them with black powder, tamped them in and after the explosion had to wait for the thick smoke to clear before evaluating what had happened. That slowed work down.

Nitroglycerine was invented in 1846. It produced less thick smoke and broke the rocks in to larger chunks, which were easier to remove by the workers. It also blew up the rock in all directions.  I found one of the rosette patterns burned into the rock, left behind by nitro and ran my hand over it. I could imagine the power of this explosive against the adamantine granite and the work performed by these foreign laborers to create this engineering miracle. They also had to build two “Chinese walls,” but more about that next time.

As we reached the end of this tunnel we walked out into the windy, cold day and looked out into Donner Valley. More tunnels lay ahead, but I paused for awhile to think of all the suffering that had led to this opening of the country to its future, connecting the east and the west. This ghost tunnel has a lot of significance to our national history, our future as a great country, and as a marker to all those who sacrificed in the past to make the present we have today. Our project High & Dry was working where we were high but not dry, yet our project is all about connection as well.

Our visit to Donner Summit was not over though and next time we continue on into the next two tunnels ahead.