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Newspaper Report of CPRR
Travel and Construction, August, 1868:
Going to the front.

This article from the Carson Daily Appeal, Henry R. Mighels, Editor, dated August 27-28, 1868 reprints a San Francisco Times article from earlier the same month, and was later reprinted by Phillip I. Earl in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, entitled "Meandering Across the Line of the Central Pacific Railroad, 1868."

1868-08-27, 28



ON LEAVING THE Summit tunnel the steam is almost shut off, and the train glides gently and smoothly down the Eastern slope. On emerging from the tunnel the line bears to the right, skirting the terraced slope of Donner Mountain, and in a few moments bringing into view a scene, the beauty of which is almost beyond description. A thousand feet beneath us, on our left hand, lies Donner Lake, hemmed in by mighty hills on every side. Immediately below us is a small area of level plain, dotted with buildings, which seem in the distance, no larger than tiny models of Swiss cottages sold for mantel ornaments. The level sheet of water lies beyond, reflecting in its unruffled surface the huge trees which cover the mountain sides down to its very brink, and through the pure air white columns of steam arise, from a dozen busy saw mills, buried in the dense forest far away. Here and there upon the lake a little boat is seen, but these small craft are almost lost in the extent of the view, and appear no larger than chips, floating lazily. The road here is cut out of the mountain side, and it has been necessary to tunnel the hill extensively. Between the Summit and Coldstream we pass seven tunnels, the shortest of which is 100 feet, and the longest 863 feet in extent. We are descending at the rate of ninety feet the mile, at this time. Now we pass around the mountain, and run along the length of Donner Lake, still far above it. On our right hand the hill rises abruptly, the unmelted snows showing near and clear along its sides. Beautiful cascades leap and dash from the summit, flinging their spray almost into the windows of the cars as we glide past them. At times we come upon the remnants of a great drift, in some hollow below the road. In one place the remains of an avalanche may still be seen. A huge mass of snow, many feet in thickness, buried under a superincumbent stratum of earth and trees. Protected thus from the sun's heat, it has not melted, nor will it melt, but there remain until next winter's snow arrive, to refresh and restore its purity. On the lower side of the hill we pass many huts and shanties; rude structures, built of boughs and fern branches, and loosely covered in with thin boards. These are the camps of the loggers and working parties, who swarm along this portion of the road, and whose axes are busy from dawn to sunset, cutting ties for the line that is rushing eastward far in advance. Still descending, we pass Coldstream, 6,260 feet above the sea, and presently arrive at Truckee on the river of that name, at the foot of Donner Valley, 119 miles from Sacramento, and 5,860 feet high.


The village of Truckee is most charmingly situated at the eastern end of Donner Lake, on a comparatively level space, amid heavy timber. A large number of sawmills are in full work in the neighborhood, and the warm air vibrates with the Slumberous hum of the machinery. The Truckee river here comes into view, and it is through the gorge in the mountains which it has worn that the road passes, thus escaping the second summit of the Sierras. The Truckee, from the time where we make its acquaintance first is a turbulent little river, and bears no affinity to its muddy brethern on the western side of the mountains. The American river, seen from a distance, resembles a yellow snake, winding its way through the green meadows; but the Truckee's waters are pure and limpid, and it dashes sparkling over a rocky bed, breaking ever and anon into flashes of white foam, and eddying and circling in hot haste about the black rocks that obstruct its course.

We follow the Truckee now into its Meadows, an extensive plain, abounding in good pasturage and verdant with tall grasses. After passing a small station called Boca, we enter two more tunnels, the last on the line. These are respectively 168 and 92 feet in length. As we proceed, the country, which has for a short distance been almost agricultural in its aspect, begins to change again, and gradually assumes a rockier and more sterile appearance. Still, in the immediate vicinity of the river it is pleasant enough, and at times we come upon parties of loggers endeavoring to raft timber down the rapid stream. This, with such a river as the Truckee, is no easy task, and the hardy men who attempt it risk, and sometimes lose, their lives, being carried from their footing whirled away, and sucked under by the swift current.


We have passed, in company with the brawling, rushing, fuming Truckee, through pleasant meadows, where the heavy grass grows green and thick; over rocky passes, between which the stream dashed noisily, hurling its waters angrily against the craggy sides; by the margin of barren places where the trees grow dwarfed and stunted, as if depressed too much by the melancholy silence and dreariness of their surroundings, to take root heartily, or push their branches forth with any life or vigor. We have glided through long lines of low rolling hills, on the sides of which no green thing shows itself, and upon which no human habitation can be seen. And so we come to Verdi, 143 miles from Sacramento, and the last station whereat we shall descry anything pleasant or beautiful. Thence we roll onward through a country that becomes drearier and more depressing at every mile. The river itself, so sparkling and brilliant, so erratic and lively, but now, has caught the tone of gloom which pervades tile district, and moves sullenly between low and marshy banks. The bright and variously hued flowers which erstwhile decked its margin, and lent a charm to the picturesque scenery which its waters enlivened, have given place to beds of tall rushes, which spot the banks like leprous blotches, and waving slowly in the lazy air, seem to add to the despondency of the region. Soon we arrive upon a level plain, extending far away to where the Washoe hills rear their gray altitude in somber solitude, and bearing no trace of vegetation other than the dusty blue sage brush, whose monotonous bunches alone hide the sterile sands. Sage brush to the right, sage brush to the left, sage brush to the front, sage brush to the rear. Land and rocks and sage brush and water make up the landscape. The river, it is true, still rolls beside the road, but it is the only moving feature in the desolate landscape. No hut of workman, no ranch or farmer, no browsing cattle, no cultivated fields; nothing but the burning sun and the burning sand; the slowly rolling river, reft of its every beauty, and the distant, barren hills. Through such a region we pass on, none too quickly, though the engineer should pile every available pound of fuel upon the engine fires, and arrive presently at Reno, distance from Sacramento 154 miles, and 4,530 feet above the tide level.


Reno is situated in the middle of a frightful plain, destitute of any feature of beauty or picturesqueness. It is one of those mushroom towns that seem to spring up in a single night, like Aladdin's Palace, and from the nature of its elements its sudden evanishment would be scarcely matter for surprise. In the language of its inhabitants, it is "quite a place," and if it lacks age and stability, it makes up for them in exuberant vitality. Its streets are composed of frame buildings, knocked together for the most part as hastily as though they were accompaniments to a traveling circus. It has more than a fair proportion of groggeries, and dancehouses; and it drives a very lively business in the gambling way. Its population comprises an immoderate share of "sports," from the suave and "high toned" gambler, airily lounging in snow white trousers and coat, and spotless, delicately plaited shirt front, with broad-brinmmed Panama hat and fragrant cigar, to the disreputable and hangdog looking sharper, beneath whose short and frayed coat tails the muzzle of a revolver protrudes threatingly, and whose fierce eyes and bloated face proclaim that he is either ready to take a drink or cut a throat. Women, whose gay dresses are not needed to designate their shameful business, stroll through the sandy streets with an abandon which is only to be met within such semi-civilized places; Piute Indians loaf about, accompanied by their heavy and degraded looking squaws, who carry their juvenile incumbrances packed neatly in small parcels and slung upon their broad backs, whence they can form their own opinions of society. Expressmen hurry up and down in the broiling sun, and fling packages, trunks and boxes about, with feverish energy, and the engines and trains of the Company glide back and forth upon the sidings in apparently inextricable confusion, while the station master screams himself hoarse, and perspires himself thin. There is no such thing as rest to be had in Reno. The tavern keepers do not think it worth their while to provide anything like decent sleeping accomodation for travelers, for nobody comes there save to make money, and when a man is bent upon business, what does it signify where he sleeps? So people rush into Reno and gobble up whatever fuel in the shape of meals they can get; and never grumble, and drink bad whisky without a murmur; and doze on chairs, or make their bones ache by lying on boards, and rush away again, by rail or stage, and Reno cares nothing, but swelters on in the broiling sun, while all the day the sharp tapping of hammers and grating of saws accompanies the erection of new buildings and all the night the fiddles go, and the glasses clink, and the general hurry and bustle is brought to a climax now and then by a lively shooting affray. Somebody, perhaps, is killed or maimed in the row. Well, it is only "Four-ace Dick," or "Jack the Sweater," or somebody else with a nick-name that has taken the place of a patronymic. Only some adventurer, not too particular as to the character of his ventures, who has "pegged out." It may be that, a couple of thousand miles away, some weary heart is waiting anxiously for news of him, or that some home is being prepared for his anticipated return. No matter! Busy Reno has no concern with the fate, present, past or future, of any one of her motley population. She is on the railroad, and has a "big thing;" and she is bent upon making her pile with what speed she can command; and the pace of Reno is by no means contemptible.


Away from Reno, and out again into the sage brush, past a long line of low hills and into another dreary plain — a plain so monotonous and hot, so sandy and so silent, that but for the deeply dispirited Truckee, rolling in melancholy sullenness at our left, we might become the victims of hypochondria. A few changes in the line of the road are pleasant, even though it be only from sand and sage brush to red rock and burnt clay, the variety is agreeable. But there are not many such changes, and after thirty miles of misery we stop at Wadsworth, which is the furthest station to which, as yet, passenger trains have been run. Wadsworth is 187 miles from Sacramento, and it never could have had an existence but for the railroad. Whether it should have had one at all, may be disputed, for it is the ugliest place in the whole line. It consists of three streets of wooden houses, built on the circumference of a circle. It has several taverns, an express office, and any quantity of sand all round it. But even here, buildings are being erected with a rapidity which looks as if the carpenters were afraid that, before they got the roof on, the railroad would have left them so far behind that they would lose the fruits of their labor. There is a tremendous bustle of trains, loaded with freight, leaving for the front, and empty cars returning to be filled, and engines shrieking, and backing here, and hauling there, until one is deafened with the clamor. As we have said, the passenger trains go no further than Wadsworth. But we intend to go to "the front" which is fifty miles ahead, beyond the Humboldt Desert, and we must watch our chance to get a passage upon one of the construction trains. Everybody at Wadsworth calls going to the end of the line going to the front, and what with the noise and bustle, the hurry, the apparent confusion, the masses of material that are constantly passing to and fro, the energy and activity that appear on every hand, it certainly does seem as if a campaign were being conducted in the vicinity, and this was the base of operations. How that campaign is carried on, and in what manner the army "at the front" is comporting itself, we will relate in our next article.


It is by no means an easy matter to get to the front from Wadsworth, for it is next to impossible to tell to what point any train leaving the station may stop. There being but one line of rail, the company are compelled to exercise their utmost ingenuity to accomodate the traffic, and though sidings are constructed at intervals of eight miles, along the road, much precious time is lost through the lack of transportation facilities. However, we succeed in finding a train that was going as far as Brown Station, a distance of forty miles from Wadsworth, and were content to take our chances of getting on to the end of the line from that point. On leaving Wadsworth the road traverses a few miles of the barren and uninteresting country previously described, and then strikes into the Humboldt Desert, which is forty miles across. However depressing the sage brush plains may be, they rise into positive beauty and fertility when contrasted with the desert. Imagine a vast plain stretching East, West, North and South, almost to the horizon, where on the right hand a range of hills bound the view, and near which the Sink of Carson is situated. No trace of cultivation, or vegetation of any kind meets the eye. Even the hardy sage brush refuses to grow upon this sterile soil, which is apparently devoted to the propagation of alkali. At intervals along the road great patches of alkali appear, white and shining, and may be easily mistaken for pools of water at a short distance. Although the desert presents no features of natural beauty or interest, it is often the scene of' remarkable atmospheric phenomena, some of which we were fortunate enough to witness. In crossing this section of the country the Railroad Company has experienced much difficulty in procuring water for the engines. The water of Humboldt Lake, along which the road runs for some five-and-twenty miles, striking it near the eastern end of the desert is full of alkali, and it causes the boilers to foam so badly that it is almost impossible to use it. It has, therefore, been found necessary to sink artesian wells in this neighborhood, though, as in one or two experiments, the engineers struck, first salt water, and then hot water, the men on the road do not place much confidence in this resource, being inclined to believe that Humboldt Desert is too near the infernal regions to supply anything good in the form of water. In the meantime tank trains are employed to fetch water from the Truckee, and it has been found necessary to discard the Humboldt Lake water altogether, as, when mixed with that of the Truckee, it makes the boilers foam worse than when it is used alone. The water of the Humboldt River, which has now been struck, is comparatively good, though at the point where the line crosses the stream it is not altogether free from alkali.


After leaving the desert, which we quit without regret, we enter upon a country just a shade more pleasant to look upon and travel over, but only a shade better. We have here no lack of alkali, as the white dust rises in clouds whenever a horseman or team is passing, testifies; but the sage brush grows again here, and though ugly enough in itself, serves to hide somewhat the dreary surface of the hot, bare plain. Presently we arrive at Brown's about 40 miles beyond Wadsworth, and 227 miles from Sacramento. Brown's is a small place which has been for many years a stage station. The building is of adobe, and stands close to the brink of Humboldt Lake. It must have been a horribly desolate place before the advent of the railroad, but old Brown informs us that he never felt lonely, there being always someone in the house from the stages. Our readers will not care to know how we passed the night at Brown's, nor with what difficulty we found a train to take us to the front. Let it suffice to say that a night at Brown's is an experience to remember with a shudder in after years, and that alkali water is by no means a pleasant beverage. In due time we found ourselves again on the road, and after some fifteen or twenty miles through the sage brush plains, which extend for hundreds of miles from the desert, we arrive at our destination, the end of the line, some 250 miles from Sacramento.


As we approached our destination we passed several white tents, in one or two of which some enterprising sutler had set out his motley wares, just disembarked from a wagon which stood close at hand, ready to move his perambulatory store as soon as the line advanced. Further on was a camp of Chinamen, who were at this time employed in cooking their mid-day meal. All along the road were scattered heaps of ties, fish plates, spikes and other material. Still more white tents, and then numbers of heavy wagons, prairie schooners in fact, which are employed in hauling the ties, and then a strange looking affair which resembles a good-sized street upon wheels. This is the Boarding Train. It consists of some six or eight huge cars, or rather houses built upon car trucks. Four of these are dormitories for the white laborers; others are used as eating houses; others again as kitchens; one is appropriated to the family of Mr. Strowbridge, the engineer in charge of construction, and anther is occupied by Mr. Menkier, the General Superintendent, Mr. Vandenburg, the Telegraph Superintendent, and some of the overseers and other officers in charge of the works. In this train they live, eat, and sleep, and it is moved forward day by day as the road advances. The Chinese laborers, who have Superintendents of their own, of course under the general supervision of the white officers, reside in camps by themselves, and being divided into two shifts, or gangs, are moved alternately every other day. The scene at the front is almost as exciting as a battle. Trains are continually arriving, loaded with wooden ties and iron rails, and being unloaded with marvelous rapidity, are sent back to Wadsworth for fresh supplies. Heretofore the difficulties in the way of transportation have been so great that it has been impossible to supply the tracklayers with sufficient material, and their powers of work have really never been fairly tested, until last week, when they laid six miles and eight hundred feet in one day.

The first thing that strikes the visitor on arriving at the front is the amazing energy and activity displayed by every one connected with the road. It is not only in the superintendents and engineers that this feature is noticeable. It pervades the whole army of workmen, from the wiry foreman, whose intelligent features have been tanned nearly black by the burning sun, to the swarthy Chinaman, who speaks no word of the language of his employers. There is no such thing as shirking or grumbling known among these men. Instead of their motto being "Every man for himself," it seems to be "Every man for the road." They recognize the importance of the enterprise they are engaged in, and work like men who feel that they are making history. Of the white laborers we may say that we never saw a finer body of their class. They are all picked men—hale, strong and sober. There are now about four thousand men employed in grading the road, and this party is more than fifty miles ahead of the tracklayers. They have smooth and easy ground to work upon at present, and being subjected to no delays from the lack of material, are enabled to push forward at a rate of from three to five miles a day.

Courtesy Barry A. Swackhamer.

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