The Way Pioneer Builders Met Difficulties

Obstacles in wilderness served only to arouse fight in men who blazed the way for present day rail lines.

By J. O. Wilder.

Southern Pacific Bulletin.

November, 1920.

Nothing more of interest happened until we were about a mile above the present town of Cisco. Here we came to a deep gorge where the sides were so steep we had to use a rope to get down to the bottom. To get up the other side was a problem, but Mr. Guppey was equal to it. He sent Mr. Brainard and "Long John," I mean Harding, to a place where it could be crossed, taking with them their axes to fell a tree across at some point where it could be found. They worked their way up the other side, which was no easy task, there being much underbrush to contend with. The water was deep for that time of the year, and Ledley, Denton and myself were sent to find from whence it came.    

At the top of the mountain we found a lake. Those with me thought it was about a mile long and a half mile wide. At the outlet we found a deserted log cabin which at one time had been the home of a trapper. Having found what we went for we returned to the line. On the way back we met a bobcat and shot him. On our return Ledley made his report. Brainard and Harding had come up from the other side, hitched a rope around a tree and were then ready to go ahead with the line. It consumed all of one to day to cross this outlet. About one mile east we came upon another stream not quite so deep as the first. In this we discovered a beaver's dam. We did not disturb it.    

These gorges we called "Kidds Outlets." They are now known as the Cascades. We were now five miles above our camp, so we spent one day moving to Driver's Creek, about two miles northeast of Tinker's station. This move was a bad omen for our party, for when nearing Summit Valley we met with our first accident. Mr. Guppey fell and his leg was broken. He was sent to Sacramento for treatment.            

Explore the Mountain Tops    

While we were waiting for the engineer we visited Soda Springs, also Castle Peak. This was the hardest climb we had undertaken. It was now the first of August, and there was still snow on the north side of the mountain. We were compelled to cross over some of the patches, which nearly cost Mr. Ledley his life, for he slipped and fell and finally brought up against a big rock, but none the worse for his slide. We reached the top, ate our lunch, wrote on a piece of paper who we were, each signing his name, placed it in a bottle, corked it tightly and placed the bottle, big end up, with rocks around it. Here it rested undisturbed for twenty five years, and was found by C. H. Bonty, late chief clerk for the Southern Pacific Company. He and his friends signed their names to the paper and replaced the bottle where they found it, where it has been since August 1866, and is there to this day so far as I know, for I alone remain to speak for them, as they all have passed off the Iron Trail.

With the coming of Engineer Stevenson we completed the survey to the summit. Here the party was broken up, some to return to their homes, others to Kidder's party in Nevada. I remained with Stevenson and helped him lay out the heading in the shaft of the Summit tunnel. From here I was sent to join Joe Wilkinson at Cisco to lay out the town and sidings.

The construction crew was at work on the main line. He would barely get his transit set before some "China" herder, as they called them, would sing out "fire," and he would then have to take up his transit and make a run for a pine tree shelter. I was with him about a week. When this work was completed I returned to the Summit and Wilkinson went to Sacramento to take charge of building the shops, which were then under construction. About this time Mr. Clement moved his headquarters and also Mr. Strowbridge, [sic] and I saw much of the latter.

When Chinamen Would Strike

At times the Chinamen would strike and refuse to take their shifts in the tunnel, but Strowbridge [sic] was ever on the job. They feared him in their hearts as much as they did the Chinese devil. He was a fine general. He had a mild but firm way, which was in the form of a pick handle, in dealing with these fellows. He had but one eye, yet he could spot the ringleaders at one glance and would bring his persuader into action and was not particular where it landed, for he was a past master in this line. Inside of five minutes you could not find a Chinaman in camp, and could hear them say "muck-a-high" as they went to their work with Strowbridge [sic] as their escort, for many times he was called upon to settle discords and confusion among the Chinamen.

It was now September. I remember distinctly the nitro-glycerine explosion which took place about this time which cost the mixer his life. He was blown to bits. This accident retarded the work in the tunnels, which were solid rock. It was here that the supply department did some fast work. The delivery was by fast freight wagons and the department was in charge of Superintendent Pratt. He was never known to return short, so in a week's time we had the chemicals to mix more nitro-glycerine, and the new house was ready when he arrived, but

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running to Blue Canyon [sic] and work trains as far east as Bear Valley tunnel, which was nearly completed, and the grading 90 per cent completed to Cisco. Then but a boy I noted the rapidity with which these men had pushed the work forward. They had a system like clockwork, even down to Mr. Scovey, who was foreman of culverts and bents for bridges.       

Saved the Tipping Rock    

It was his men who later tried to roll that tipping bowlder from its place on Truckee River, as they feared someday it might roll down and destroy the tracksbut they could get it so far and no farther. And the hundreds of persons who have  since visited it, together with the party who now has it housed in, are all indebted to Mr. Scovey, for one of his men wanted to put a shot of nitroglycerine under it and blow it off. He said no, let it stay. I did not see this, but heard Mr. Scovey tell of what happened. I saw this rock many times after I had been transferred to Camp 5, or I may say Tunnel 13.     This was the best conducted camp I had been in, and it proved to be the last. It was kept clean, all credit falling to Andrew Helmer, who was the camp boss; nor would he allow any "snake bite" in the camp. Mr. William Phelps was the engineer in charge of the tunnel which goes from the Donner Lake side to Cold Stream Canyon. This tunnel is on a ten degree curve and if I remember correctly is 980 feet long. It was timbered with 12 x 12 studs and the same for arches, eighteen inches apart, and lagged. This work was directed by Charles Fischer, foreman carpenter. He also had charge of the company's sawmills at the lower end of Donner Lake on Donner Creek, where the timbers and the lagging for the tunnel were gotten out and also the bridge timbers. This mill was run day and night.            

"Missouri Bill" and His Team     

And right here I would like to speak of a man who was a source of much amusement to me, a tall lanky person known as "Missouri Bill", who drove the bull team, hauling timbers to both ends of the tunnel. This man could swear by note and never miss one, and he had the voice of two men. You could hear him "cussing" those bulls half a mile away, and the crack from the whiplash that he carried. There seemed to be one bull in the team which he like to pick on, for he would swing with his whip over his head and yell, "Come down around here, Dolly Gal, doggone your ugly skin, I'll knock a horn off you."    

Winter was now fast approaching, for the grouse would get on a log and hammer with their wings, and it proved to be a very severe winter. The snowfall was heavy and it was very cold. There was one large snowslide at Strong's Canyon, known as Camp 4. In this camp were two gangs of Chinamen for Tunnels 11 and 12, also a gang of culvert men. The slide took it all, and one of the culvert men was not found until the following spring.  At our camp the snow was so deep we had to shovel it from the roof and make steps to get to the top of the snow. We were snowed in, and our provisions got down to cornmeal and tea. Had it lasted one week longer we would have been compelled to eat horsemeat., for there were two hundred or more men in this camp. We broke a road to the main wagon road, where there was a store known as the

Donner Lake Postoffice.    

There was a complete blockade east of Blue Canyon, and all construction work had to stop with the exception of the tunnels. Between Blue Cayon and Cisco the cuts were filled by landslides, which had to be removed by gangs of Chinamen. Steam shovels were unknown at that time. A push plow loaded with pig iron to hold it to the rails, with three engines behind, would back up and take a run at the snow and keep going until it got stuck, and then back up and take another run. They had to use care not to get the plow off the track for the roadbed ws soft and in this way the track was cleared to Cisco. This work was in charge of a big Yankee named Nat Webb, of Sacramento, with Add Vahay, conductor, also of Sacramento, and engines Nevada, Utah, Oneonta, with Pence, Carroll and Mills, engineers, and one of the firemen whom I remember was Jim Ireland.


Courtesy of the Lynn D. Farrar Collection.

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