California’s Chinese Wall

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Donner Pass, just west of the California and Nevada border, is perhaps best known in history for the Donner Party and today for its large ski community. The area, however, has a rich and varied history, much of which is easily visible from the Old Donner Donner Pass Road.

Donner Pass has petroglyphs visible just steps from the old highway. This is the pass across the Sierras used not only by the California Trail but also by the First Transcontinental Railroad, the Overland Route, the Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 40), and now Interstate 80.

It was the Transcontinental Railroad that brought large numbers of Chinese workers to the area and resulted in the construction of monumental train tunnels (snow sheds) and walls to get the trains through winter weather and over the treacherous pass. The China Wall was created with rock excavated from the train tunnels and quarried granite. The 75 vertical feet of stone is fitted expertly together and supports the track between two tunnels without the help of mortar.

When I stopped to see the wall on my recent trip to the Reno area, rock climbers were scaling the nearby granite mountain face and tourists were pulling over to snap pictures of the old highway bridge. A group hike paused on the old route of the Lincoln Highway to take in the view. The wall, a hundred feet away, stood quiet and impressive, a monument to the Chinese workers that built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.

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Sources and Further Reading:

Before you get too excited about the Donner Party, note that archaeologists have not found any evidence to support the claims of cannibalism. It is still disputed to this day.

Donner Memorial State Park has a visitor center and recreation opportunities on Donner Lake.

Read (and see!) more about the Donner Summit petroglyphs here.

The Donner Summit Historical Society has a nice overview of the area’s history: Donner Summit, an Introduction. There are some fantastic historic photographs in this pamphlet.

Want to know more about what the tunnels are like today? Head over to Donner Pass Summit Tunnel Hike.

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