From the Sangamon Illinois Journal
Below, Westward The Course Of Empire, 1862
painting by Emanuel Leutze.
The second wagon says "California" on the side.
This actual painting is large--to download a high
resolution of it to view the great details, go to
For the artist's interesting notes about this
painting, click here.
The spot where the pioneers would be this excited to
finally reach a summit and (artistically) view "the Pacific slope"
would likely be the first Donner Summit. Only the right 3/4 of the
painting is geography accurate. The valley to the left is supposed
to represent the Sacramento Valley, but in reality, the only valley
visible from Donner Summit (after climbing granite 50 feet higher
than the road itself) is the nearby Van Norden (Summit) Valley--with
many hills to descend before seeing a view of the Sacramento Valley
with the Pacific Ocean as shown in the painting. Actually, in
1862, the date of this painting, most pioneers traveling
north of Lake Tahoe came over Roller Pass near the original summit
of Donner Pass, but that route doesn't have a view resembling the
painting. In fact, no summit of any route into California provides a
view of the Sacramento Valley due to trees and geography.
In 1862, the majority of pioneers came to California
via South Lake Tahoe and the (Kit) Carson Pass, slightly easier than
the route north of Lake Tahoe. However, the summit at the Carson
Pass does not resembles anything like the painting.
In 1862, the transcontinental railroad builders were
in the planning stage of turning the 1844 Stephens-Murphy-Townsend
Party and Donner Party's "Truckee Route" into the Dutch Flat Donner
Lake Wagon Road. Once that well-engineered road was completed in
1864, it became the main pioneer route, and any travelers would go
over the original Donner Summit which resembles the right 3/4 of the
The Donner Party survivors used the trail of the
Stevens-Murphy-Townsend Party after rescued in 1847, and the summit
on that route became known as Donner Summit for 80 years
until 1926, shown
here (lat 39.314450,
long -120.326920). It is 800 feet south of the second "Donner
Summit" on old Highway 40, used from 1926 to 1964; the current
"Donner Summit" is on I-80.
excellent sites about the Donner Party, Road, and Railroad
Donner Party Diary
Summit Historical Society
on the Donner Party
And last but not
CPRR.org website has
thousands of historical railroad photos and documents.
old photos by clicking on Enter Photograph Museum button on
their home page... Here's a tip: At the right top of the first
page of the Photograph Museum is an option to change the
background color from the bright red.
Just one example of the thousands
of documents on the CPRR website is the 17,000-word report by
Theodore Judah in 1861 detailing his reasons for choosing the
Truckee Route over the South Tahoe route for the
transcontinental railroad--an amazing amount of work by Judah
(right). According to a newspaper article, he was only 5'6" and
135 lbs. He died at age 37. A short life of a small guy, yet he
was one of the great builders of America--Judah's monument in
Old Sacramento is well deserved. Take a look at his report at
the Central Pacific Railroad engineer in direct charge of the final
location, design and construction of the section between Colfax and
Truckee, including the Sierra tunnels and snowsheds. Many who look
at the old tunnels today wonder how the builders figured out where
to carve into the rock so that both ends met up in the same
spot--and it wasn't just two ends, but 4, with workers working
outward from the center shaft. Well, it was Clement's engineering:
"The...crews worked round the clock... Then, at 1am on May 3, 1867,
a great, noisy crumbling took place at the east facing, and light
from torches in the west could be seen flickering through the dust.
... The Summit had been pierced. The Sierras had been bested. ...a
week after the breakthrough, young Lewis Clement, the engineer in
charge of Summit Tunnel, strode into the now widened bore,
surveyor's instruments in hand. With torchbearers stationed every
few yards in the 1,659-foot bore, Clement began his first series of
observations in the damp and eerie tunnel. During the preceding two
years' work he and his assistants, including Samuel Montague and
Russell Guppy, had been measuring under conditions never taught
about in engineering schools. They had made their calculations under
poor visibility on a wildly uneven tunnel floor, plotting a bore not
only divided into four distinct parts, but one that had to gradually
rise, descend, and curve as it penetrated from west to east. ... the
expected margin of error was large, and if the various bores were
seriously misaligned, many months of expensive remedial work would
have to be done, delaying the Central Pacific Railroad's progress
east. ... As Clement finished his measurements and worked out the
geometric statistics at a rude desk near the tunnel mouth, he found
his prayers answered. Summit Tunnel's four bores fitted together
almost perfectly, with a total error in true line of less than two
inches. The seemingly impossible had been achieved. The longest
tunnel anyone had cut through natural granite, cut at a daunting
altitude in an abominable climate, had been bored by a small army of
Chinese thousands of miles from their ancestral home. The Sierras
were truly breached and ... the great race across the continent was
on. ... " —John Hoyt Williams, A Great And Shining Road
Building the 1926 Donner Summit Bridge
Here are some interesting facts about the
construction of the famous "rainbow" bridge, thanks to rare
original state documents provided to me by Jack Duncan, author of
"To Donner Pass From the Pacific."
This bridge was the final segment of the new and
re-aligned State Highway 37. It replaced the old
Highway 37, which was also the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road,
built in 1864 and taken over by the state in 1909. The state's plans
for the new highway were completed in 1922--all those plans are
labeled "Highway 37." No one knew of any "Highway 40" until a year
after the bridge was completed, when the name of this new highway
was changed to Highway 40, as part of the new interstate highway
The bridge was designed by the California Department
of Engineering's Bridge Department group in Sacramento, led by
Harlan D. Miller. He came from New York State's Bridge Department.
His design included the descending curve, which was a first in
bridges, and the view bench. He died the year this bridge was
completed. Continues below the next five photos.
Above, two men working on the view
bench in 1926.
Above, forms still in place. Notice all
flat surfaces were formed with boards, not plywood. Also, the method
of creating the rail openings can be seen--there was a small curved
piece at the top of each opening, and a simple square box below.
Some of the openings shown have the curve section popped out, but
most openings still have them and the cross-bar holding the form
Above, opening day ceremony on Sunday,
August 22, 1926. Notice the forms still supporting the concrete.
Above, a close-up of another photo
taken right before the ceremony. Notice the rail forms still
attached to the left side entrance, and also the same forms laying
down to the right of the storage container. Those rails on the left
entrance are still there--they weren't replaced in 1995 like the
rest of the bridge rails. The other rails were changed to have
smaller openings--supposedly so very small kids couldn't fall
Above, a close-up from the same photo.
Notice the California flag and another flag on the other side.
Notice the view bench is not completed and the approach fill is not
quite full. And of course, no vista site, which was built 10 years
The cost of building the bridge in
1925-26: Hard to
believe but it was only $37,500 (this included $8500
unplanned cost for the extra span and widening the approaches)
Job was opened for bids on May 26, 1925
Ten bids were received from $26,350 to $38,650.
Job was awarded to C.C. Gildersleeve of Fresno on
June 9, 1925.
Contract executed on June 18, 1925.
Excavation for the footings began on June 15, 1925
(didn't wait for the contract to be signed)
Hand drills were first used, then a compressor and
The first concrete was poured in the footings for the
arch on July 11, 1925
Work stopped on October 14, 1925 due to weather--66%
Work resumed on May 12, 1926.
Dedicated and opened for traffic on August 22,
Final concrete was poured on September 7, 1926
All contract items were completed on October 25, 1926
An average of 12 men were employed--5 carpenters
($6-8 a day), 7 laborers ($4 a day).
One resident engineer for both years.
One resident inspector for 1926 only.
Gildersleeve's profit was less than $1500.
From the final report:
"Difficult form work, due to unusual
alignment, was responsible for some delay in the completion of the
Harvey M. Toy, San Francisco
Lewis Byington, San Francisco, Native Sons of the
Hilliard E. Welch, Lodi, Native Sons of the Golden
1˝-ton Reo truck
1˝-sack Jaeger concrete mixer
Power circular saw
Power band saw
Compressor and jackhammer
Berg concrete finishing machine
Photo is a 1925 Jaeger concrete mixer.
According to the old documents, the concrete mixer
was set up on the westerly end of the bridge. Concrete was
wheel-barrowed by hand down the slope.
Below, a portion of a newly found photo showing the
storage shed and the mixer (just as described, set up on the
westerly end) and a water tank. After the tank was somehow filled,
water could flow by gravity to the mixer when needed.
Approaches to the bridge were filled with rock
material from the "railroad waste dump 1/2 mile distant" (between
the 1914 incline and the older incline). That "railroad waste" was
actually the blasted chunks of rocks from the summit tunnel and
carted out of the tunnel and tossed over the cliff in 1865-67. After
laying there for 60 years, the rock material was loaded into a
hopper at the dump and hauled to the new bridge in the 5-ton truck,
using the old state highway/DFDLWR. So every time we drive over the
bridge approaches, we're driving on rocks carted out of the summit
tunnel 145 years ago.
Other materials used were:
Sand and gravel from American River Sand & Gravel,
Mayhew, Sacramento (not from Donner Lake as rumor had it)
Cement from Santa Cruz (supplier not listed)
Steel from E. L. Soule, San Francisco
Lumber from Hobart Mills, California
Shipments of materials were made to a railroad siding
one mile from the bridge site and were hauled over the newly
constructed road (the railroad siding is currently the Donner Ski
Ranch overflow parking lot).
Water was obtained from several small lakes in the
vicinity of the site (ponds still there, but no mention of how the
water got to the bridge site).
The bridge doesn't go over any river or even
creek--only a granite ravine.
Website, including enhanced
and altered old public domain photos, copyright
2005-2019 Rick Martel.