A transcontinental railroad had been discussed for decades before Theodore Judah came along. He became the energy behind the new railroad that would link California to the nation. Judah plotted out the route of the railroad over the Sierra.
He convinced Congress to pass a law enabling the railroad, and he gathered up investors and started building. The railroad was finished in 1869, and the nation erupted in joy. It was the most magnificent engineering feat in the world at the time.
The products of the nation could reach California and Asia, and the produce of California could reach the United States. To get over the Sierra, the Judah route followed the ridges, requiring 15 tunnels to be bored through solid granite. The longest, Tunnel 6 at Donner Summit, is 1659 feet long and took two years to build as Chinese workers worked from four directions.
They went from the outside in and from the inside out. The tool marks of the Chinese workers can still be seen on the walls inside that tunnel, and on a landmark known as China Wall just to the east.
Tunnel 6, China Wall and the railroad are important landmarks of Donner Summit history. Donner Summit gets an average of 34 feet of snow each winter, posing a significant impediment to train travel. To facilitate rail traffic, Judah's company began building snow sheds to protect the rail lines even before the railroad was completed.
Eventually they constructed 40 miles of snow sheds—now another iconic symbol of the summit. No matter the season, Donner Summit is spectacular. You can imagine the excitement of early railroad travelers as they embarked on a train journey over the Sierra.