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 A Railroad Construction Crew. Via Pajaro Valley Museum

How the Chinese Built the Santa Cruz Mountain Railroad

By Debra Staab

Santa Cruz Mountain settlers owed a tremendous debt to their Chinese immigrant counterparts.  In the mid-1870s, when the South Pacific Coast and Santa Cruz Railroads sprang to life, gangs of Chinese workers were employed to perform most of the manual labor necessary to build the railroad.  Their primary task was to excavate the six tunnels required for a train to pass from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. It seemed like a nearly impossible goal to cut through the 12,000 feet of solid granite rock.

Armed with little more than picks, shovels, and a few sticks of dynamite, workers started digging at both ends of the proposed tunnel line. Even using professional surveys, the excavation had to be extremely precise in order for the men to meet in the middle.  Despite putting in very long days, the crews were only able to clear about 10 feet per day.   Monetary costs were high as were running about $110,000 per mile or almost $21 per foot.  The workers were paid pennies per day.

The extremely dangerous working conditions resulted in an even higher cost—the loss of life.  After accidentally hitting pockets of natural gas and oil in the mountains, explosions blasted through the tunnels killing dozens, if not hundreds.  After the fourth incident, the Chinese workers quit en masse.  Cornish workers from the Almaden Quicksilver Mines were brought in to finish the tunneling work.

Once completed, the train system was an immediate success as freight and people traveled back and forth over the mountains. New towns sprung up, and tourists and businesses alike thrived for the next several decades.  The railroad path through the mountains ended in 1940 when the automobile and Highway 17 became the dominant form of travel.  But for nearly 60 years, a whole generation, the hard labor of the Chinese benefited the community in too many ways to count.


From: The Howling Wilderness, Stephen Payne, 1978, pp. 37-52.


Thomas Bros. Map of Santa Cruz County California (CC).png

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