The CP began construction in late October, 1863 from Sacramento,
California heading east. By September 1, 1865 the CP had completed its
line to Colfax along the western edge of the Sierra Nevada range, a
distance of about 53 rail miles (according to SP's timetable).
However, heading over the range surveying and construction became much
more difficult as there were no roads or even trails, crews were
literally carving a new transportation artery as they went. It took the Central Pacific, led by chief assistant engineer,
Lewis Clement, more than three years to span the Sierras themselves at
Summit, just west of Truckee (covering a distance of just 65 rail miles)
with a grade averaging around 2.5%. The line itself did not open until
December 13, 1867 and included four tunnels and numerous snow sheds.
Soon after the CP began operations it came under permanent
control by Southern Pacific in 1885. In the 1920s SP opened a new line
over the Sierra Nevada, which became known as "Track #2." This line
featured a grade between just 1.3% and 2.4%, which prompted SP to
eventually abandon Track #1 in 1993 to reduce maintenance and operating
costs. Today, this route's right-of-way is still easily visible, as are the original tunnels cut by hand. Not surprisingly, Donner Pass proved an operating headache
with numerous tunnels, snow sheds, unpredictable weather, and stiff
grades although it offered the lowest elevation in which to span the
Sierras. This line is where the SP developed its most unique steam
locomotive the unique 2-8-8-2 "Cab Forward."
like it’s backward and facing the wrong direction but this design
was very deliberate and its purpose was to keep train crews away from
the thick smoke and dangerous gases that would build up in the numerous
tunnels and snow sheds. Along with Cab Forwards protecting crews from
smoke and gases the locomotives were also quite powerful and had
tremendous tractive effort to battle the steep grades over the Sierras.
With the development of diesels, SP regularly employed six-axle, C-C
designs for maximum tractive effort, usually EMD designs
like SD9s and SD45T-2s. Today, the battle with Mother Nature continues
with current owner Union Pacific and almost surely will remain so for
many years to come.
Currently operations with what modern-day locomotives, many of which are General Electric-built, are not nearly as exciting as watching Cab Forwards conquer the pass although they are certainly much more economical and provide the railroad with a tremendous savings in operating costs. The issues poised by snow will always remain and as a result will always require the use of multiple snowsheds for more fluid operations. If you would like to see the pass in action today, it is much easier to access than during the pre-Interstate era; simply take Interstate 80 anywhere between Colfax and Truckee, California as it closely parallels the line all across the mountain.
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