Andover to Clipper Gap

Donner Pass

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Map submitted by Paul Carr.

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Summit Tunnel Plaque. Photo by Paul Carr, July 2006.

Donner Pass is a high mountain pass located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, through which emigrants first traveled to California in 1844. Today, it hosts both Interstate 80 (formerly US Route 40, the "Lincoln Highway") and Union Pacific's Roseville Subdivision.

Donner Pass is well known for two different incidents that occurred near the summit. The first, and probably most known, is the infamous Donner Party that was stranded on the pass during a snowstorm in 1846. The second, and probably remembered mostly by railfans, is when the Southern Pacific's City of San Francisco was stranded at nearby Yuba Pass for 6 days during a snowstorm in January, 1952.

There are a few portions of the Donner Pass line that have been abandoned. Tunnel Zero was abandoned during World War II; it is hidden behind vegetation. Both Yuba Gap's Main #2 and Main #1 at the summit were pulled up in 1993 when SP's president decided to pull up track on SP routes to save money and use to double track the Sunset Route. It is not known why Tunnel 40 at Troy was abandoned, but it has been located. Tunnel 15 on Main #1 was abandoned in 1913 because of double tracking, but it has yet to be located (and is thus missing on the map).

Tunnel Zero: Located at milepost 132.69 on the original Donner Pass line between the stations of Bowman and Applegate, Tunnel Zero is somewhat of an oddity. The tracks here originally passed around the hillside via a series of cuts and large trestle over a ravine known as Deep Gulch. But by 1873, engineers had decided that the direct approach was the best approach, and drove a 650-foot-long, granite-lined tunnel through the hillside to the north.

This created a unique problem, however, as several tunnels had already been completed at higher elevations, and continuing the numbering sequence at this location would disrupt the numeric order. Railroad planners ultimately decided to strike a compromise and designate the tunnel as "Number Zero" to preserve the sequence.

Originally, the tunnel was to be lined with granite brought from the town of Penryn, where the local quarry was owned by a personal friend of Central Pacific Railroad construction chief Charles Crocker. Penryn granite, however, proved to be of inferior strength, and the contract for lining the tunnel was granted to a quarry near the town of Rocklin instead. (As consolation for this slight, Penryn granite was used to build the tunnel portals.)

However, the truly unique aspect of Tunnel #0 lies not in its materials, but in its shape. Often refered to as a "horseshoe tunnel," its sides taper slightly inward near the bottom, creating a more tubular shape than the more common vertical-sided construction. It was a popular design on eastern railroads, but was exceedingly rare west of the continental divide.

Things began to change in the 1890s, when construction was started on a second main line over Donner Pass. Surveyors placed the new track just a few yards to the north and slightly below the grade of the number one main, and began construction on Tunnel # 23 at the site. The work here produced unintended consequences, however, as concussions from blasting dislodged some of the granite blocks lining nearby Tunnel #0, resulting in a partial collapse. Work crews quickly cleared the debris and rebuilt the damaged section using the relatively new construction technique of reinforced concrete.

Tunnel #0 continued to serve the railroad faithfully in its modified state until 1942, when global geopolitical events began to conspire against it. With America's entry into World War II the year before, freight traffic on American railroads soared, and one of the many items being shipped were naval landing craft. These unique boats with their shallow drafts and drop-down bow ramps were essential to the American "island-hopping" strategy. Without them, American marines would never be able to wrest control of the South Pacific from the Japanese Army.

And this is where Tunnel Zero's unique design became its Achillies heel: Its tapered sides did not provide adequate clearance for the wide boats that would soon be passing through on their way from eastern manufacturers to the ports of the Pacific Coast. Reconstruction of the tunnel, it was determined, would take months, be extremely costly, and would necessitate shutting down the number one main line for the duration of the project. Such a price was deemed unfeasible, and as an alternative solution, engineers began to eye the original right-of-way which still lay abandoned, just a few yards to the south.

Work proceeded quickly from there, with several curves being adjusted and Deep Gulch trestle being replaced with an earthen fill. By mid-summer of that year, Track #1 was once again following its original alignment, and Tunnel #0 was left to history. While attempts were made in later years at transforming this structure into a mushroom farm, such ventures proved unsuccessful, and the tunnel is now slowly being consumed by the mountain from which it was carved.

Thanks to Paul Carr and Steven Cope for contributing information about this route.

3/15/10 Just got back from trip over Donner on Amtrak. Conductor said that UP is doing major overhaul of summit crossing due to congestion, new increased length of trains (with new remote control end locos) and introduction of double staked container trains that used to go over Feather River route. Looks like some of these parallel right of ways will be put back into use.

Ken
St. George, UT
3/22/2010

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I am starting to notice more comments like the one Ken made above appearing on various articles on this site. Although many new abandonments continue, hopefully this is a sign of increased rail use in the future?

Kevin M. Smith
Cicero, NY
6/30/2010

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The EB (#2 track) alignment involving Tunnel 40 at Troy was abandoned in 1975. The east end of T40 was protected by a continuous section of wooden snowshed. This section caught fire and the decision was made to relocate the EB track next to the existing WB track rather than replacing the burnt snowshed with a modern concrete snowshed. Also, the lack of a snowshed would permit drifting snow to fill up a deep cut at the east end of T40. It was easy to move the #2 track because it follows the old alighnment for Troy's center siding.

Randy
McAllen, TX
3/29/2011

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My father, Harry Lev was a passenger on train that was stuck on Donner Pass in the 1950's. He told of trails and heroes of that trip. I remember him being interviewed by Tony Kester of the Sacramento Bee after the ordeal and he underplayed what he and his fellow passengers went through.

warren lev
fresno, CA
10/20/2011

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I've been looking for Tunnel#40 for quite a long time. Thanks to you and your maps, I found it. Soon, I will be taking a vacation to Donner Pass and now I have one more thing to explore. Thanks, again.

Dave Feath
Harrisburg , PA
8/23/2012

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i grew up living in applegate as a teenager and tunnel zero was in my backyard. i never new the history behind the tunnel not being used by trains but it was used by myself and friends as it was my hideaway hangout. i often remember riding my dirtbike on the dirt roads and would occasionally get chased by s.p. patrol and this tunnel is why they never caught me.

bill hupp
elk grove, CA
3/9/2013

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there is a big gate now.

bobby
roesvill ca , CA
6/1/2013

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Just fyi and maybe I'm picking nits here, but track 1 over the summit was not abandoned in 1993. At least not as railroad companies use the term. It is still the Property of Union Pacific and they actually did work on it when they came through revitalizing the entire line over the past few years. Plans seem to be to work on relaying the track once the Sunset route double tracking is complete. This is a major bottleneck on the line currently.

John
Roseville, CA
4/30/2015

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Your info is WRONG! the only piece of track removed is from Switch 9 to Shed Ten, with double track from there to Norden, another stretch from Norden to Andover thru the Snowsheds You info says from Clipper Gap to Donner is wrong.

Mike Pechner
California, CA
12/27/2015

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When T0 was bypassed they DID NOT go to the south! They went around the tunnel to east. Going south would have required a crossing of #2. Original CPRR road bed is still visible to Deep Gulch off Clipper Gap Road a few hundred yards west of #1 grade crossing

David Ferreira
Auburn, CA
4/14/2016

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