In Memoriam: Chinese Train Tunnel Workers

There used to be a train route, the South Pacific Coast Railroad, that connected Alameda and Santa Cruz by way of San Jose. The stretch of track between Los Gatos and Felton was built between 1876 and 1880.

37 Chinese workers died during its construction: more than one death for every mile of track. This post is in their memory.

All of the following quotes are from Sandy Lydon’s Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region.

First, an overview of the scope of the project:

the SPCRR route included a 6,243-foot tunnel at the summit, a 5,325-foot tunnel between Laurel and Glenwood, and six smaller tunnels through ridges along the line […]

Chinese did all the grading, tunneling, track-laying, and ballasting, while whites built trestles and supervised the construction. (93-4)

The summit tunnel between Wrights and Laurel was the cause of the Chinese deaths:

By mid-1878, as Chinese crews worked at both ends of the tunnel, a pocket of coal gas was truck at the north end of the tunnel Oil seeped from the walls of the tunnel, collecting in pools on the tunnel floor, while gas mixed with air in the tunnel, createing an extremely volatile and dangerous situation. The oil was scooped up and removed in tins while the gas was burned off (“flashed”) every ten minutes so that the Chinese could work at the tunnel face […]

On February 13, 1879, during a routine burning of the coal gas, some oil caught fire and a sheet of flame roared through the tunnel. […] The tunnel acted like a huge cannon, and railroad cars and equipment standing outside the tunnel were blown about like toys by the force of the explosion. […]

Amazingly, none of those in the tunnel were killed in the initial blast, but […] five of the injured Chinese died […] (96-7)

Inside the Wrights tunnel, North end. Credit: Vaughn Aubuchon.

Inside the Wrights Tunnel, north end. Credit: Vaughn Aubuchon.

Understandably, the Chinese were reluctant to start working again, which led to outright conflict:

Several days after the explosion, foreman Patrick Daily fired a Chinese working in the south end of the tunnel for “being lazy.” A brawl broke out between the the Chinese crew and their supervisors, resulting in assorted scalp wounds, broken teeth, and bruises. (98)

The entire Chinese crew quit. South Pacific Coast replaced them with white workers, but after a few months (in May) hired a new Chinese crew. These new Chinese workers were quick to assert themselves as well:

In June  foreman Nick Borrosey, frustrated by a Chinese who seemed to be shirking his work, told the laborer to leave the tunnel. When Borrosey tried to forcibly eject the man, the crew charged the foreman, and amid “a shower of picks and drills,” Borrosey ran back toward the mouth of the tunnel. As he did so, he turned and fired several shots at the crew, killing one of the Chinese.

Several days later all work stopped when gas and oil in the tunnel ignited and burned steadily for two weeks. The suspicion grew that the Wrights tunnel was cursed. (98)

Obviously, the two-week-long fire was probably worker sabotage, but as Lydon wryly comments, “It was [cursed]” (98). Several months later, the worst explosion of all occurred:

On the night of November 17, 1879, twenty-one Chinese and two whites were working at the tunnel face 2,700 feet into the mountain when a small dynamite charge ignited some undetected gas […]

Hearing the explosion, twenty Chinese rushed out of their tents and into the tunnel to rescue their comrades. When they were 1,500 feet into the tunnel, a second explosion occurred […]

Of the 41 Chinese in the tunnel, 24 were killed outright and the remaining 17 were badly burned […] seven of the burned Chinese died, bringing the death toll of the explosion to thirty-one. Though badly burned, the two white supervisors who had been in the tunnel eventually recovered. (99)

Lydon quotes the Santa Cruz Sentinel about the sufferings of the wounded Chinese:

The cabins are filled with mutilated Chinamen, some shrieking with the excruciating pain they are undergoing,; others praying in their native tongue to their countrymen to kill them and put an end to their sufferings, or beseeching the God of Fire to have mercy upon them and cease his torments. In most of the cabins tapers [of incense] are burning, the perfume from which serves somewhat to temper the sickening odor of roasted flesh. (99)

Most of the bodies were buried at a makeshift cemetery a mile north of the Wrights Tunnel. A third crew of Chinese was finished to finish the tunnel:

A new crew of Chinese was hired to work in the north end of the tunnel, but when they arrived in January 1880, they would not occupy the tents of their dead countrymen nor enter the tunnel until “the devils they asserted were in the tunnel” were driven away. Incense was burned and lucky red papers were plastered on the portal of the tunnel. Finally, after two Chinese who “shook like aspens” were coaxed into the tunnel to show that it was safe, work resumed.

The morale of the Chinese working on the cursed north end of the Wrights tunnel was so poor that the company finally hired a crew of Cornish miners to replace them, while the remaining Chinese worked on the south of the tunnel. (100)

There were, thankfully, no more fatalities during the remaining construction of the Wrights tunnel. However, it wasn’t the end of Chinese employees of South Pacific Coast dying on the job:

In February 1881 a huge mud avalanche swept down a mountain above Felton and buried a camp of Chinese railroad workers. A dozen bodies were eventually recovered, but it was not known how many others might have been swept down the rain-swollen San Lorenzo River and into the ocean. (101)

There’s one other story to be retold, from the early days of the railroad’s construction. This story has to do with resistance to a tax collector:

When the railroad was working up at the Los Gatos Canyon in July 1878, Fred Farmer, Santa Clara County’s Deputy Assessor, heard that a payday was scheduled and drove his wagon to the railhead just as the money was being distributed. He stood next to the paymaster and began collecting the two dollar road tax as each Chinese worker as paid. […]

The Chinese surrounded the tax collector, screaming at him in Chinese and brandishing their picks and shovels. Farmer drew his gun and retreated back to his wagon, threatening to shoot […]

At the day’s end Farmer had to return along the same route, and “with Chinamen to the right of him, Chinamen to the left of him, Fred drove bravely on through a parting volley of rocks.” (95)

To provide some context, “In 1878 the railroad paid 77.5 ¢ per day for each Chinese laborer” (94). One can understand why the Chinese workers were loathe to pay over two days’ wages in road taxes.


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