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Amtrak, Travels, USA

Theodore Judah’s Lovechild

The train starts out at Emeryville: a modest bus terminal just north of Oakland. The Capital Corridor trains stop here as well as the connecting buses from San Francisco and other towns not served directly by Amtrak’s trains. An hour or two later, and the California Zephyr is in Sacramento. From here, we press East along the original route of the Central Pacific into the Sierra Nevada.

The Central Pacific was surveyed and championed by Theodore Judah, through the Sierra Nevada, as the first leg of what would become the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad, once joined with the Union Pacific, which built East from St. Louis, to Promontory, Utah. It was built to accommodate the rail technology of the mid-nineteenth century. This means wide curves and grades of no more than three percent. As we traverse high fills that reveal to us ever more striking views of the valleys below, punctuated by the next tunnel through the next mountain, we also encounter the occasional highway, that is less concerned with gentle grades and bends, and thus less exposed to fantastic views.

The longest tunnel on the line, two miles through a mountain, stalled the Central Pacific’s progress out of the Sierra Nevada to the flat desert wasteland of Nevada for nearly two frustrating years. Teams of Chinese laborers worked around the clock, pounding drills into the granite, until they got a hole appropriate to fill with black powder. Evacuate, light the fuse, boom, go back and clear out the pieces, and start drilling the next hole. Sometimes progress was as slow as six inches a day.

The tunnel was drilled and blasted from both ends, and another team was sent up over the mountain to blast a vertical shaft, from which two more teams were lowered into the mountain to work, spreading progress across a total of four tunnel facings.

The railroad was at first skeptical of Chinese laborers, but many of the Irish and other Easterners they hired had a tendency to wander off to the coal mines. So, the railroad hired fifty short Celestials to see if they were any good, and they proved most excellent. Despite their small size, they were hard, steady, intelligent workers. They took the wilderness and rough weather with better health because they boiled their water to drink as tea, and instead of drinking whiskey, preferred the relaxing vice of smoking opium on their day off.

We also passed through the last few concrete snow sheds. Many miles of snow sheds were built along the line because the terrible winter blizzards had a nasty habit of tearing out long sections of hard-won trackwork, necessitating not only repairs, but delaying work at the end of the line, which depended on the track to deliver needed material. Of course, these original wood snow sheds had a tendency to catch fire from the original, wood-burning, steam locomotives.

I believe a paramount frustration of building the Central Pacific was that all of the engines, rolling stock, and iron rails had to be shipped from the factories of the East Coast, carried across the jungle isthmus at Panama, and shipped thence up to Sacramento, where they could finally be unloaded, at three or four times their original cost. It was this same voyage through the Panamanian jungle that granted Ted Judah the yellow fever that killed him before the railroad could be finished.

Abraham Lincoln had also been a long-time proponent of the Transcontinental Railroad, promoting it first as a lawyer, then a lawmaker, and finally as President. It was an assassin’s bullet that denied him his dream of some day seeing California.

I missed whatever scenery Nevada had to offer, as I sampled the expensive, high-quality dinner offered in the dining car. As table space is limited, each table is filled with four passengers. This makes mealtime a nice chance to socialize with fellow travellers, though the majority are from the expensive sleeping-compartment section of the train, which gets free meals as part of their accommodations.

I took every other meal in the dining car, as the prices were not too much higher than what I’m used to in the Bay Area, and I figured that since I’d scored my ticket with an Internet discount for only $60, that it was not unreasonable to make up a little of that difference in the dining car.

I stretched out across two coach seats at night, changing my clothes the next morning in one of the larger “changing room” bathrooms. Sprawled across a pair of coach seats is not the greatest way to sleep, especially at my height, but then it is not like you have really demanding days on the train, which tend to consist of naps between bouts of scenic appreciation, reading, and visits to the snack bar or dining car.

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Categories: Amtrak, Travels, USA