Starlight Pavilion

Airshafts in the Snow

Iris Chang, The Chinese in America (Viking, 2003), p. 60:

In the Sierras, the railroad workers endured two of the worst winters in American history. In 1865, they faced thirty-foot drifts and spent weeks just shoveling snow. The following year brought the “Homeric winter” of 1866–67, one of the most brutal ever recorded, which dropped forty feet of snow on the crews and whipped up drifts more than eighty feet high.…

Making the best of the situation, the Chinese carved a working city under the snow. Operating beneath the crust by lantern light, they trudged through a labyrinth of snow tunnels, with snow chimneys and snow stairs leading up to the surface. Meanwhile, they continued to shape the rail bed out of rock, using materials lowered down to them through airshafts in the snow.

Our image of the railroad workers is drenched in the sunlight of the American West. They lay rail in the desert; they boil tea beside tents; they blast tunnels in the Sierra with nitroglycerin. They hang in wicker baskets at Cape Horn, by “an ancient method used to create fortresses along the Yangtze River gorges”, tamping dynamite into the rock. We forget they made cities in the snow.

December 2019