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The Central Pacific Railroad


and the



Legend of Cape Horn


1865 - 1866




Edson T. Strobridge

San Luis Obispo, Calif.







The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn,

 Copyright 2001 by Edson T. Strobridge.  All rights reserved. No part of this  may be reproduced in any form without  written permission from the publisher.



Published by


Edson T. Strobridge

6924 Live Oak lane

San Luis Obispo, CA 93401-8011





I write simply the truth of history.


                                                                                                   THE AUTHOR







In an effort to "prove a negative" a great deal of research is required into source documents  that have been little used, if at all, by previous historians who have written on the subject over the years until some of the misinterpreted and inaccurate descriptions of people and events themselves have become a part of American folklore. That is exactly what has happened with  many of the described events attributed to the building of our nations first transcontinental railroad. Railroad histories are full of legends and made up stories by authors who have not done the research required and have embellished their descriptions in order to make their stories exciting and popular. In my quest to write the biography of James Harvey Strobridge, Superintendent of Construction on the Central Pacific Railroad I found his reputation to be much maligned. Many of the events he was responsible for have been so exaggerated and embellished  that they no longer represented the truth of history. Such is the case of the legend of building the railroad around Cape Horn, three railroad miles east of Colfax, Calif.. The story that follows represents my interpretation of what really happened, or didn't happen, as the case might be.


My research could never have been completed without the help of a few truly dedicated railroad historians that have dedicated years of their lives to their great love of history and it is to them I dedicate this effort "to prove a negative."


First, to my wife June Strobridge who never intended nor wanted to be a railroad historian but was always there for me and provided the encouragement to take on the challenge and see it through.



Chris Graves, Newcastle, CA for his help and expertise in local period research in source documents


Wendell Huffman, Carson City, NV, a research Librarian, author and expert in western history for all his help and advice..


Charles Mutschler, Professor of History, Eastern Washington State University, for his help with basic research.


Jack E. Duncan, Newcastle, CA, Author, for graciously providing copies of original maps of the 1865 Illinoistown (Colfax) to Dutch Flat Wagon Road.


Most of all, to my dear friend and mentor, Lynn D. Farrar, of Bothell, WA., who spent a lifetime with the Southern Pacific Railroad and research on the history of the of the Central Pacific Railroad. Lynn provided copies of many source documents, council on interpretations, criticism if deserved, praise if it was earned and was hell on spelling. Lynn once wrote me a letter scolding me for leaving the "h" off of Pittsburg(h). The only thing he asked of me was that I report the truth of history and spell correctly which I have tried to do. He is without a doubt an historians historian.


Last but not the least, to all the Inter-Library Loan Librarians all over the country who graciously made available rare and hard to find books and reference sources. God love 'em!.






Since the completion of the construction of the great Pacific Railway in 1869 the romance of its history and the beauty of  the country it has traversed has been reported in newspapers, journals, travelogues and travel guides the world over. Both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads promoted the Travel Guides that began to proliferate as early as 1867. Journalists were encouraged by the use of free travel passes on the railroads to report favorably on the railroads activities and the beauties and wonders of travel over the country's first transcontinental railroad.


Among the wonders of the construction locations over the High Sierras, Cape Horn, a rocky prominence about fifty seven railroad miles east of  Sacramento and three miles east of Colfax, came in for more than its share of attention. Its elevation was located a mile below the summit, well below the snow line, and consequently well below the forty miles of wooden snow sheds that prevented passengers from taking in the more spectacular views at the summit.  Cape Horn was used by the Central Pacific in its public relations efforts to promote travel due to its easy access and spectacular view across the American River Canyon with the American River located 1,322 feet below and about a mile distant from the vista at trackside. Passenger trains routinely stopped at Cape Horn to give the  passengers an opportunity to disembark from the train and take in the spectacular view. And thus began the building of the myth of how Cape Horn was constructed.

Cape Horn, large format view, CPRR.org Collection


Stories written since 1927, some 62 years after the event occurred,  had begun to expand on the earlier descriptions of how the roadbed was excavated along the side of this steep rocky mountain.  All the earlier Travel Guides and other contemporary sources described men with ropes tied around their bodies being let down from above until firm footholds were excavated on a narrow ledge so that the drilling and blasting could begin. Sheer vertical precipices, hundreds of feet above and thousands of feet below the roadbed and the use of baskets, swaying in the wind, used by the laborers pounding away drilling holes in the vertical cliff was not described in any way until nearly 85 years after the event took place. To this day one only has to visit the site and to see that the only near vertical rock face was the one that was blasted away to make room for the roadbed itself. The descriptions were vastly over exaggerated  as was the height of  the rock cuts and the depth of the "vertical precipices" below the track. There simply were no vertical precipices other than the ones constructed by the Central Pacific.  Eventually the myth developed that described the excavations along Cape Horn as being  made by "Chinese basket drillers," who had patiently waited, hat in hand, until they gained permission from James Harvey Strobridge, Superintendent of Construction, to weave their own baskets so they could be let down over the cliff. The legend has become so deeply rooted in the history of the building of the Central Pacific Railroad that each succeeding author who has written a railroad history has deemed it necessary to include the myth as a true description of events and then go on to add to embellish the story. What began as a brief description of a little more than 100 words has now become one that averages well over 400 words and has taken on a life of its own.


In  researching  the biography of James Harvey Strobridge I felt it necessary to try and find the proof of  just how this event occurred – were the stories fact or fancy?  Strobridge's life's descriptions on the railroad have been so exaggerated by so many authors who have failed to do the original research required to relate the accurate stories I felt it necessary to explore all the available sources in my quest for the truth. I am including in this study quotations taken from every available source that I was able to find. I have especially included those reference sources who other authors have cited as their source and have added comments of my own. I have reached my conclusion of what is true and offer the results of my research to those of you who care to review these resources and  draw your own conclusion as to what you believe to be reasonable  description of what really happened.


The written history of the building of  the Pacific Railroad is filled with myths and exaggerations that have never been accurately researched and described. Today more resources and access to source documents are available to students of history and serious historians than ever before. It is my opinion that the inaccurate stories, descriptions and exaggerations should be corrected by historical writers who are interested in recording our nation's history as accurately as can reasonably be done. Over the past fifty years many of our schools and Universities have blindly accepted and taught versions of our nation's past that are considered politically correct at the expense of  what is really true.  Well meaning historical groups, including the State of California, have fallen victim to these myths in their effort to honor our true historical past with historical markers, memorial plaques, signs and published local histories. The Pacific Railroad right of way abounds with many historical plaques placed at no small expense and effort by well meaning groups that are intended to honor or describe events that historically never took place. The memory of the Chinese laborers who contributed so much to the building of the Central Pacific Railroad has been exploited by well meaning writers, and others, who have failed to accurately portray the events of the time. Descriptions of the mountain and construction of the railroad at "Cape Horn" on the Central Pacific Railroad is one of these myths that have taken on a life of its own and which is the subject of this research.


As I have searched the sources of the stories written about the construction of "Cape Horn" I have determined what I believe to be the beginning of the fabrication of a story that has become myth in our own time. I have singled out  the words and descriptions in bold type that  were added to by succeeding authors so the reader can see for himself when and how the Legend of Cape Horn  came to be.



The Central Pacific Railroad


and the


Legend of Cape Horn


Laborers in Baskets, Fact or Fiction ?



An interpretation based on all the known contemporary stories, original documentation and comment on earlier published claims by previous Authors



                  The story of the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad around Cape Horn, a rocky prominence, located aprox three railroad miles east of Colfax, California and 57 miles east of Sacramento, is the subject of this paper. The stories written about this event are the basis of much legend and it  is becoming more and more  difficult to separate fact from fancy due to the many exaggerations, misinterpretations and made up stories that have been written over the years and made a part of the history of the first transcontinental railroad. This is an attempt to  make known all the documentation this writer could find, put it all into perspective, so the reader can determine for himself what he believes to be the most acceptable truth.


A review of all the contemporary source documents available indicate that:


1.     There is no mention of Cape Horn construction in the personal correspondence in the Collis  P. Huntington Papers, 1856-1901

2.     No Records mentioning Cape Horn have been located in the archives of the Southern Pacific Co.

3.     No descriptions were found in the 1887 U.S. Senate Pacific Railway Commission Hearings

4.     No mention in any of the many contemporary newspapers, both in the West and the East that were covering, almost daily, the construction of the Pacific Railroad.

5.     No description or mention, with one exception, in any of the testimony or later reminisces of the principals involved. J.H. Strobridge mentioned that the winter of 1865-1866 was the wettest on record and went on to describe the hardships encountered throughout the area both above and below Colfax but does not mention Cape Horn at all.


The one exception found was a statement made by the CPRR Chief Engineer, Samuel S. Montague in his November 25, 1865  Report of the Chief Engineer, where he states;  that "The work at Cape Horn has proved less difficult and expensive than was first anticipated."  Keeping in mind that Cape Horn was an early experience with heavy rock work on side hill cutting along the Central Pacific's line, it was also a learning experience for everyone involved, from the Engineers, Construction Superintendent, the Foreman and the white and Chinese laborers who actually did the work. The below transcribed letters between Edwin B. Crocker and Collis P. Huntington describing "sidehill rock cutting" and a first hand description by Robert L. Harris, a trained Civil engineer of how men were suspended by ropes certainly applies to what was learned at Cape Horn and may in fact be a reasonable explanation of how the roadbed  was constructed there and the success of the Charles Crocker and Co., contractors,  in rapidly completing the work.


The only first person descriptions of "side hill rock cutting", so far discovered on the initial construction of the Central Pacific Railroad written by observers at the time of construction,  has been found in the Collis P. Huntington Papers, 1856-1901 and The Overland Monthly, Volume III, San Francisco, A Roman & Company, 1869.  The collection of the personal correspondence between C.P. Huntington and his Associates has only been available to researchers & scholars since the early 1960's. As a result those who have speculated and written about how the Cape Horn roadbed was constructed before that time did not have the benefit of their recorded first hand accounts of how sidehill rock cutting was done. The 1869 Overland Monthly however has been readily available to all however no citations have been found that would indicate they had been researched or considered by subsequent historians.

Cape Horn Image


The Overland Monthly story "Pacific Railroad - Unopen", pgs. 244-252, was written by Robert L. Harris, formerly the Chief Engineer of the California Pacific railroad about his visit over the construction of the Central Pacific in 1867. His narrative not only describes "side hill rock cutting" but how "men were suspended by ropes from above" as he observed them. 

Neither of these two examples are claimed to be a description of observed activities at Cape Horn but without a doubt are an accurate description of how the work was done two years after the much smaller and easier Cape Horn work was prosecuted.


Extracts of two letters written by Edwin B. Crocker to Collis P. Huntington are transcribed below:




Sacramento, July 23/67


Friend Huntington,

"Never at any time has the work looked so well. The workman apparently working so diligently & everything moving so orderly. That work at the Summit is moving lively. The rock is full of seams. The men work the earth out of the seams with long hooked iron rods & then a keg or so of powder is fixed in them which cleans out and opens the seam, then 10 or 20 kegs are put in & the explosion sends rock flying clear out of the way. This side hill rock cutting, though it looks large, is the cheapest & quickest got out of the way. That Summit work will all be ready before the track can be laid to the Summit."


                                          Yours truly,

                                               s/  E.B. Crocker


Two and a half weeks later:


Sacramento  Aug. 10/67


Friend Huntington,

I have just returned from a short trip to the Summit tunnel. The heavy rock at the Summit is progressing splendidly & in one month more there will be very little left of it. I was perfectly astonished to see the amt. done since I was there only less than three weeks ago. The thing is done up scientifically. They work the rock up to a face, then go back 3 or 4 ft. from the face, put in a hole 12 to 20 feet deep, fill it with powder which is only powerful enough to "spring a seam", cracking the rock enough so that powder can be poured in. Then they put powder in by the keg, from 1 to 50 kegs, according to its size. The effect is to blow the greater part of the rock clear over the cliff & out of the way. It is a sight to see these heavy seam blasts go off. It makes the earth shake like an earthquake. But the rock rapidly disappears & and it begins to look quite like a R.R. there.                                                             

                                                                        Yours Truly,

                                                                  s/  E.B. Crocker

Cape Horn Image
From Buel's America's Wonderland, c -1893
as published in "Collis P. Huntington", Cerinda Evans, 1954

Cape Horn Image
Artists interpretation of Cape Horn Construction based on the Legend of workmen
being suspended over a vertical precipice that never existed c-1940



The Overland Monthly, Vol.III, 1869;  "The Pacific Railroad-Unopen, by Robert L. Harris, pg. 244"


"Here let me give one or two incidents which occurred along and in the vicinity of the above mile and a half (east of the Summit) in the old times, when there was not even a path for adventurous engineers." "The only way for the chain-men to work along these cliffs and those of the northern sides was by being suspended by ropes from above, the chain bearers signaling to those holding the ropes, up or down, forward or back."

In several places where one side of the roadbed was at grade, the other slope would be seventy feet in cutting." "With one drilled hole, eight feet in depth, 1,440 [cu] yards of granite were thrown clear from the roadbed."


As Cape Horn  was a soft rock, sometimes being described as "soapstone" or a "slaty rock as commonly found on the western slope of the Sierras the difficulty did not compare with the granite excavations at the Summit. 


The view from the Cape Horn vista across Green Valley and down to the American River  was a spectacular one and the Central Pacific gave it a lot of publicity by stopping passenger trains along the steep mountainside. This allowed the travelers to take in the magnificent views and brought the location into national prominence. Even though it was not the most spectacular view along the road, it was one of the few not enclosed within the miles of wooden snowsheds constructed  over the summit which obstructed the view of the beauty of the Sierra crossing from the passengers. The fact that the roadbed had been blasted from this rocky outcropping made it that much more spectacular to think about and the CP Publicity men did their work well. Cape Horn soon became one of the places on the Central Pacific to see and the Tourist Guides of the day began telling their stories about the exciting and dangerous construction along this steep bluff.


The construction at Cape Horn did not attract any publicity from the contemporary newspapers and so the stories told by the popular Tourist Guides became the source for later authors. The reader should keep in mind that these Tourist Guides were written to generate interest in our first transcontinental railroad and the newly discovered wonders of the West. They sometimes copied each other's descriptions and were often subsidized by the railroads in their efforts to promote travel. They were not written as, nor intended to be, historical records of the events of the day.


A review of all the contemporary writings that could be located and the more important works that followed  have been listed as a source, a brief extract of the text with a comment by this author as appropriate for clarification. Following are extracts taken from several of the Tourist Guides descriptions of the construction:

Cape Horn Image

Cape Horn Image
Cape Horn from Colfax, C-1982
E.T. Strobridge photo

Cape Horn Image
Truss Bridge installed at east end of curve #149
to replace retaining wall and unstable fill removed c 1893


The Early Tourist Guides




"The cars now (1867) run nearly to the summit of the Sierras. At the time of my visit (Sept. 1865) the terminus was at Colfax, thirty five miles* east of Sacramento. Thence we took horses for twelve miles. Upon this little section of road four thousand laborers were at work — one tenth Irish, the rest Chinese. They were a great army laying siege to nature in her strongest citadel. The rugged mountains looked like stupendous ant-hills. They swarmed with celestials, shoveling, wheeling, carting, drilling and blasting rocks and earth, while their dull, mooney eyes stared out from under those immense basket-hats, like umbrellas. At several dining camps we saw hundreds sitting on the ground, eating soft boiled rice with chopsticks as fast as terrestrials could with soup ladles. ... Cape Horn is a huge mountain around whose side track winds upon a little shelf seven hundred feet above valley and streambed." [1]  (* Colfax is 54 miles east of Sacramento)


Comment: The author, Albert Richardson, a newspaper reporter for the New York Tribune, had arrived in Sacramento in late August 1865 and included on a tour to the end of track (at Colfax) as guests of Stanford and Charles Crocker. Richardson includes the above description in his narrative for his book, "Beyond the Mississippi." It is not evident that by Richardson's description that he even saw Cape Horn except perhaps at a distance and certainly not from the "little shelf seven hundred feet above valley and streambed." It  is also not evident that the Colfax party traveled over the right of way around Cape Horn as the Long Ravine Trestle and Bridge had not been completed at the time of this trip and there was no room to pass the construction activities along the narrow bench around Cape Horn. Railroad supplies, travelers and the ever increasing freight traffic continued to use the well traveled road located between Colfax (Illinoistown) and Dutch Flat that had been constructed in early 1864 by a Mr. Madden[2] to accommodate the Nevada and Idaho mining traffic and passed several miles to the north of the Mountain labeled "Cape Horn." The Chinese workman Richardson observed were more probably working between Secret Town and Dutch Flat, eight miles or more northeast of Colfax where the only available road joined the railroad where the construction could accommodate the 4,000 men that he describes.


Cape Horn Image



"When the road was in the course of construction, the groups of Chinese laborers on the bluffs looked almost like swarms of ants, when viewed from the (American) river. Years ago, the cunning savage could only find a very round-about trail by which to ascend the point, where now the genius and energy of the pale face has laid a broad and safe road whereon the iron steed carries its living freight swiftly and safely on their way to and from ocean to ocean.


When the roadbed was constructed around this point, the men who broke the first standing ground were held by ropes until firm foot-holds could be excavated in the rocky sides of the precipitous bluffs." [3]


Comment: The American River is one mile distant from the view point on Cape Horn. It would not be possible to see men amongst the rock and brush at that distance without a very strong glass, if in fact the author had climbed down to the river in order to make his observation. The "cunning savage" would have had no reason to have had to cross around the face of "Cape Horn" as there was a much better route through the area, the same route that the white man eventually built his road. As the railroad could not exceed a 2.2 % grade they were required to take the long way around the  mountain and across the Cape Horn route in order to maintain a practical grade.

Cape Horn Image
Rounding Cape Horn, Watkins New Series c-1870's
(CPRR Passenger train westbound at curve #149)

Cape Horn Image
View of Cape from west end above Long Ravine c.1880

Cape Horn Image
View of Cape Horn from ranch 600 feet below.
Thomas Houseworth & Co. photo c-1870




"From Summit Station, we may here observe, ... the line is carried along the edge of declivities stretching downwards for 2,000 or 3,000 feet, and in some parts on a narrow ledge excavated from the mountain side by men swung from the top in baskets." [4]


Comment: This narrative description could have described several places along the Central Pacific line west of the Summit however is included here as it makes the first reference to the use of "men swung from the top in baskets." The writer later describes "Cape Horn Mills", makes no mention of the construction and only a very brief description of the location of  Cape Horn itself. It is most likely that this exaggerated description is nothing more than an effort to capture the interest of travelers. The Cape Horn roadbed is 1,332 feet above the American River, not the 2,000 to 3,000 feet related.




"When the road was in the course of construction, the groups of Chinese laborers on the bluffs looked almost like swarms of ants, when viewed from the (American) river" ... "When the roadbed was constructed around this point, the men who broke the first standing ground were held by ropes until firm footholds could be excavated in the rock sides of the precipitos (sic) bluffs.[5]


Comment:  Same verbatim description as used in 1869 edition as written by Bill Dadd (see above)

Cape Horn Image

Cape Horn Image

Cape Horn Image




A letter written by Caroline Amelia Trapp Chickering to her mother, dated Oakland, Cal. Thursday, Nov. 9, 1876 after she arrived in California by train in 1876:


"At 7:00 we were to round "Cape Horn". Miss Carmony and I were disturbed though, and we could not sleep after three, so we rose and dressed, but when we went out on the platform the snow-sheds shut out everything. So after while we concluded to lie down until nearer dawn. Between six and seven we made our way out to the last car, not withstanding the fact that we had to pass through some Immigrant cars, and there we had a glorious view. The track is laid around this point, Cape Horn, on the side of a mountain so precipitous that the first workman had to be lowered from the bluff above by ropes. Away below is the American River, called beautiful in the Guide Book ... "  [6]


Comment:  The obvious source of Miss Chickering's description of the workmen came from her "Guide Book".

Cape Horn Image




"The first workmen on this rocky point - hardy industrious Chinese - were held steadily by the aid of rope tied securely around their bodies. Thus they hammered away at the rock, until they made for themselves standing room, appearing like swarms of ants on a loaf of sugar." [7]


Comment:  There is no evidence that Chinese laborers were the first workman at Cape Horn or that they were even used at all at this location.

Cape Horn Image




 The author narrates a story as told to him by a "General" who was a passenger with him on a train on a  run up from Junction to Truckee that (Leland) "Stanford had taken him up the line to show the 'General' what they had done." Under the heading "The General's sensation at Cape Horn" he told how Stanford had shown him "the greatest spectacle that [he] ever expect[ed] to see, until they commence to put up that great tramway to the moon. Down the face of the very worst peak to be surmounted, they had that day commenced lowering men, with ropes around their waists and pickaxes in their hands; and there, at the point you passed when you came over, now called Cape Horn there they hung, five hundred feet of rock almost sheer above them, and about twenty-five hundred feet of sharp precipice below, picking away at that solid granite to make places into which to put their feet to begin picking, drilling, and blasting for the road." [8]

Cape Horn Image




"Cape Horn. — Around the Cape, the railroad clings to the precipitous bluff at a point nearly 2000 feet above the river and far below the summit, where the first foothold for the daring workman on the narrow ledge was gained by men who were let down by ropes from the summit" [9]

Cape Horn Image
Locomotive at Cape Horn during construction of the 1886 trestle. Image courtesy Placer County Department of Museums, Carmel Barry-Schweyer and Alycia S. Alvarez.



Published Histories of the Pacific Railroad




"Early in the spring, (1865) throwing forward one of those high curving trestles (in this case 1100 feet long) with which the road strode across the deep gorges and ravines, the rails moved out of Colfax for the attack upon the gigantic Cape Horn. Here a bed had been literally chiseled from the granite slope so sheer that the laborers, yellow and white, were suspended by ropes while they hacked, drilled and blasted, 2500 feet above the rushing American River." [10]


Comment:  This description is taken from Edward Sabin's "Building The Pacific Railway," written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Pacific Railroad.  Unlike the Tourist Guides cited above, this work was the first modern history written and the foundation from which later writers would build more extensive and complete histories of the Pacific Railroad. Sabin was in error in the above description as the Long Ravine Trestle was 878 feet long, not the 1,100 feet which was the actual length of the Secret Town trestle  constructed much later.[11] The Cape Horn roadbed is 1,332 feet above the American River, not 2,500 feet. The mountain is not granite but a much softer rock better described as slaty.[12] Sabin, who had  once been an employee of the Central Pacific Railroad, was able to include some information developed from correspondence with the last living construction official on the Central Pacific Railroad,  James H. Strobridge.




"Cape Horn, into the steep side of which the grade was carved had proved less difficult and expensive than anticipated. Here the line was thrown into the hill sufficiently to form the roadbed in solid cutting" . . . "It was at Cape Horn that workers were lowered over the cliff in 'bosun's chairs'and did the preliminary cutting, suspended 2500 feet above the American River." [13]


Comment:  This is the first reference to the use of "bosun's chairs" in an aid to letting the workman down from the top at Cape Horn. It was written by Erle Heath, Southern Pacific Public Relations Dept, and published in the May 1927 issue of  "Southern Pacific Bulletin".

A bosun's chair is defined as "a wooden plank or canvas chair for a worker hung by ropes over the side of a ship, building, bridge, etc."  Mr. Heath does not describe his source for his use of the term "bosuns chairs"  however it is not unreasonable to assume that the rope tied around the men was in fact a sling that was used to suspend the workman and may have had a board or canvas seat, hence the description "bosun's chair.  The "preliminary cutting" confirms the work done to construct a bench or ledge from which the workmen continued to work at drilling and blasting the rock from the face of Cape Horn, either with or without being tied with safety ropes.


Cape Horn Image




"Cape Horn, a sheer granite buttress, proved the most formidable obstacle of the year; its lower sides dropped away in a thousand-foot vertical cliff that offered no vestige of a foothold. The indomitable Chinese were lowered from above by ropes, and there, suspended between sky and earth, chipped away with hammer and chisel to form the first precarious ledge, which was then deepened to a shelf wide enough to permit the passage of cars. Three years later, when overland trains crept cautiously along this ledge, passengers gazed straight down from their windows into thin air. Cape Horn was successfully passed in May 1866." [14]


Comment:  This description is taken from Oscar Lewis's "The Big Four". It is obvious Mr. Lewis never saw Cape Horn and draws from earlier descriptions previously cited above. He then goes on to embellish his description as if to imply the laborers were hanging on the end of a rope above a thousand-foot vertical cliff chipping away with a hammer and chisel and makes the event exciting and dramatic for his readers.  His description of "passengers gazing straight down into thin air" is  totally made up in an effort to make his story more exciting. It simply is not true, then or now.  (Note: Lewis does not describe the use of baskets )


Jack Chen in  "The Chinese of America"  pp. 69-70, 1980, expands even further Lewis's embellished description by including the use of baskets used by Chinese construction crews at Cape Horn and cites Oscar Lewis, "The Big Four",1938, (above) as his source. There is no evidence that Chinese laborers were used at this location. Between these two authors the Chinese basket myth is beginning to expand beyond any accurate historical description. (see page 23)

Cape Horn Image




John Debo Galloway's book is included as his descriptions have been used by and cited as references by later authors. Mr. Galloway, a Civil Engineer, has written "The First Transcontinental Railroad"  as seen through the eyes of a professional engineer and does not get into the day to day details of everyday construction as later authors have. His only reference to Cape Horn is a brief description:  "One notable feature of his work (Lewis Clement's) was his location of the line around a steep mountain cliff called Cape Horn, some three miles from Colfax. Here the road is 1,200 feet above the American River."  [15]


Comment:  Mr. Galloway's book is not a popular history but the reader will find that that his book, published seven years after his death, is one of the most accurate without any embellishment of the documentation he reports on and to date reports the most accurate elevation above the American River.




Cerinda W. Evans, in her biography  of Collis P. Huntington cites Erle Heath's "Southern Pacific Bulletin" of May, 1927, pg. 12 as her source of information: "At a point on the line called "Cape Horn," the road was cut out of the almost perpendicular mountain side about fifteen hundred feet above the American River. To enable the Chinese to drill and blast out a foothold, they were lowered over the cliff in bosun's chairs supported by ropes to do the preliminary cutting." [16]


Comment:  Cerinda Evans misquotes, paraphrases and embellished Erle Heath's May 1927 description in "The Southern Pacific Bulletin."  See page 15  (1927) for Mr. Heath's actual words. He states "workers" were lowered over the cliff in bosun's chairs" and did the preliminary cutting suspended 2500 feet above the American River." Evans has misinterpreted and however inadvertent made up her description of the construction at Cape Horn by changing and adding to what Southern Pacific's Erle Heath has reported making her entire description inaccurate. 




The author, Wesley S. Griswold, in his Book "A Work of Giants" describes a trip made by Schuyler Colfax and  three journalists, Albert Richardson among them. (see (1867) above):  "Not far beyond Colfax, they rounded the spectacular point of Cape Horn, a nearly perpendicular promontory that pitched southward at an angle of 75 degrees toward the slate green North Fork of the American River, 1,400 feet below the line of the railroad. Here Strobridge had to lower Chinese from the top of the cliff in wicker baskets to chip out holes for the initial charges of powder. By now repeated blasts had blown away enough rock to form a secure ledge for the track around the face of Cape Horn. The view was both grand and chilling." [17]


Comment:  Schuyler Colfax and the two journalists unnamed (Samuel Bowles & Lt. Gov. Bross of Illinois) left Colfax, returned to San Francisco, traveling by ship, crossing at the Isthmus of Panama and had arrived in Springfield, Mass. by Sept. 25, 1865.[18] without ever traveling beyond Colfax and consequently never saw any of the construction at Cape Horn.


Here is the first mention of "lowering Chinese laborers from the top of the cliff in wicker baskets." Griswold inserts this description into the middle of citations taken from Albert D. Richardson's book, "Beyond the Mississippi" which leads his readers to believe he may be paraphrasing Richardson. Richardson made no such claim. Richardson did travel from Colfax to the Summit with a party of railroad officials and surveyors but did not travel by way of Cape Horn and consequently never saw that area as the  route was not passable for travelers. It is most probable that the party traveled on the well traveled wagon road to the Summit used by all travelers, Stage Coaches and freight haulers to the Nevada mines.


Griswold's description is  totally made up without any foundation, documentation or basis in fact.  His report of a 75 degree slope is an obvious  exaggeration  apparently an attempt to justify his claims of lowering a man in a basket. 




"October [1865] came, with 5,000 men and six hundred horse and mule teams delving at the Cape Horn approach" ... "The winter had been a mild one in California. Of the thirteen miles of grade to Dutch Flat, about eight of them had been put in before the first of the year. [1866] Methodically hewing and shoveling, Crocker's coolies had cut their way out around the face of the massive granite promontory as long as the footing lasted. After that they worked in bosun's chairs swung out into thin air from the top of the precipice high above. White miners were brought in to teach them how to sink holes into the sheer rock with hammers and cast iron hand drills, tamp in the gunpowder and cut fuses. In spite of the language barrier the Chinese, with their aptitude for precise imitation, proved ready learners. Swaying on a thin rope's end over dizzy emptiness did not bother them. Neither did the danger inherent in the use of gunpowder; their ancestors, after all, had invented the stuff. They soon caught onto the principle of cutting fuses of varying lengths for each round of charges, so that all would go off in one hugely cataclysm of sound and destruction, tumbling tons of rock and earth down the precipitous slopes. ... Yet the Engineers, and Charlie Crocker, found cause for encouragement. Hard though the work was, slowly as it went, Cape Horn was proving less difficult than anticipated." [19]


Comment:  The author, James McCague, a former newspaper man, "later holding positions in sales promotion and publicity began to write fiction prior to 1960; author of four novels, including two with—not surprisingly—railroad backgrounds" has included the above description in his book Moguls and Iron Men, The Story of the First Transcontinental Railroad. His descriptions of the Cape Horn construction have no basis in fact and are embellishments of the story references he has used. He provides no cited references to his story source for the Cape Horn construction and his map on page 145  misidentifies the location of Cape Horn itself. The winter of 1865-66 was one of the wettest on record, not a mild one as stated by McCague, and is well documented in testimony taken during the 1887 US Senate Pacific Railroad Hearings, a basic source for the original statements and documentation of the building and organization of the Central Pacific Railroad and one that Mr. McCague made no claim to reviewing. McCague's description of the Cape Horn construction is made up and totally without any basis in documented fact other than his last statement that Cape Horn was less difficult than anticipated, a quote which was taken from the Chief Engineers Report  by Samuel Montague.




"In the spring of 1866—three  years after the start of construction—the Central finally came up against its first major outpost of the High Sierra. This was Cape Horn, a rocky buttress around the base of which the American River rumbled through its thousand foot deep canyon.  No detours were feasible. The only route was the half circle traverse across the slabs and angles of rock. Chinese laborers were lowered in baskets. They chipped and drilled, scrambled up from the lines while charges of gunpowder roared beneath them; drilled again. Inch-by-inch they hacked out a ledge wide enough for men to walk on; wide enough for a wheelbarrow; wide enough at last to receive eight foot sleepers. As the gang moved forward, the work train came nosing after them, its grab irons and journal boxes literally hanging over space."  [20]


Comment:  The author, Alexander Saxton, candidate for a doctorate at the University of Calif., Berkeley (1966) published a twelve page essay entitled "The Army of the Canton in the High Sierra", a story of the Chinese laborers that worked on the Central Pacific Railroad. His description above of the construction activities at Cape Horn are cited from second and third generation sources and list references that do not support the statements that he has made. He further embellishes the descriptions he uses with no basis in fact. Cape Horn was constructed in 1865, not 1866. Saxton provides  no first hand sources describing the use of baskets and the American River does not "rumble around the base of Cape Horn." which conjoins Burnt Flat, approximately 1200 feet above and over a half mile from the American River. It is not apparent that Saxton has ever seen the Cape Horn site he describes so poetically. His use of the term "eight foot sleepers" refers to the wooden ties used to support the rails and is a term commonly used in the east but rarely used on western railroads. His statement of the work train nosing after the crew moved forward may be true after the rails were being laid however this did not occur until several months after the sidehill rock cutting had long been completed.




"In the fall of 1865 the Chinese laborers of the Central Pacific, derisively called by some, 'Crocker's pets,' came up against Cape Horn, a nearly perpendicular rocky promontory. At that point the American River is 1,400 feet below the line of the road. Chinese workmen were lowered from the top of the cliff in wicker baskets. The basket men chipped and drilled holes for explosives, and then scrambled up the lines while the gunpowder exploded beneath. Inch by inch the road bed was gouged from the granite."[21]


Comment:  Editor Chinn cites W.S. Griswold, A Work of Giants, p.123 as his source. However his description only paraphrases Griswold and then goes on to add statements taken from other texts without naming his source. Chinn's writers may have been mislead by Griswold who has made up this account but have further added to the myth by other made up claims which cannot be supported. i.e. "scrambled up the lines while the gunpowder exploded beneath."




"Building the Central Pacific road over and through the granite walls of the Sierra Nevada was literally by hand. Chinese were lowered in baskets over cliffs two thousand feet above the base of the American River Canyon to chisel a roadway through the granite reaches and occasional shale deposits for the iron rails." [22]


Comment:  This statement is attributed to Erle Heath in his Trail to Rail, Southern Pacific Bulletin, Chap. XV, p. 12. and taken as an extract and included as part of a generic description in a SP Public Relations Department release, dated Jan. 3, 1966. This description  is in conflict with what Heath has stated in his May 1927 issue of the Southern Pacific Bulletin. The above description makes no reference as to where or when the use of  workman being lowered in baskets but implies it was at Cape Horn. This SP Public Relations Department release is not a dependable source for research and it is doubtful that it was ever intended to be anything more that a popular account for public consumption.




"Not long after the first Chinese arrived from Canton, Strobridge & Crocker came up against a literal stone wall, a nearly perpendicular cliff, called Cape Horn, that rose 1400 feet above the American River at an angle of seventy-five degrees.


A Chinese interpreter approached Strobridge and said that in the Yangtze valley it was often necessary to build along the faces of cliffs as steep as these. Let him bring reeds up from San Francisco to weave baskets. Soon the Chinese were sitting up late around campfires weaving round, waist-high baskets big enough to hold a man. It was an immemorial pattern used for the high work in China. At each of the positions of the four winds, an eyelet was woven into the basket. Symbols were printed on it to repel the evil spirits.


When the whistle blew at 6:a.m., the Chinese marched off with the baskets suspended between two of them, a rope secured to each eyelet. At the top of the precipice the four ropes were further lashed to a central cable. Then, with two men to haul each basket, one man got in and was lowered along the cliff face. Swaying in the wind, he chipped and drilled into the face of the rock and inserted the powder charge. Quickly, he scrambled up the cable while the charge spluttered and flashed, erupting at last in a spray of pulverized stone.


At the end of a long day the Caucasians and Chinese marched away to their separate quarters and their well earned dinners. But first each Chinese filled his tub with hot water from a giant boiler that the mess cook had ready. Behind the tent, he sponged himself and changed clothes, to the astonishment of his white neighbors,


The evening rice was made savory with an array of imported delicacies — oysters, abalone and cuttlefish, mushrooms and bamboo shoots, exotic fruits and vegetables, seaweed all imported from China, the mysteriously revived with warm water. Absolutely essential was the tea from which was served to them on the grade several times a day by a coolie who carried it in powder kegs, filled from thirty or forty gallon whiskey jugs. Probably the better health and endurance of the Chinese resulted from their better - balanced diet. The Caucasian workers ate beef, beans, bread, butter and potatoes eternally. The water they drank was sometimes unintentionally a cause of illness.


All summer and fall and on into the winter, the dangling Chinese worked at their perilous task. It took three hundred men ten days to "Clear and grub a mile of right of way." Not every cable held, not every Chinese shinnied up the rope in time. An occasional basket or wide coolie hat would be seen bobbing on the surface of the American River far below. But no count was kept of Chinese casualties. By winter, the monument to the labor of the living and the dead was a roadway wide enough for several men to pass abreast, and it rounded the corner of the promontory."  [23]


Comment:  The author, Corinne Hoexter, a popular writer at the time she wrote her book was a free lance writer at home with children working on historical/biographical books for teenagers and wrote this book on the subject of Chinese immigration. Mrs. Hoexter makes it clear in her Acknowledgments that she is a researcher and writer of the role of minorities and immigrants in American history. She does not make any claim to being a railroad historian and has relied on previous railroad historians for her descriptions of the construction at Cape Horn. Her book is clearly cataloged as "Juvenile Literature" by the Library of Congress




"On a high sheer cliff towering above the gorge of the American River, the roadbed of the railroad was to climb fourteen hundred feet up the sides of the precipitous rock face. There were no ledges. There was not even a goat trail. The blasting crews chipped away at the seventy-five-degree incline for days. Inch by inch, they advanced less than a foot on some days."

"The tale is told of how one day a Chinese work foreman came to see Strobridge. He politely waited, hat in hand, until he could speak. 'Maybe, we can be of some help.' He supposedly said, 'My people, you know, built the Great Wall of China! Of stones' "

"The carving of roads that clung to cliffsides, like birdnests on inaccessible ledges, was very ancient art to Chinese engineers. Feats of road construction as this had been commonplace in China for thousands of years. If the ability of the men from Kwangtung to hang from cliffs at dizzying heights and to blast a road out of midair seemed amazing to their Yankee bosses, who 'sneered in disbelief' at the thought, it was not new to Chinese technology. ... Skeptical as ever, Strobridge gave his grudging approval, he had nothing to lose."

"The men wove great baskets, large enough to hold several workmen, of tall reeds and vines. On the waist-high baskets they knotted four eyelets, in the directions of the Four Winds, and inscribed them with the proper prayers. Ropes were tied to the eyelets and the baskets, each holding two or three men, were slowly lowered from the edge of the cliff down to the sight of the marked roadbed hundreds of feet below. In the swaying wind, the Chinese workman set dynamite blasts in the rock face and swung away for their lives with all their might. Many fell below. many died. But in a few weeks the roadbed had been blasted from the rock. They were 'becoming expert in drilling, blasting and other rock work,' said the railroads engineer, Sam Montague. The Summit lay ahead." [24]


Comment:  The above is a direct quote from the book Fusang, The Chinese Who Built America.

The author, Stan Steiner, who writes with scorn upon the use of bibliographies,  goes on to add "In the empirical halls of academia the writer who is personal and subjective is considered suspect or, at the very least, unscientific. The writer can escape this stigma by compiling a bibliography that seems impersonal and wholly objective. By doing so the writer is saying in effect saying, now don't blame me entirely for whatever you may think foolish. I am merely quoting someone else. ... In saying that, may I offer this list of books for what it is worth. Not too much, I would think." Steiner goes on to offer thirteen pages in his bibliography and admits he has copied much of it from other authors' work. He has paraphrased, added to and embellished the description as found in "From Canton to California" by Corinne Hoexter, a popular writer, and written for midyear schoolchildren and offers no citations or credits. Of the many references he offers in his bibliography, he does not mention Hoexter at all much less his primary source. At best, this description of the construction of the roadbed at Cape Horn is no more than a made up story, the foundation of which is taken from the works of other authors and totally without any basis in fact.




"At Cape Horn, a promontory overlooking the American River, five miles above Colfax by rail, the Chinese met their first challenge. Lowered over the cliff in 'bosun's chairs,' the Chinese did the preliminary rock cutting while suspended 2,500 feet above the river."  [25]


Comment:  The author, John R. Signor is a professional trainman with the Southern Pacific railroad and has authored a number of books, richly illustrated with photographs which he credits to the Southern Pacific Archives and many well known railroad historians and photographers. Signor had the support of the SP Management and their Public Relations personnel and had access to archives not readily available to others. His reference to "bosun's chairs"  obviously comes from the May 1927 issue of the Southern Pacific Bulletin. Mr. Signors incredible photograph collection shows that the Cape Horn slope was nearer to 50 degrees rather than the 75 degrees as reported by others.  Two errors are evident, the actual elevation of the roadbed is 1,332 feet, not "2,500 feet above the river" which is misleading as the river is nearly a mile away, as measured from the USGS Map, Colfax Quadrangle, California, 7.5 minute series. The cliff referred to is a very steep slope of about 50 degrees, too steep for a man to stand on, but not a cliff for one to be lowered over.




"Charlie Crocker divided his growing pool of labor five ways. The largest of his work crews—some five thousand men and six hundred teams of draft animals—were sent ahead four miles east of Colfax to work on Cape Horn, an immense spur of granite rising some 3,800 feet above the American River ... The huge gang sent to Cape Horn, which soon resembled a giant ant hill swarming with celestials ... Somehow they had to create a roadbed along the almost sheer sides of the granite monster. In early September, Strobridge turned his Celestials loose on Cape Horn with their picks, drills, shovels, tiny wheelbarrows, and blasting powder.  The Chinese who either were not susceptible to acrophobia or possessed a singular wealth of fatalism—began to sculpt the mountain, great chunks of which were blasted or pried loose to tumble ... into the American River far  below. Hundreds of barrels of black powder were ignited daily to shear away the obdurate granite and for a ledge on which a roadbed could be laid ... Montague suggested to Strobridge a new tactic, to which the Chinese headman agreed. Beginning amidst the chill winds of late October ... scores of Chinese were lowered by ropes from Cape Horn's summit to the almost vertical cliff face. There, nestled in flimsy-looking but strong woven baskets, the workers, sometimes swaying in the wind like ornaments on some bizarre outdoor Christmas tree, bored holes in the cold rock with their small hand drills. Dangling they tamped their explosives that had been lowered to them, set and lit the fuses, signaled the men above, and ... then scrambled up the lines while gunpowder exploded beneath. ... Some of the Celestial acrophiles were not agile enough to escape the blasts or were hit by flying rock and followed the chunks of granite into the valley below." [26]


Comment:  The description above was written by John Hoyt Williams, a history professor at Indiana State University. Even though he does cite two sources, (McCague, 1964, p.110 and Chinn, 1969, p.45 ) Williams takes McCague's quotation completely out of context and embellishes it with his own made up claims that do not accurately reflect his cited quotations. Thomas Chinn cites Griswold as his source and also adds to and embellishes his reference, misrepresenting  Griswold's already made up story. None of the above descriptions have any basis in fact, include copies from statements in the citations mentioned above which he has altered and is entirely the authors interpretation of what he perceived happened. This is a most fanciful tale, poetic license at its worst and full of exaggerations and made up stories. One claim stands out that reasoned judgment cannot let pass: first, the Charles Crocker & Company, contractor on the Central Pacific did not have 5,000 employees in September 1865 much less four more work crews and secondly the Cape Horn construction site was not large enough to accommodate 5,000 men much less 600 teams of draft animals.  Williams describes Cape Horn as having "almost sheer sides" which is far from an accurate observation. It is obvious that Prof. Williams never saw Cape Horn and probably little if any of the Central Pacific Railroad right of way.




"If the 'Mountain Spirit' resented the Engineers, then what would it have thought of the toilers on the west slope of the Sierra, especially those addressing the forbidding, obstructive cliff face above Colfax? Named Cape Horn ... this sheer mountainside towered over the American River, two thousand feet below. ... With an incline of seventy five degrees, not even the sure footed surveyors had broached it; they had merely sighted on the far end and drawn a steadily climbing, wholly theoretical line across the cliff. The Cantonese were to take care of it, producing a seven-foot wide shelf from which a wider platform could be scraped and blasted—and they were aided by picks and shovels, hand drills, wheelbarrows, and one horse dump carts, and the unlikeliest of materials, the humble, bendable reed."


"Daily progress was measured in inches, kegs of black powder consumed by the hundreds, as  slowly a narrow shelf lengthened alongside the yawning gulf and its roiling green river far beneath the laborers. A month passed. Cape Horn resisted. The ingenious breakthrough has been attributed to Samuel Montague, who was certainly resourceful, but it is far more likely that inspiration came from the Chinese themselves. Back at home, longer than anyone could remember, in places like the deep canyons of the Yangtze workers had been lowered down the cliff by a rope in large woven baskets, which enabled them to work in more efficient lines across the heights. If Strobridge were to send down to San Francisco for reeds, the Cantonese would weave such baskets and submit themselves to this new, highly dangerous work. It was a safe bet for Strobridge—what could he lose but a few Celestials?—so he agreed. With materials in hand, the Chinese worked through the evenings fashioning waist high baskets, with four woven grommets to hold the rope, and decorated with symbols to ward off both mishaps and evil spirits. Two men were required to lower a swaying basket down the cliff, its occupant sometimes losing his hat to the gusts of wind, until the man reached his appointed place and began hammering and drilling at the granite face. Then there was the cautious tamping of powder into the hole, the difficulty of striking a match to the fuse in the wind, the wild shout of success, and the worker scrambling out of his basket, up the ropes, the alerted men above hauling him up as fast as they could, the dull crash of the explosion just below him, the spraying of granite dust and rock fragments arcing out over the gulf and down to the distant American River, containing—this time but not always—no unfortunate immigrant whose unrecoverable bones would never be returned to the homeland." [27]


Comment:  The author, David Haward Bain cites  Corinne Hoexter's  (From Canton to California) (1976), a book written for mid year schoolchildren, and uses her description as his primary source. Also cited is Thomas W. Chinn (ed), A History of the Chinese in California: a Syllabus (1969) whose only contribution is a claim that "the basket men ... scrambled up the lines while gunpowder exploded beneath." Bain paraphrases Hoexter's already glowing description and adds to and embellishes it further until the story no longer represents, even remotely, the events that were represented to have actually taken place. The basis of this entire account is constructed from second and third generation sources.




"Strobridge divided his work crews into five parts. The largest, some five thousand men and six hundred teams of horses, were sent ahead of Illinoistown (Colfax) to work on Cape Horn. ... One of the most feared stretches ran three miles along the precipitous gorge of the North Fork of the American River, nicknamed 'Cape Horn.'  The Slope was at an angle of seventy five degrees, and the river was twelve hundred to twenty two hundred feet below the line of the railroad. There were no trails, not even a goat path. The grade would not be bored through a tunnel, but rather built on the side of a mountain, which would require blasting and rock cuts on the sheer cliffs. The mountain needed to be sculpted, because the roadbed would be curved around the mountain. The curves that hugged the monolith were either up grade, or sometimes down. Men had to be lowered in a bosun's chair from above to place the black powder, fix and light the fuses, and yell to a man above to haul them up. ... One day in the summer of 1865, a Chinese foreman went to Strobridge, nodded, waited for permission to speak. When it was granted, he said that the men of China were skilled in work like this. Their ancestors had built fortresses in the Yangtze gorges. Would he permit Chinese crews to work on Cape Horn? If so, could reeds be sent up from San Francisco to weave the baskets?"

"Strobridge would try anything. The reeds came on. At night the Chinese wove baskets similar to the ones their ancestors used. The baskets were round, waist high, four eyelets at top, painted with symbols. Ropes ran from the eyelets to a central cable. The Chinese went to work—they needed little or no instruction in handling black powder, which was a Chinese invention—with a hauling crew at the precipice top."

"Hundreds of barrels of black powder were ignited daily to form a ledge on which the roadbed could be laid. Some of the men were lost in accidents, but we don't know how many: The CP did not keep a record of Chinese casualties. ... The Chinese workingmen, hanging in their baskets, had to bore the holes with their small hand drills, then tamp in the explosives, set and light the fuse, and holler to be pulled out of the way. They used a huge amount of powder that was shipped to them from Sacramento." [28]


Comment:  This description is written by Stephen E. Ambrose, Professor of History, University of New Orleans, Louisiana,  and is taken from his book, "Nothing Like It In The World, The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. Ambrose has taken his description of the Cape Horn event from other modern writers, among them John Hoyt Williams' "Great and Shining Road." The one citation he does make, (25) " Great and Shining Road," p.142, does not exist at that location and would not have described the events at Cape Horn in any event. He provides no credits or citations for his claims and has paraphrased John Hoyt Williams, Professor of History, University of Indiana (1988)  and Corinne Hoexter, a popular writer of a mid year children's book, From Canton to California (1976). Ambrose goes on to add to and embellish the description of the events that occurred. He contributes no original source documentation and does not appear to have done any research into the Cape Horn event. Ambrose's  description is the latest example of a totally made up story that he has contributed his own embellished version to what other writers have described.



How steep was Cape Horn originally ? - as compared with today ?


There are no known photographs of  how Cape Horn appeared before the original construction of the railroad nor are there any known contemporary first hand descriptions. All the existing photographs from the late 1860's up to the widening in 1929 easily lead to assumptions made that there was a reasonably uniform face to the bluff and the face did not exceed more than about 50 degrees. That can still be measured and concluded today as evidenced by the USGS topographical maps, the aerial photograph and others included in this publication.


Since the first draft of this paper being made available to other historians, an original Central Pacific Railroad survey profile of Cape Horn has been discovered.  Correspondence between the author and Mr. Lynn Farrar, Valuation Engineer, Southern Pacific Transportation Co., retired,  who has analyzed the Right of Way and Profile maps had this to say. "A review of Exhibit E [Profile Map of Cape Horn] shows that the face of Cape Horn was not a continuously smooth one [but] with a number of gullies creasing the surface. The profile shows only what the original ground looked like at the centerline of track when built 1865/1866. There is no way, absent the original engineer's field notes, to tell what the grading cross sections were. It is obvious these notes were available to the person or persons who made up this profile, there being no other way to do it."


In reviewing of the original profile it appears that at track centerline there were at least  three fills [at the gullies] estimated as ranging in depth from 7 to about 48 feet, several locations that the track elevation met a natural grade and approximately  five separate locations with cuts varying from a very irregular 31 to 70 feet, 8 feet to 4 feet, 48 feet to 57 feet and one from approximately 7 feet to 31 feet in depth with the total length of the face of Cape Horn estimated to be approximately 1,500 feet. From this profile map and available photographs Mr. Farrar has hypothesized what the original slope at track center line could have been assuming various angles of that slope and makes it very clear that any assumptions on slopes and distances are just that, assumptions, as there are no original survey records available. It does seem prudent in expressing degree of slope at Cape Horn to say that the original slope appears to vary from 45 to 70 degrees, at least at track center line. As viewed on the profile map it appears that the five major cut areas ranged in width from 100 to 200 feet with the largest cut at the east end of curve #150 of approximately 400 feet.


Excavated material pushed or thrown over a steep slope will come to an angle of repose of about 45 degrees. The many thousands of cubic yards excavated in 1865, the many yards cleared of slough offs 1865-1913 and the widening in 1929 restoring the track to the original roadbed, all or most of was disposed over the edge, still retain the natural slope of about 45 degrees.  The cuts above the roadbed today that appear to be almost vertical actually do not exceed aprox. 70 degrees at the greatest incline at curve #149 and 50 degrees or less in general. From this writers observations the irregular face of Cape Horn that the original builders faced are long gone and today Cape Horn's appearance no longer shows the rocky outcroppings and gullies the men of the Central Pacific blasted their way through to build the roadbed to Promontory.




It is this writers opinion that the legend of Cape Horn began to develop about sixty years after the event took place, probably during the late 1920's after the May 1927 issue of the Southern Pacific Bulletin  described "Chinese workman lowered over a cliff in Bosun's Chairs, supported by ropes to do the preliminary cutting" [see above] which was the first time such a description was used. Each succeeding author who wrote about the building of the Central Pacific Railroad began to build on the story, adding his own interpretation and embellishing the story until it not only did not represent any realistic truth about how the roadbed was constructed around Cape Horn but did not accurately describe the geography itself. Not one author  of any of the twenty three publications referred to above cites any contemporary sources, documented facts or references to the Cape Horn construction that accurately bear out the story being told. Each succeeding author refers to a previous author as his documented source, or none at all, and when that source was checked the truth of what really happened has disappeared into the imagination of literary license.


The construction of the roadbed around Cape Horn, difficult as it may have been, was a non-event. There are no contemporary references in any of the newspapers either local or national nor any found in the Southern Pacific's archives other than the one comment by Chief Engineer Samuel Montague who states in his report of November 1865 that "the work at Cape Horn was less difficult and expensive than first anticipated". The personal letters of Judge E.B. Crocker to Collis P. Huntington and by engineer Robert L. Harris describing how side hill rock cutting was accomplished [see above] and the descriptions given in some of the early tourist guides of men supported with ropes tied around their bodies while picking away to make a foothold are the most logical methods used. The rocky prominence was not sheer or perpendicular but had a very irregular 45 to 70 degree slope as evidenced in the contemporary photographs and the CPRR profile map. Certainly too steep for a man to safely stand on without support from above but far from the sheer precipice that men in baskets could be lowered over. The description of the "Chinese Basket Drillers"  are romantic but not true. Edwin L. Sabin [see above] describes the laborers as being both "yellow and white." It was not until 1927 when Erle Heath of the Southern Pacific's Public Relations Department  mentions the Chinese and then exaggerates by "lowering them over a cliff". The Chinese became the dominant working force on the Central Pacific railroad however the first Chinese were not hired until March 1865, approximately  four months before the Cape Horn construction was under way. There is no evidence that they were trained in the use of rock blasting until much later when they reached the summit tunnels and the side hill blasting on the eastern slope of the Sierra's. The Southern Pacific's Public Relations Department did their part in furthering the legend by sponsoring the legendary painting of the Chinese Basket Drillers and going so far as having the scene painted on the wall of Union Station in Ogden, Utah (since removed).


Cape Horn was a tourist attraction then as it is now and as spectacular a view as it is the more spectacular views at the Summit of the Sierras were not exploited as they could not be seen by rail travelers due to the track being covered by snowsheds for over forty miles. The legend was born out of the railroad's Public Relations Department efforts to stimulate interest in the scenic wonders of the West and promote rail travel,  later to be embellished by writers and historians who failed to do the basic research. Unfortunately, in the minds of many the legend has become an accepted part of our nation's history and historians have done little to correct the myth.


All the opinions are mine, arrived at by several months of research and trying to track down the references used by published authors who have provided citations for their documented sources that seldom proved to have any basis in fact. Sources such as the local newspapers of the period from July 1865 through June 1866 were all reviewed and there was not one story or reference relating to the construction at Cape Horn and precious little at Long Ravine above Colfax. Teamsters and travelers over the Sierras used the existing roads which were miles shorter and several miles distant which bypassed the Central Pacific's Cape Horn loop entirely. Consequently very few ever saw the activities during construction unless they were a part of it.


My interest in publishing this paper lies only in the telling of the truth of history and encouraging others to expose the false reporting of historical events used by those who fail to ferret out the truth.



Enjoy !


Edson T. Strobridge

San Luis Obispo, California


[Updated June, 2003]

[1] Beyond the Mississippi - From The Great River to The Great Ocean & Adventure on the Prairies,  

  Mountains & Pacific Coast; by Albert Richardson, Hartford American Pub. Co., 1867

[2] Placer Herald, Auburn, Calif. June 25, 1864;  "Road Improvements"

[3] Great Trans-Continental Railroad Guide ... By Bill Dadd, The Scribe, Chicago, Geo. A. Crofutt & Co. 1869,

   Section entitled "Cape Horn  pg 202.

[4] Nelson's Pictorial Guidebooks: The Central Pacific Railroad, T. Nelson & Son, 42 Bleeker St., New York,


[5] Crofutt's Transcontinental Tourist's Guide, forth vol., third annual revise, 1872, pg. 177, para. 1

[6]  THE CALIFORNIANS, Volume 12/No. 1, pg. 9

[7]  William Minturn's Travels West, Pub. by Samuel Tinsley, 10 Southampton St., London, 1877, pg. 227

[8]  Morford's Scenery and Sensation Handbook of the Pacific Railroads and California, by Henry Morford,

   1878, pp. 160-164

[9]  The Pacific Tourist, Adams & Bishops Illustrated Trans-Continental Guide of Travel, 1884, pg. 252

[10]   Building the Pacific Railway by Edwin L. Sabin;  J. B. Lippencott, 1919, p. 114

[11]   Lynn Farrar, Valuation Engineer, Southern Pacific., Retired;  correspondence with the author July 13, 2001

[12]   Guidebook of the Western United States, Overland Route, Bulletin 612, U.S. Geological Survey,

     pp. 210 & 211

[13]   "From  Trail to Rail"; by Erle Heath; Southern Pacific Bulletin, May, 1927, pg. 12

[14]   The Big Four; by Oscar Lewis, Alfred Knopf Publishers, 1938, p.75

[15]   The First Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific-Union Pacific; by John Debo Galloway,  Simons- 

      Boardman, New York, 1950; p. 84

[16]   Collis Potter Huntington by Cerinda Evans; The Mariners' Museum. Newport News, Virginia, 1954,
      Vol. I,  p. 156,  p. 376, Notes and References, Chapter XXVIII, No. 2

[17]  A Work of Giants by Wesley S. Griswold; McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1962, p. 123, 337

[18] The Springfield Daily Republican, Sept. 25, 1865 p. 2:2&3

[19]  Moguls and Iron Men by James McCague; Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1964, pp. 108-110, 143-

     144 & 371

[20]   The Army of the Canton in the High Sierra, by Alexander Saxton;  Pacific Historical Review, Vol.XXXV,

      1966, University of California Press, Berkeley;  pp.144-145.

[21]   A History Of The Chinese In California: A Syllabus, Thomas W. Chinn, Editor, Published by the Chinese

      Historical Society Of America, 1969. pp. 43-48

[22]   "Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific", by George Kraus, Public Relations

      Dept,. Southern Pacific Company as published in the  Utah Historical Quarterly, Winter 1969, Vol. 37,  

      number 1, pages 41-57 (This document was included in "National Golden Spike Centennial Commission

      Official Publication "The Last Spike is Driven")

[23]   From Canton to California, the Epic of the Chinese Immigration,  by Corinne Hoexter, Four Winds Press,

      New York, 1976, pp. 74, 75, 76, 282.

[24]   Fusang, The Chinese Who Built America, by Stan Steiner; Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1979,

      pp 133, 134, 239, 240

[25]   Donner Pass, Southern Pacific's Sierra Crossing, by John R. Signor; Golden West Books, 1985, pp. 

      20, 21, 287, 288

[26]   A Great & Shining Road, by John Hoyt Williams; Times Books, New York, 1988, pp. 113, 114.

[27]   Empire Express-Building The First Transcontinental Railroad, by David Haward Bain, 1999, Published by

      the Penguin Group, New York, pp. 238, 239 & 728

[28]   Nothing Like It In The World, The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869, by 

      Stephen E. Ambrose; Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000, pp. 156, 157 & 392.



About the Author



Edson T. Strobridge is currently writing the biography of James Harvey Strobridge who was the Superintendent of Construction on the Central Pacific Railroad as well as most of the of the mainlines of the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1863-1890. His research has uncovered the truth about many of the events that earlier historians have either badly distorted, simply copied from other authors without verifying the truth or in fact just made up their stories of what really happened while these historical events were taking place.


Many of the stories written in the past about events that occurred during the years James Harvey Strobridge was actively involved with these two great railroads have been written since about 1920. Several of these legends have been adopted by, added to and embellished by historians who have failed to do the necessary research to accurately report these events as they actually happened. Consequently, in the railroad histories written since about 1938, there now exists many romanticized stories that are nothing more than the figment of collective imagination of the authors who promote their work as a true interpretations of the events they record.  Nothing could be further from the truth.


Mr. Strobridge's intention in this paper is to demonstrate what legends are made of and how the Cape Horn legend came to be. As history is a record of past events then historians who write about such events must be responsible and accountable for telling the truth when the truth is available. Stephen E. Ambrose said it best when he said: "Nothing is relative. What happened, happened. What didn't happen, didn't and to assert it is to lie.*"



(*Forbes Magazine, Oct. 2, 2000; Big Issue V: The Worlds best Writers take on the World's Biggest Topic "What is True" pg. 110)                                                

The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legends of Cape Horn, Edson Strobridge, 2002

Courtesy of the author, Edson T. Strobridge.

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