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The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn

Book Review
Folio, The Quarterly Journal of Patrice Press,
February 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1.  pp. 11-14.

Edson T. Strobridge, The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn, 1865-1866, 2001, published by the author, 6924 Live Oak Lane, San Luis Obispo, Cal., 93401-8011, phone 805 595 2273, e-mail  etstrobridge@fix.net, 42 pages with two maps and terrain profile graph, and 15 b & w photos on 11 supplementary pages, paperback, $8.50 + $1.50 s/h.

Reviewed by Frank L. Peters Jr. ... winner of the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism ...

Watkins Cabinet View. Cape Horn
Cape Horn (Watkins Cabinet View)

A dip into the copious stream of Golden Spike literature will soon introduce you to the Chinese laborers in baskets, "swaying on a thin rope's end over dizzy emptiness" (McCague, 1964). Their task was to get the first transcontinental railroad around "gigantic Cape Horn" (Sabin, 1919). Another writer saw in Cape Horn a "sheer granite buttress" whose "lower sides dropped away in a thousand-foot vertical cliff." When trains began to run, "passengers gazed straight down from their windows into thin air" (Lewis, 1938).

The Cape Horn track overlooked the North Fork of the American River, at an elevation above the bank given, according to which author you read, at as much as 3800 feet (Williams, 1988) or as little as 700 feet (Richardson, 1867, although in the same sentence he calls Cape Horn a "huge mountain.") One writer superimposes a 500-foot almost-sheer wall above the Central Pacific grade to the "2500 feet of sharp precipice below" (Morford, 1878). Another is more conservative about the slope of the rock wall, limiting it to 75° out of horizontal (Griswold, 1962).

"Here," Griswold says, "[James H.] Strobridge had to lower Chinese from the top of the cliff in wicker baskets." They "chipped and drilled holes for explosives, and then scrambled up the fines while the gunpowder exploded beneath. Inch by inch the roadbed was gouged from the granite" (Chinn, 1969). After the Chinese had cleared the grade, "the work train cam nosing after them, its grab irons and journal boxes literally hanging over space" (Saxton, 1966). A painting from around 1940, reproduced by Strobridge, shows workmen with big coolie hats hanging in baskets along a vertical rock face, the ropes going up to pulleys on little booms like those of a window-washer's scaffold.

The Chinese part in the enterprise was greatly magnified as writers entered the politically correct climate of the late twentieth century. "A Chinese interpreter approached Strobridge [the Central Pacific's superintendent of construction] 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 ... 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..." (Hoexter, 1976). The author added that the Chinese diet was healthier than that of the Caucasian workers, and that the Chinese workman bathed and changed clothes daily, "to the astonishment of his white neighbors."

Succeeding Golden Spike writers contributed poignant new details to the Hoexter account. The Chinese who came to offer his plan to Strobridge "politely waited, hat in hand ... The carving of roads that clung to cliffsides like birds' nests on inaccessible ledges, was very ancient art to Chinese engineers. Feats of road construction such as this had been commonplace in China for thousands of years. If .. their Yankee bosses sneered in disbelief at the thought, it was not new to Chinese technology" (Steiner, 1979). "Skeptical as ever, Strobridge gave his grudging approval, he had nothing to lose."

Hoexter remarked that "An occasional basket or wide coolie hat would be seen bobbing on the ... river far below. But no count was kept of Chinese casualties." A recent writer underscores the white man's callousness: "It was a safe bet for Strobridge — what could he lose but a few Celestials?" (Bain, 1999). Another limits himself to repeating Hoexter, saying "The CP did not keep a record of Chinese casualties" (Ambrose, 2000). "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" (Williams, 1988). In his colorful prose Prof. Williams describes the basket people "sometimes swaying in the wind like ornaments on some bizarre Christmas tree..."

Everything I have cited up to here is fiction masquerading as history, a will-o'-the-wisp, a 130-year accumulation of canned moonbeams. It's stuff written by people indifferent to the reality of their subject, and unwilling to lift a finger to find out how it really was.

To start with, the terrain, Cape Horn, so named by railroad surveyors, is not a "huge mountain" but a south-facing nose or rib on an irregular ridge between Bear River and the North Fork of the American River. The highest spots on this modest promontory are slightly over 2720 feet above sea level. The surveyors laid out a switchback-type curve around its south face to gain altitude at an acceptable rate of about 2 percent. The "cape" is fifty-seven rail miles northeast of Sacramento, in the western part of the railroad's big climb toward Donner Pass (el. 7044). The rock removed by the sidehill cut isn't granite, but a much softer, slate-like argillaceous mineral.

The average downhill slope to be dealt with was not vertical, not 75°, but about 50°. The length of the sidehill cut is about 1500 feet. The vertical distance from roadbed to river is about 1332 feet, the horizontal distance to the middle of the visible stretch of river about 4000 feet. Hence the line of view is only 18.4° below horizontal-not straight down as one writer, a railroad P.R. man, implies (Heath, 1927).

Since the slope was too steep to stand on, men-first the surveyors who marked the ascending line of roadbed, then laborers-were let down on ropes, walking backward. They may have been slung in a boatswain's chair, but more simply and more probably tied a padded rope harness around their waists. The laborers would have used picks to cut out a secure footpath at the prescribed grade, and drills to blow away projecting masses. With the path cut, work would have moved inward on the rock face, with more drilling and blasting of the high obstructions, more filling of two deep natural draws that cut into the outside of the grade.

Roped surveyors and work crews are attested by contemporary documents higher up the track, where the rock was granite and the going far more difficult. Newspapermen often rode up the Dutch Flat Wagon Road to report on work in progress nearer the summit, but Cape Horn itself lay well south of that road, behind rough terrain, and apparently no member of the press got in to see the roadbed there under construction. Only one professional comment on Cape Horn has survived. In a report dated Nov. 25, 1865, the railroad's chief engineer, Samuel S. Montague, says only that "The work at Cape Horn has proved less difficult and expensive than was first anticipated." It just wasn't a big deal.

Why, then, did such a jungle of pseudo-historical flimflam grow up around Cape Horn? When trains began to run over the Sieras, the Central Pacific was eager to spread word of the scenic beauty along its route.  The best overlooks, though, had their view obstructed by the snowsheds that were needed to keep the line open. Cape Horn offered a pretty good view and, lying relatively low, didn't need a snowshed. So passenger trains stopped there long enough to let tourists get off and enjoy the sights. Trainmen and CP representatives would be ready to feed them wonderful tales of how the line was built (the first mention of baskets that Strobridge has turned up is from an 1871 tourist guidebook).

To most people, a 50-degree dropoff at their feet looks like a cliff, and they could reinforce the impression of verticality by turning to the steep rock surfaces left by blasting on the inside of the cut.

These yarns coalesced in published "history." The next big plunge into fantasy was taken by Corinne Hoexter, cited above. It coincided with the spread through society of the Postmodern Left with its racial doctrines, in which nonwhites are presented as full of ancient wisdom and in every way superior to their dull, brutish white oppressors. Succeeding writers have elaborated on her story. Stephen Ambrose notes that the Chinese needed "little or no instruction in handling gunpowder" because their ancestors had invented the stuff.

Edson Strobridge has done what no other writer about Cape Horn evidently bothered to do—go there and inspect the terrain, study a USGS topographical map at 1:24,000 scale, look at old photos, and collect every document he could find, published and unpublished. His great-great-grandfather was a first cousin of the railroad-building James Harvey Strobridge, and that reinforced his desire to separate truth from fiction. He quotes at length from the purported histories in chronological order, comments on each, and includes data for the publications from which he cites, with page numbers. The photos are useful guides to the site. It's a small but substantial publication, showing the fruit of much industry.

Strobridge doesn't attack the basket story itself head-on, but I will. The very idea of a suspended basket as a work platform, under any conditions, is preposterous. On the actual Cape Horn terrain, a basket with its occupant would quickly hang up on a rock and go no farther. On an imagined 75° slope, the basket would quickly be torn by projecting rocks, along. with the hide of the poor occupant. On the face of the mythical 90° cliff, the worker's feet and legs, imprisoned in their container, would be useless for positioning and bracing himself, and any chips he did manage to dislodge while he twisted and swung would want to fall into the basket.

There are a few blemishes. Three times Strobridge gives the track-to-river elevation difference as 1322 feet, instead of 1332. Then there is his belief that the neuter possessive pronoun its is spelled with an apostrophe, it's, which is the contraction of-it is." He even substitutes the wrong form for the right one in his citations. I only mention this out of concern for the health of sensitive readers, in whom the solecism might provoke fibrillation, a seizure, or cold sweat.

Finally, some readers of folio may not yet know about www.topozone.com where you can swiftly call up any of the 56,000 USGS quads, examine details in scales up to 1:25,000, and download or print out what you want, all free. Enter Colfax (CA) to see the Cape Horn quad.

Frank Peters is the retired arts and architecture editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the winner of the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.

CourtesyGregory Franzwa,Editor, Folio, the Quarterly Journal of Patrice Press.  Copyright © 2002, Patrice Press.  Reproduced by permission. [Gregory Franzwa is founder of the Oregon-California Trails Association.]
Submitted by G.J. “Chris” and Carol Graves.

The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend of Cape Horn, 1865-1866.
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