The Horrors of the Summit Tunnel

The history of Wrights Tunnel in the Santa Cruz Mountains—once the second longest railroad tunnel in California—is a tale of death, greed and bigotry.

Goat Trails

by Ryan Masters
Dec. 8, 2014—When something unspeakably horrifying happens, is the energy of that event somehow stored where it occurred? Or am I simply projecting my own fears on this place?

It is pouring rain. I am standing before a gaping black tunnel below the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Two gushing tongues of runoff lash the grim gateway. They spill from the structure’s shoulders into a foaming pool of deep, muddy water and swirl. Long tendrils of vine hang from its brow. The inside of the tunnel’s mouth is luridly painted with a dark carnival of graffiti. I peer into it, trying to see where it leads, but there is only blackness.

When describing the hero’s journey, the American mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” That statement has no bearing on this story. Unless you consider mutilation and death treasures.

This tunnel is known to history as Wrights Tunnel, named after the man who once owned the property on which I stand. It was also referred to as Summit Tunnel, Big Tunnel and Tunnel No. 3 during the 27 cursed months it took to build, between 1877 and 1880.

The construction of Wrights Tunnel was the most daunting aspect of a very daunting project—the South Pacific Coast Rail Road (SPCRR). Envisioned as a narrow gauge track through the labyrinth of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the SPCRR was designed to connect Santa Cruz to Alameda. More specifically, it was designed to extract a fortune in redwood from the timber reserves in the San Lorenzo and Pescadero Basins and make a handful of men very, very wealthy. Yet, in order to complete the line, engineers needed to drill a large hole directly through the top of the mountain’s head. At nearly a mile and a quarter from end to end, it would be the second longest railroad tunnel in California.

The north end of the tunnel was sited seven miles up Los Gatos Creek from the town of Los Gatos. Today, what was once called Wrights Station is a ghost town. There is nothing here but the somber portal. The rest of a once-thriving community has altogether disappeared. Supposedly, some building foundations and debris from the town still exist in the dense woods, but I find no trace of them.

On a rainy December day in 1877, a day very much like today, a team of Chinese laborers made their first, messy blasts and cuts into the sodden, muddy wall of the mountain. The work was slow and frustrating. “Rotten sandstone” and clay oozed back into the cavity nearly as fast as they could extract it. Despite around-the-clock shifts, crews only progressed five and a half feet into the mountain each day. What had initially appeared to be a 10-month project suddenly looked like it might take at least three times as long. It would end up costing far more than just money.

At the time, 90 percent of the workers on the SPCRR were Chinese. Cheap, efficient and dependable, these 900 men were vital to the success of the railroad. But what they were not was liked by many Californians. The previous decade had been plagued by a recession and, much like today, “immigrants” were a convenient scapegoat for the high unemployment rate. In May 1879, the State of California was set to vote on a new constitution, part of which banned the use of Chinese labor and punished corporations for employing it. This was a problem for the SPCRR. They had to move quickly or risk losing their cheap workforce.

# # #

One of the most vociferous detractors was Santa Cruz Sentinel editor Duncan McPherson, who frequently published hateful invective calling the Chinese a curse on California. “Chinamen are not citizens in any sense of the word,” he wrote in 1878. “They do not grant us the miserable boon of letting their heathen carcasses manure our soil, but ship the bones of their dead to the land of Confucius for final interment.” Ironically, he also praised the railroad project and crafted equally florid editorials boosting the commercial growth it promised.

Unfortunately, McPherson’s racist rants reached an audience far beyond Santa Cruz County and fanned the flames of xenophobia across the state. Unsurprisingly, incidents of violence grew more common between the Chinese laborers and their white foremen. Yet the SPCRR needed the Chinese and continued to pay them 77 cents a day to bore further into the mountain. Disconcertingly, the nature of the excavated rock began to change. It appeared coal black and smelled increasingly like petroleum.

As relations between the laborers and management deteriorated, so did the working conditions. Chinese laborers began passing out deep in the tunnel, overcome by methane gas that had begun filling the cavity. Many of the Chinese, keenly aware of methane’s highly inflammable nature and the dangers of asphyxiation, left the Santa Cruz Mountains to work elsewhere. Those that did not soon wished they had.

By mid-November of 1878, the tunnel reached 2,300 feet into the mountain. A petroleum-like substance now seeped fairly regularly from the crevices in the rock and had to be “burned off” every five or ten minutes to avoid a dangerous build up. On the night of February 12, 1879, the inevitable happened. While lighting the fuse on a dynamite charge, the swing shift foreman ignited a pocket of gas. The resulting explosion blew a roiling wall of flame out of the tunnel like a charge from a cannon. While the foreman somehow survived, five Chinese laborers did not. Yet these “mangled and blackened bodies” were just the mountain’s opening salvo against the burrowing invaders.

Meanwhile, thanks to Duncan McPherson’s bigoted editorials, anti-Chinese violence worsened in Santa Cruz. Perhaps it dawned on McPherson that inciting violence against the workforce responsible for making the county wealthy was unwise, but it did little to tone down his hateful rhetoric. Relations between the Chinese workers and their foreman suffered accordingly.

The company began pumping fresh air into the tunnel through pipes to avoid another explosion, but the Chinese remained deeply reluctant to return to work. Word spread that the Summit Tunnel was cursed. The mountain did not want them there. Fights broke out between the foremen and their crews, resulting in broken teeth, bruises and scalp wounds. One Chinese worker was shot and killed. A pall of death hung over the project.

The company briefly experimented with white laborers but these men “utterly failed” at the demanding tunnel work. The railroad was forced to rehire the Chinese crews with a pay raise—$1.25 per day.

On July 14, 250 feet of timber used to support the tunnel caught fire deep in the bowels of the mountain. The engineers had no choice but to simply seal off the fire with a makeshift door and wait. The hellish tunnel burned for weeks.

By October 4, just 1,000 feet of mountain remained between the north end of the one tunnel being dug from the north, and a respective tunnel that had been one concurrently being dug from the south. The Sentinel reported that both crews were boring through solid granite, suggesting the absence of any more volatile petroleum or gas.

They were dead wrong.

# # #

One minute before midnight on November 17, 1879, a crew of 21 Chinese laborers and two white men were preparing a blast 2,700 feet inside the mountain. The fire ignited a massive pocket of gas and, according to the Sentinel, there was “a roar and shock that shook the mountains from base to summit.” As the two white men stumbled from the tunnel covered in terrible burns, a force of 20 Chinese charged past them in an effort to rescue their countrymen. These brave men only made it 1,500 feet into the tunnel before a second, larger explosion rocked the mountain. The tunnel belched forth a “sheet of lurid flame” that consumed everything before it—including a group of white men congregated at its mouth.

Would the scenes within the tunnel and about the entrance be faithfully pictured, it would send a thrill of horror through every reader of the Sentinel. The stench of burning flesh, combined with the escaping gas, is almost overpowering anywhere near the portal. The cabins are filled with mutilated Chinamen, some shrieking with the excruciating pain they are undergoing; others praying in their native tongue to their countrymen to kill them and put an end to their suffering, or beseeching the God of Fire to have mercy upon them and cease his torments. In most of the cabins, tapers are burning, the perfume from which serves somewhat to temper the sickening odor of roasted flesh. (“Fatal Explosion,” The Santa Cruz Sentinel, Page 2, Nov. 22, 1879)

The next morning giant mirrors were placed at the mouth of the tunnel to reflect sunlight into the tunnel. Due to the residual gas, search parties were fortunate to reemerge alive. Inside the tunnel, they found a grotesque and infernal scene—the charred outlines of corpses, mangled machinery and flesh, the splintered wood of cross-timbers.

The death toll: 32 lives.

Work on both ends of the tunnel was shut down and the railroad’s completion was uncertain. In the wake of the tragedy, Santa Cruz Sentinel Editor Duncan McPherson reached jaw-dropping new heights of callousness. On December 6 he wrote, “Laboring men say the Chinese must go. Send them into the oil-gas end of tunnel number 3. They will then wing their flowery way to the Celestial land or hunt the sources of the fires that keep the volcanoes in perpetual motion.”

Yet in January 1880, the company brought a new crew of Chinese workers to finish the cursed tunnel. They burned incense and etched prayers upon the support timbers prayers to drive away the devils. Yet the curse proved too powerful. The terrified men refused to enter the tunnel, let alone finish the project. The company had no choice but to move the Chinese crews to the south end of the tunnel and hire a team of Cornish miners to complete the project from the north. The Cornish miners averaged four feet a day compared to the Chinese crew’s eight.

On March 13, the Cornish and Chinese miners blew a hole through the final chunk of stone separating the north and south ends of the tunnel and the two crews met in the middle of the mountain. By late April, the Summit Tunnel was finally complete.

# # #

Rain continued to pour down as I stood in front of the gaping black tunnel and meditated on the death and mutilation that had occurred deep inside its throat 135 years ago.

Local historian Sandy Lydon points out that Chinese immigrants believed that those who die without proper acknowledgment and respect become “hungry ghosts” capable of evil until they are reunited with their families. By all accounts, the 32 victims of the Summit Tunnel explosions were haphazardly buried alongside the track somewhere north of Wrights Station. Their bodies were eventually swallowed by the mountain and forgotten.

One week after the railroad began operation in the spring of 1880, an “excursion train” returning from Big Trees derailed, killing 13 passengers. The tragedy cast another funereal shroud over what should have been one of Santa Cruz’s most shining triumphs.

It is hard not to suspect some dark, karmic connection. Perhaps, as Lydon suggests, the death and dismemberment on present-day Highway 17 is also be the work of these neglected spirits.

Standing at the mouth of the tunnel, I am inclined to agree with him. There is something very wrong with this place. I wade into the pool of foaming water and clamber up into the tunnel. In the dim light, the graffiti on the arching walls is a gloomy riot of color—like a clown that’s been face down in the gutter for a few days. I hesitantly make my way to the back of the tunnel, which is choked with dirt, wishing I had brought a flashlight. It is very dark back here. When I hazard a glance back out the tunnel, the skull-shaped entrance looks disproportionately far away and I fight the urge to escape.

On April 4, 1942, demolition teams from the U.S. Army closed all of the South Pacific Coast Rail Road tunnels for eternity, effectively undoing in one day what the Chinese had spent 27 months and dozens of their own lives to achieve. Other than in the work of a few historians, the men who died in this tunnel never received any acknowledgement for their work or respect in their violent end.

As the rain continues to pour outside, I breathe in the dank air of the Summit Tunnel, close my eyes and say a prayer that their spirits have found peace and stopped digging through the dark.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the country at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.
Read about a much happier rainy-day hike, with newts!
Read about Ryan's trip to the Great White Redwood.

Lydon, Sandy. Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region, Capitola Book Company, second edition, 2008.
MacGregor, Bruce. The Birth of California Narrow Gauge, Stanford University Press, 2003.

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