Arts Devo

Art tunnels of the Sierra Nevada

Tunnel No. 6

Tunnel No. 6

Spray paint and nitroglycerine Compared to the East Coast, tangible monuments from the history of the U.S. are fewer and farther between out in here in the wide-open West. There’s a lot out there, you just have to know where to look.

Just a two-hour drive east from Chico is Donner Summit, one of the most critical spots in the Western expansion of the country. When the first transcontinental railroad was being built in the 1860s, the only way to connect the line to the interior of California was to carve out a tunnel from the granite mountain. Several tunnels were bored through the Sierra Nevada by the Central Pacific Railroad Co., but the longest—the 1,659-foot-long tunnel No. 6 along the Donner Pass side of the summit—took two years to finish (1865-67), with the largely Chinese workforce drilling holes by hand, filling them with black powder or highly volatile nitroglycerine and exploding away the rock. Some days, progress was measured in inches, though they attacked the job on four fronts—east, west, and in both directions from inside the mountain via a hole blasted down from the top. (Of course, within a couple of decades, in true American fashion, the good white folk of nearby Truckee thanked the 1,000 or so Chinese inhabitants for their contributions to the country by driving them out of town.)

Underground art

In 1993, the 6.7-mile section of track over/through the summit was abandoned and torn out as traffic moved a little south, running through the nearly 2-mile-long tunnel No. 41 (completed in 1925). What’s left is a series of ghost tunnels and ghost snow sheds (concrete structures built over long sections of the track to protect them from snow accumulation and avalanches) that offer an offbeat destination for exploring that Arts and Mrs. DEVO and the Honey poodle took advantage of last weekend.

Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Sierras and looking over Donner Lake, the hike through the summit tunnels is a unique wild/industrial experience, made even more engaging by the works of street artists on the granite and concrete walls.

The entrance to tunnel No. 6 is easy to find; drive just past the Sugar Bowl ski resort and park across the street from Donner Ski Ranch. Tunnel is to the left, under Sugar Bowl Road. You could hike for miles along the Donner Pass trail and through the snow sheds, or just tackle the first couple of tunnels up to the Chinese Wall—a long stone wall outside tunnel No. 8—then scramble down the granite hillside toward the road and check out the faint 1,500- to 4,000-year-old petroglyphs created by ancestors of Washoe Indians (look for the large historical marker) for an invigorating nature/art walk.

So long, Snidle After three decades of showing art in Chico, the James Snidle Gallery is closing. The last show—featuring the works of Avery Palmer and Stan Sours—will run November through December. Gallery owner James Snidle closed his San Francisco location earlier this summer, and via email he said that he’ll continue to do art appraisals and consignment through a San Francisco office and via quarterly visits to Chico. Currently, the gallery is showing an estate sale/exhibit featuring the art of Ann Pierce and Lois Cohen. Get down there and enjoy it while you can.