esidents of Los Angeles realized that if their scruffy-looking pueblo was ever going to attain the status of a city it would have to be connected to the rest of the world by train. That meant dealing with Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.
Southern Pacific drove a hard bargain, under which the citizens voted to buy all the rights of way including Phineas Banning's twenty-one-mile line to San Pedro and hand them over to the giant conglomerate.
Twin ribbons of steel began to snake their way out of San Francisco along the route pioneered by Henry Mayo Newhall, down through the San Joaquin Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains, where a famous loop brought engines chugging underneath their own cabooses.
On March 22, 1875, a small army of Chinese laborers stood at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains with picks and shovels in hand. They had laid track from Los Angeles northward across the wide expanse of the San Fernando Valley up to this seemingly impenetrable barrier.
A swarthy, heavily built man stepped forward. This was Frank Frates, a native of the Azores Islands and superintendent of construction. Frates gave a signal and the hillside erupted in a cloud of smoke and dust from a blast of Hercules powder.
Calling out, "Fall to!" the boss stepped back as 330 laborers began attacking the hillside. On the other side another crew under the direction of John T. Gifford started digging southward from Lyon's Station.
Almost immediately it was found that under the arid and desolate surface, the hills were saturated with water and oil. Steam-driven pumps had to be brought, which often broke down when they got clogged with sand.
For a dollar a day the Chinese labored through the gooey muck which stuck to shovels like pudding, caked onto boots in great balls and turned the deepening hole into a steam bath. Some Chinese drilled, others placed explosives, then all ran for their lives before the charges went off. Frates sank three incline shafts for ventilation, which helped a little. Frequently the shafts caved in, causing more problems and fears that the project would have to be abandoned.
A year after the digging began a reporter observed:
"If a portion of the roof of the tunnel falls, injuring some and dangerously frightening others of the men, or if the pumps or hoisting engines or machinery of any of the inclines give way, stopping work and allowing water to accumulate rapidly; if a landslide occurs ... Mr Frates is always promptly on hand, night or day, and by his skill and energy, soon has the work going ahead again."
There were times when Stanford, Crocker and probably even Frank Frates had serious doubts if the tunnel would ever be finished. Angelenos worried that the route would be abandoned and their town consequently bypassed.
Then, on the night of July 14, 1876, the two crews of laborers met at last, face to face. After a year and a half, two million dollars and uncounted casualties, the work was complete. John Gifford tapped out a message from Lyon's Station that read, "Daylight shines through the San Fernando Tunnel."
It was a remarkable achievement. At 6,940 feet it was the third-longest tunnel in the United States at the time, fourth in the world. The northern and southern bores were off only a half-inch in the two grades. The arched ceiling rose twenty-two feet above the floor, which was sixteen and one-half feet across.
The first engine steamed through on Aug. 12, prompting another poetic message from Mr. Gifford:
"The iron horse poked its head through the San Fernando Tunnel this evening at six o'clock and neighed long and loud his hearty greeting to the citizens of the Santa Clara Valley."