Gas and Ghosts in the Santa Cruz Mountains
On the evening of February 12, 1879, the mountains above Los Gatos shook with such force and noise that people all over the region were awakened, thinking that there had been an earthquake. Or perhaps it was the California Powder Works up-river from Santa Cruz finally completely exploding once and for all?
The cause of the noise was no mystery to the Chinese railroad workers who had been working in the projected 6,157 foot Summit railroad tunnel being drilled through the Santa Cruz Mountains. For weeks they and their white supervisors had been afraid that the mixture of oil and natural gas in the tunnel might explode.
And explode it did. A sheet of flame roared out from deep within the mountain, the tunnel acting like a huge canon, burning all those unlucky enough to be inside and tossing railroad cars and equipment like toys as it exited the tunnel mouth with a roar heard as far away as Santa Cruz and San Jose.
Five of the Chinese railroad workers inside the tunnel eventually died of their injuries, and those who survived believed the tunnel to be haunted and refused to resume working.
Gas and Oil beneath the mountains
The railroad tunnel that the South Pacific Coast Railroad began drilling into the mountain in 1878 was part of a huge construction project that would eventually link the Bay Area with Santa Cruz. The railroad company did not realize at the beginning of the tunneling that they were also drilling a large horizontal oil well.
Early on in the construction, the Chinese workers noticed small streams of oil running down the tunnel walls, collecting in pools at their feet. When one of their colleagues fell unconscious at the tunnel heading, they quickly understood that there was a dangerous, odorless gas coming out with the oil. They were drilling sideways through an oil field. Not far downhill from the proposed tunnel was the Big Moody oil field that had been producing oil on and off since the 1870s.
The railroad company's objective was neither oil nor gas. All they wanted to do was punch a railroad tunnel through these mountains and provide Santa Cruz with a direct connection with the outside world. The oil and gas were an unintended consequence, an obstacle to overcome.
Flashing as Industrial Safety
The railroad company settled upon a system of gathering the oil from the tunnel floor and carrying it out, and then periodically "flashing" off the accumulated gas. When Chinese workers changed shifts, a crew supervisor would place a burning rag at the end of a long pole, and slowly enter the tunnel until the gas mixture was strong enough to explode. (Not unlike when you turn on a gas burner and then wait too long bit before lighting it and singe all the hair off your hand—or eyebrows.) The gas would burn off with a loud "whump" and the crew could then work for a while before the procedure had to be repeated. That process combined with raising their wages from 77.5 cents per day to $1.25 per day was enough to lure a new crew of Chinese back to the tunnel face. After performing a ceremony to exorcise the evil spirits that included pasting lucky red papers on the timbers that framed the tunnel mouth, the drilling resumed.
Eventually the company installed a system of pumps that brought fresh air into the tunnel and expel the gas. Most of it.
The Fires of Hell -- November 17, 1879
The Chinese had been right all along – the tunnel was cursed. Fearful of using the open flames of candles or lanterns, the Chinese men worked around the clock in 12 hour shifts in almost complete darkness. Approximately a half-mile into the mountain, on the evening of November 17, 1879, a crew of 21 Chinese and 2 white supervisors were working at the tunnel heading when an undetected gas pocket was ignited by a small dynamite charge. This time the tunnel sent forth a column of flame that "shook the mountain from base to summit." The 2,700 foot-long canon poured forth the fires of hell.
As soon as the flames subsided, twenty Chinese who had been asleep in a nearby bunkhouse raced into the tunnel to rescue their comrades deep in the mountain. They were greeted by a second explosion – "a sheet of lurid flame"—that consumed everything in its path.
Rescuers who came to the tunnel mouth after the second explosion crawled through the timbers and twisted metal and were overpowered by the smell of burning flesh and gas pouring from the tunnel. The cries of the still-living but horribly burned Chinese filled the air. Before it was all over there were thirty-one Chinese bodies laid out beside the tracks, each one dressed in white cotton with an incense taper burning at its head.
The tunnel is completed – April 1880
After replacing the air pumps and installing electric lights to cut down the possibility of explosion, the company found that they couldn't induce Chinese to re-enter the tunnel. They brought in a crew of Cornish miners to continue the work on the north end while Chinese crews continued to work on the less-volatile south end. Finally, in April 1880 when the tunnel was daylighted, a constant breeze blowing through it dispersed the gas that continued to issue out of the tunnel walls. Later, when the company began running trains through the tunnel they inserted pipes into the gas fissures and installed lamps that were kept lighted day and night.
The lights deep in the mountain flickered like votive lights for the over three dozen Chinese who had died to help connect Santa Cruz with the outside world.
Hungry Ghosts and Retribution
The Chinese immigrant believed that if one of their fellow Chinese were to die away from their families that their untended and neglected spirits would become hungry ghosts. Hungry ghosts were believed to be malevolent forces, capable of doing evil until their bodies were reunited with their families. Most of the men who died in the November 1879 explosion were buried alongside the railroad tracks above Los Gatos Creek as their graves were visible from passing trains for years afterward. It is not known if their bodies were ever removed and shipped back to China, but the dark and violent subsequent history would suggest not.
The celebrations of the completion of the over the mountain railroad made no mention of the dozens of Chinese who had died in its construction. So, as some kind of score-evening karmic retribution, on May 23, 1880, the new railroad had a horrific train wreck that killed fifteen passengers and injured fifty more. The accident put a dark cloud over what would have been an otherwise happy event in Santa Cruz's history.
And, who is to say that the continuing toll of death and dismemberment on present-day Highway 17 isn't the work of the hungry ghosts who still might haunt those mountains?
The Ghosts Emerging from the Portal
Residents in the neighborhood of the fated north portal of the Summit tunnel often told of hearing and seeing ghosts in that vicinity for many years following the explosions. One rainy night in the 1890s, a journalist traveling through the area found himself opposite the tunnel mouth when his horse reared and snorted and refused to proceed. The man turned to watch in horror as a procession of men mounted on white horses and dressed in white formal Chinese clothing filed slowly out of the tunnel mouth. As they trotted slowly into the darkness down Los Gatos Creek, he counted thirty-one riders.
Wonder what happened to the tunnels? click here
For further reading about the Summit Tunnel:
see Bruce MacGregor's monumental and brilliant last-word-on-the-subject The Birth of California Narrow Gauge, Stanford University Press, 2003, and Sandy Lydon, Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region, Capitola Book Company, second edition, 2008.