Learn California.org
Home Visit the Students section Visit the Teachers section Visit the Research California section Visit the Sitemap
Keyword Search

Planning A Railroad Online Lesson
An Online lesson plan using Topographical maps to plan a route across Donner Summit 

Student Instructions

Online Instructions for Students

Topographical Map of Donner Summit/Truckee

Theodore Judah's Map- Donner Summit to Truckee

Complete Topographical Map of Truckee/Donner

Link to Central Pacific Railroad Museum

Teacher Background Material

Go To Teacher Lesson Plans


  1. Students will use topographical maps
  2. Students will understand the challenges involved in building the railroad in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Student Task: Students will use a topographical map to plan a route from Donner Summit to Truckee, then compare it with the route selected by Theodore Judah.

Time Required: Two 50 minute class periods

Recommended Grade Level: 4-8

Lesson Content and Standards References:
California Department of Education

  • History—Social Science Standards:
  • Historical and Social Sciences Analysis Skills
    Kindergarten through Grade Five

    Chronological and Spatial Thinking:


Subject Areas: History-Social Science, Language Arts, Technology

Resources Used

USGS Topographical Maps - Truckee

California State Archives, Secretary of State, Central Pacific Railroad Map, 1861 (#169, MCI:11-2)

Materials and Preparation:

Download and print Topo Map Donner/Truckee

Download and print Student Instructions

Download and print Judah's Map of Donner/Truckee


  1. Discuss with students the use of topographical maps, making sure they understand the concept of contour lines following the same elevation. The contour map they will be using has lines in 50 meter increments. Help them to understand that the closer the lines are together, the steeper the terrain is. It might be helpful to make an overhead transparency of the Topo map to show during class training and discussion.

  2. As a background, tell students that most trains made in the 1860s could not go up more than a 2% grade. This translates into approximately 100 feet elevation change per mile of track. On the map the students use, one contour line is 162 feet. For estimation purposes, students should not drop down more than one contour line per 1 1/2 mile of track. Each square on the map equals one mile, so they should be able to estimate the distance they are traveling. The route which Judah designed dropped approximately 350 meters in 12 miles so it was actually close to a 2% grade. This was accomplished by tunneling through certain areas. Tunneling was extremely time consuming and expensive so it was to be avoided if possible. Another problem Judah faced was the need to make rounded turns. Tight turns lead to derailments so the turn could not be too sharp.

  3. Distribute Topo map Donner/Truckee

  4. Distribute "Student Instructions"

  5. Suggest to students that they try to find the route they are going to use without marking up the map at first. This should save a lot of erasures. Encourage them to avoid too many tunnels and to especially avoid steep grades. (The train could not get up it.)

  6. After students have finished their routes, show them the map made by Judah (the original map is made of linen and is 61 feet long, showing the route from San Francisco through Nevada. The photograph you are showing is only approximately 7 feet of the total.) Tell students to compare his route with the one they drew. If they are struggling with the project, it might be helpful to show them Judah's map after they have worked at a route for awhile. They can look at the Judah map and try to find the corresponding lines on their topographical map.

  7. When students finish, allow them to compare their route with the original. Have them work in pairs to check each other's map and to justify their route. If you wish, a copy of the topographical map showing the railroad lines is also available.

  8. The student instructions send the students to a page where they may chose from five options:
    • Chinese Labor on the Railroads - A text based history of the Chinese workers contribution to the building of the railroad.
    • A trip Across the Sierra Nevada- students are asked to create a story about an imaginary train ride in the 1870s.
    • Snow 40 Feet High - Students research how the heavy snow problem was solved in the Sierra.
    • Visit Truckee by Train - Students create a travel brochure for Truckee in the 1870s.
    • See the Sierra Nevada by Train - Students create a travel brochure for the railroad advertisiing a scenic trip across the Sierra Nevada

  9. All of these assignments take the students to the Central Pacific Railroad Museum for information. This is a great site with old photos, postcards, maps and other related material, including source documents from travelers of the time.

Students will be evaluated by their efforts on the topographical map going from Donner Summit to Truckee and by their additional report selected from the choices given to them in their online lesson.


  1. If there is a railroad in your town, ask students to speculate about the impact the railroad has had in the development of the town. If there had never been one, how would the town's history have differed?
  2. If there is no railroad in yoour town, ask students to specualte what changes might have occured in your community if one had gone there. What kinds of products would your town ship by rail. Would a railroad allow the town to produce things they could not without one? (i.e lumber, crops, tourism, etc)
  3. Look at a topographical map of your community. Plan where you would build a railroad right of way. Alternately, look at an existing rail line and see how it was planned according to the guideline of no more than 100 feet per mile change in elevation.
  4. Subways and light rail move people the way trains do. How would having one of these in your town change it? What problems would it creat and what problems would it bring?
  5. Using a city or county map, design a subway or light rail which moves the greatest number of people. It should run from housing areas to shopping and work areas.

Copyright ©2000-2009 LearnCalifornia.org. All rights reserved.