Vehicles travel westbound on California 58 near White Wolf fault in Kern County after descending through the Tehachapi Pass crossing the Tehachapi Mountains.

Vehicles travel westbound on California 58 near White Wolf fault in Kern County after descending through the Tehachapi Pass crossing the Tehachapi Mountains. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times / November 13, 2012)

Civil War veteran William Hood arrived at the mosquito-infested swamps near Bakersfield in 1874 to build a rail line that would soar through the Tehachapi Mountains, linking the Bay Area and Southern California for the first time.

Hood, Southern Pacific Railroad's chief assistant engineer, assembled 3,000 Chinese immigrants with picks, shovels and dynamite. They snaked the track up treacherous mountain ridges, twisted it back and forth around canyons and punched it through sheer rock in a series of 18 tunnels — climbing 4,025 vertical feet along the way.

It's a feat no one has attempted to duplicate. Until now.

A plan as audacious in the 21st century as Hood's was in the 19th century is taking shape on the drawing boards of California's bullet train planners. The crossing of not only the Tehachapi Mountains but the San Gabriel Mountains is seizing the imagination of engineers who see it as the greatest design challenge of the $68-billion project.

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