The Transcontinental Railroad is an American legacy, a triumph of the human spirit and a cornerstone of the history of Chinese in America. Between 1865 and 1869, thousands of Chinese migrants toiled at a grueling pace and in perilous working conditions to help construct America’s First Transcontinental Railroad. Primary sources can include diaries, journals, memoirs, manuscripts letters, speeches, photographs, newspaper articles, interviews, government documents, and much more. Chinese in their contracts insisted that a Chinese physician be in the vicinity. Photograph by Andrew J. Russell. Protectionism. A joyous ceremony was held with dignitaries from both railroads, along with a military unit on its way to the San Francisco Presidio. Leland Stanford, president of the railroad, had been elected governor on a program opposing Chinese immigration, calling the Chinese “the dregs” of Asia and declaring to the state legislature a year earlier, “The presence of numbers of that degraded and distinct people [Chinese] would exercise a deleterious effect upon the superior race.”1, The CPRR first tried to use Irish immigrant and other white workers, but the labor supply was scarce. Such a description also appears in Nelson’s Pictorial Guidebook: The Central Pacific Railroad: A Trip across the North American Continent from Ogden to San Francisco (New York: T. Nelson & Sons, 1870), 83. Transcontinental Railroad course reader. 3 James H Strobridge, testimony taken by United States Congress, Senate. [, Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project,,,, The accomplishment was in response to a $10,000 wager Charles Crocker made with Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific that his Central Pacific workers were capable of doing what seemed impossible. The Chinese workers were educated and organized; 3,000 laborers went on strike in 1867 to demand equal wages, as the white workers were paid double. Some suggest that many of their demands were met some time after the strike, thereby allowing Crocker to “save face.”, Critics of the railroad asserted that the Chinese were “coolies,” and not free labor. Some frozen bodies were found in the spring with their shovels or picks still in their hands.3, The Summit Tunnel was completed, graded and track laid on November 30, 1867. Railroad workers recruited by labor contractors came mostly from the Pearl River Delta area of Guangdong (Canton) province, especially Siyi (四邑Sze Yap, meaning four counties: Taishan台山, Kaiping开平, Xinhui新会 and Enping恩). Last modified on Thu 18 Jul 2019 07.03 BST. 1 Samuel Montague quoted in George Kraus, George Kraus, High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific across the High Sierra (Palo Alto: American West, 1969), 90. During the 19th century, more than 2.5 million Chinese citizens left their country and were hired in 1864 after a labor shortage threatened the railroad’s completion. Water and ties had to be hauled by train to the end of the track and then by wagon teams across dry stretches of desert to the advance work gangs.3, Summer heat could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit/49 Celsius, and many Chinese workers collapsed. Their work continued well into the 20th century. Some brought labor skills from China, such as techniques of masonry they used to construct many retaining walls along the railroad route that became famous for their strength and endurance; many of those walls are still standing today. The roadbed was to be a ledge that snaked around the rock and the task required grading, leveling and clearing trees, stumps, rocks and other obstructions along a slope of “about seventy-five degrees, or nearly perpendicular,” as Chief Engineer Samuel Montague describes the site.1 Hundreds of kegs of black blasting powder were used to form a ledge from which a level roadbed could be graded and tracks laid. By July 1865, the Chinese workforce was nearly 4,000. 3 John Hoyt Williams, A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 98. 2 Charles Crocker, quoted in Wesley S. Griswold, A Work of Giants; Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York, McGraw Hill, 1962), 311. The Chinese had already established a significant presence in the United States before the call for a transcontinental railroad came about. Workers were let down into the tunnel and lifted out through the central shaft, and the debris was hauled out with buckets raised by the locomotive’s steam engine. The image of Chinese laborers hanging from baskets to do such hazardous work has appeared in many graphic images, literary representations, and histories, and this image became the stuff of legends. Congratulatory Dispatch. 3 E. B. Crocker to Collis P. Huntington, June 27, 1867, and Mark Hopkins to Collis P. Huntington, June 27, 1867. 4 Since there are no complete records of deaths, there’s a great deal of debate on the number. The railroad company provided room and board to white workers, but Chinese workers had to find their own meals, which were often brought to them from local merchants. Online Sources: Railroads Alfred A. Hart Stereograph Collection Relating to the Central Pacific Railroad, circa 1866-1869. Crews dug at both the east and west face of the Summit Tunnel, but progress was still too slow for Charles Crocker. The Union Pacific began construction of their rail in Omaha, Nebraska working toward the west. Courtesy of The Alfred A. Hart Photo Collection, Special Collections, Stanford University. Oakland Museum of California; Spude, Promontory Summit, 43. On June 25, 1867 the Chinese railroad workers went out on strike. Published by the Society, 1872, 155-172. Critics accused the Central Pacific of using the Chinese as slave labor, and one newspaper, the Sacramento Union reported that the workers protested “the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.”2 No other source repeats this demand. There were a few exceptions: At Promontory, a reporter for the San Francisco Newsletter describes one part of the celebration at Promontory ignored by other reporters: “J.H. By Peter E. Palmquist, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart (Sacramento, CA: The California State Library Foundation, 33-34, accessed Nov. 5, 2017,; Bain, 322; “From Trail to Tunnel: A History of the Southern Pacific Company,” Southern Pacific Bulletin (July, 1927), 11-12. Ground was broken in Sacramento at Front and K Street on January 8, 1863 to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, the western link of the first transcontinental railroad. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project along with other initiatives aims to bring to light their actual contributions and lasting legacy.5. Historians estimate that Chinese workers cost between two-thirds and one half of what white workers cost.1. The site was “a precipitous, rocky bluff” about 1200 feet high above the American River east of Colfax, California. Others went to work on the Union Pacific. Some historians estimate from engineering reports, newspaper articles and other sources that between 50 to 150 lives were lost as a result of snow slides, landslides, explosions, falls and other accidents, as well as sickness; other estimates run to 2000 or more Chinese dead.4. The tracks reached Wadsworth (Mile 189 Kilometer 304) by July 22, 1868. 2 Charles Crocker, testimony, US Congress, Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, February 27, 1877, 44th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Report 689 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1877), 667. Snow from fierce blizzards often blocked tunnel entrances, and the workers shoveled out tunnels through the snow, as much as 500 feet/152 meters long; they dug open windows, and they rested and ate in their white ice caves after spending their shifts in the dark of the mountain. In a new exhibition, the overlooked contribution of Chinese workers is being brought to the light for the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion, Thu 18 Jul 2019 07.00 BST [, “Heading Of East Portal Tunnel No 8 From Donner Lake Railroad.” # 204, Photograph. At the start of construction the Central Pacific Railroad had no plans to hire Chinese workers. Some Chinese workers returned to China where they helped in the development of their villages and regions, including building the first railroads. Charles Crocker told a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, W. H Roads, that he had no idea exactly how many men worked on the line because “no list of names was kept, and the men worked by the squad, and not as individuals.”, Crocker explained that Indians and Chinese workers “were so much alike personally that no human being [i.e., white person] could tell them apart.” Consequently, he developed a scheme for paying them “by the wholesale.” Every morning there was a count, another at lunch, and a third count at quitting time. Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration. Only four years earlier the country had been divided by a bloody Civil War; the railroad that bound the East Coast to the West was hailed as an emblem of both unity and progress. .”, During the celebration in Sacramento, E. B. Crocker (Charles’s brother) praised the Chinese in his speech: “I wish to call to your minds that the early completion of this railroad we have built has been in large measure due to that poor, despised class of laborers called the Chinese, to the fidelity and industry they have shown.”3, Many believed that the Chinese railroad workers achieved an engineering marvel – but it was always at a price. As Crocker described the results of this competition: “We measured the work every Sunday morning; and the Chinamen without fail always outmeasured the Cornish miners; that is to say, they would cut more rock in a week than the Cornish miners did, and there it was hard work, steady pounding on the rock, bone-labor.”2, Work continued through two of the harshest winters on record. Joining the Tracks fro the first transcontinental railroad. Chinese workers were being drawn away from the railroad to work in nearby mines, even though the foremen tried to prevent them from leaving, sometimes by force. 150 years after the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, a local Chicago Museum highlights Chinese workers' contributions. A virtual reconstruction of the key historic sites, Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. 1 (Milton Park, Didcot, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2007), 242; Alexander Saxton, “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” Pacific Historical Review 35, no. 1 Caxton [W. H. Roads], San Francisco Chronicle] quoted in George Kraus, High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific (now the Southern Pacific) across the High Sierra (Palo Alto, CA: American West Publishing Company, 1969), 204, 208. Early Chinese Immigration to the US. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. Although many praised the Chinese for their hard work and contributions to building the country, others attacked them as racial inferiors and competition to white working people. If true, we can assume the Chinese workers also went on strike for the freedom to move; they were free agents and not slaves. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project seeks to give a voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped to shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. Now work could proceed in four directions, at both the east and west faces, and inside out. They also drank tea and hot water, as well as occasional wine, and sometimes took opium. The railroad was completed to Winnemucca, 325 miles/523 kilometers from Sacramento, on Oct. 1, 1868, and the town became a center for Chinese life. Utahans are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. On the positive sides, the railroad made it possible to move goods and people across the country much more quickly. 4 Kraus 158-159; Arthur Brown, superintendent of bridges and buildings, quoted in Kraus 190-191; Wesley S. Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962), 193; Mead B. Kibbey, ed. Miners from Cornwall in southwest England had gained a reputation as being among the best miners in the world. Chinese Transcontinental Railroad WorkersIn the mid-nineteenth century, large numbers of Chinese men immigrated to the United States in search of better futures for themselves and the families they left behind. At least some Chinese may have worked at Bloomer Cut by the time it was completed in March 1865. Many believe that laboring in baskets could have actually hindered their task, since a worker would not be able to use his feet to maneuver.2 An article in The Overland Monthly in 1869 describes how workers “were suspended by ropes from above, the chain-bearers signaling to those holding the ropes, up and down, forward or back” to prepare for drilling and blasting. This is an introduction, a way to begin to convey a bit of what the Chinese workers encountered and what they achieved. Union Pacific Railroad. “The artifacts on view are meant to help visitors understand how forgotten workers had to endure hazardous, unfair conditions, in addition to backbreaking labor,” said Leibhold. Large numbers of Chinese lay tracks northeast of Reno, and by June 1868 thousands of men worked grading hundreds of miles ahead in the Nevada desert. Stanford University. February 27, 1877. Many people didn’t think it was possible.”. The exhibition features a century-old pair of chopsticks, as well as canisters for tea and soy sauce. These men stayed in their camps. Next to him there may be another man, similarly dressed, facing the camera, but a white man next to him has his armed extended and holding up his hat. 4 Charles Crocker, testimony, US Congress, Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, February 27, 1877, 44th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Report 689 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1877), 669; 5 Crocker, Report to the Joint Special Committee, 674, On April 1, 1868, the town-site was laid out for what would become the city of Reno (Mile 154/Kilometer 248), named after Civil War general Jesse Lee Reno. Chinese workers made up most of the workforce between roughly 700 miles of train tracks between Sacramento, California, and Promontory, Utah. One cook, Quong Kee, worked for the CPRR, and even attended the Golden Spike ceremony in 1869. 1 John Hoyt Williams, A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 241; George E. Crofutt, Crofutt’s Great Trans-Continental Tourist’s Guide (New York: G. A. Crofutt & Co., 1870), 143; Sue Fawn Chung, “Beyond Railroad Work: Chinese Contributions to the Development of Winnemucca and Elko, Nevada,” in The Chinese and the Iron Road, edited by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Stanford: Stanford University Press, forthcoming). According to his account, the Central Pacific offered extra wages for Cornish miners to do the work, recruiting them from the Nevada silver mines. [, “Chinese workers building the Loma Prieta Lumber Co.'s railroad in California.” Photograph. The Central Pacific began in Sacramento, California working toward the East. The Chinese Railroad Workers Project lessons touch upon many key issues in the high school U.S. history standards, including the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, immigration to the United States, challenges faced by immigrants like the Chinese … The research is astounding. 2 Wesley Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962), 244-245. Many of the actual workers were left out. All Rights Reserved. [, “Chinese Camp Browns Station.” # 313, Photograph. Chinese workers were an essential part of building the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), the western section of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States. All these groups are outside the classical American mainstream.”. He adopted western dress, and one of his specialties was Irish stew, indicating that he was not cooking for the Chinese workers alone. The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese, who constitute a large element of the population of California. “Building railroads is often profitable but operating them isn’t necessarily, if you look at the history of railroads in the US,” said Liebhold. Some continued to work for the Central Pacific to upgrade the hasty often makeshift construction, such as replacing the long but rickety wooden trestle at Secret Town Gap (Mile 62.5/Kilometer 100.5) with a fill, and later to work on maintaining the line. They insisted on eating Chinese food, which they bought from stores kept in cars near the end of the track operated by Sisson, Wallace & Co (the company that also provided Chinese labor for the railroad).4 According to one traveler, Charles Nordhoff, the Chinese workers ate “[d]ried oysters, dried cuttle-fish, dried fish, sweet rice crackers, dried bamboo sprouts, salted cabbage, Chinese sugar (which tasted to me very much like sorghum sugar), four kinds of dried fruits, five kinds of desiccated vegetables, vermicelli, dried sea-weed, Chinese bacon cut up into salt cutlets, dried meat of the abelona [sic] shell, pea-nut [sic] oil, dried mushrooms, tea, and rice. The Chinese were organized into work gangs, each led by a “headman” or contractor. But this exhibition takes a different tack, tracing the forgotten Chinese workers who built the western leg of the railroad across the Sierra Nevada mountains, connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad in 1869. Observers could see masses of Chinese workers in three sprawling camps with a total of 275 tents. “Tea boys” would wander through the construction sites pouring out boiled tea from small kegs slung over their shoulders. Desperate for employment, workers from this part of Guangdong boarded ships for California and other parts to support their families. Some of them would stay a few days, and some would not go to work at all. During the festivities around the country there was little mention of the Chinese labor that played such a major role in the railroad’s construction. Eventually Quong Kee “settled in Tombstone, Arizona, where he opened the famous Can Can Restaurant that featured pheasant under glass served on white tablecloths and linen napkins.”2. Charles Crocker authorized a hot-season pay raise for all workers, including the Chinese.4 The railroad progressed through Nevada at such a rapid pace that large campsites of up to 5000 men would have to move frequently to keep up with the pace of construction.5. Workers hung by ropes tied around their waist; or they leaned against bosun’s chairs. Chinese hired in 1864 also worked on the wagon road from Dutch Flat (Mile 67/Kilometer 107.8) to Donner Lake (Mile 117/Kilometer 188). In Nevada the CPRR hired Native American workers, and, according to a reporter who traveled with Charles Crocker, “there are about ten thousand Chinamen, one thousand white men and ‘any number’ of Indians employed on the road.”1 Crocker also made agreements with the Shoshone and Paiute nations for construction to move ahead unmolested; in exchange, the tribes would have free passage on the trains once they were running.2. each), 55,080 spikes, 14,050 bolts, and other materials, totaling in weight 4,462,000 pounds, were laid down. For one account, see William F. Chew, Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental Railroad: The Chinese Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad (Bloomington, IN: Trafford, 2003), 94-101.
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