Chinese Railroad Workers
The contributions made by Chinese workers in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad deserve to be better known. Historian Erika Lee wrote in her definitive book, The Making of Asian America (P. 72-74), that “in 1865, the first Chinese workers were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad as track layers on the great transcontinental railroad heading east from Sacramento. Company president Leland Stanford praised the Chinese as ’quiet, peaceable, industrious, economical,’ and rightly acknowledged that ‘without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great National highway.’
The Central Pacific hired as many as 15,000 Chinese immigrants, comprising 90% of the workforce. Overworked and underpaid, 5,000 of them went on strike in 1867, but the company cut off their food supply and forced them to surrender. Lee wrote that “on May 10, 1869, when the western and eastern halves of the transcontinental railroad were linked together at Promontory Point, Utah, Chinese workers were noticeably absent from the official photograph celebrating this historic event.
A century later, at the 100th anniversary, Chinese were still absent/ignored at the celebration.
However, in 2019, at the 150th anniversary, the Utah’s Transcontinental Railroad 150th Celebration Commission established Spike 150 “to partner with all those celebrating the 150-year anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony in Utah. It was a year long celebration of more than 150 events and also promoted other commemorative events and activities that inspire, unify, educate and advance the legacy of this historic moment.” (https://spike150.org)
Many proud descendants of the Chinese railroad workers showed up in force. They listened as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao “commended the estimated 12,000 Chinese Railroad Workers who ‘risked everything’ to build ‘one of the greatest infrastructure projects’ in American history.” https://asamnews.com/2019/05/11/a-spectacular-150th-anniversary-celebration-of-the-transcontinental-railroad/
CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on the role of Chinese workers and how their descendants wanted to set the record straight: (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/building-the-transcontinental-railroad-the-moonshot-of-the-19th-century/)
There was also a segment on National Public Radio remembering the contributions of Chinese immigrants: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/12/722550989/remembering-chinese-immigrants-contribution-to-the-transcontinental-railroad
Coming around full circle, Stanford University (founded by Leland Stanford whose fortune was built by the Chinese Railroad workers) has initiated the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. It seeks “to give voice to the Chinese immigrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped to shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. The Project coordinates research in North America and Asia in order to publish new findings in print and digital formats, support new and scholarly informed school curriculum, and participate in conferences and public events.” https://web.stanford.edu/group/chineserailroad/cgi-bin/website/
CHF members Laurene Wu and Chuck McClain traveled from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to join in the Spike 150 celebration. They attended programs and seminars and were deeply moved by the many Chinese American descendants who had traveled from all over the U.S. to proudly remember the contributions of their ancestors.
For more information:
- The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee (Simon & Schuster)
- Ghosts of Gold Mountain by Gordon H. Chang (Houghton Mifflin)
- Voices from the Railroad: Stories by Descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers, edited by Sue Lee and Connie Young Yu, Chinese Historical Society of America
- Visit the Golden Spike National Historical Park: https://www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm
- Visit the ongoing exhibition Treasures of the Transcontinental Railroad: https://heritageandarts.utah.gov/treasures/
6. For a history of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit (https://utah.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=e679f80b19ed4482b10910f2a918946e&folderid=578cf9fd8d4a4ce083a62bb331829c67