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FreightWaves Classics: Construction of the transcontinental railroad was dependent on Chinese labor

Chinese laborers working on the Transcontinental Railroad. (web.stanford.edu)

Tomorrow is the 153rd anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. It is not an overstatement that the transcontinental railroad changed transportation in this nation completely.

The Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) began construction of the transcontinental railroad on January 8, 1863, and built east from California’s capital of Sacramento. Concurrently, the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) began construction westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa (near Omaha, Nebraska), where its rails joined existing eastern rail lines. Acts of Congress provided both companies with extensive land grants and financing.

In the West, thousands of Chinese laborers were critical to the construction of the CPRR between 1865 and 1869. The railroad stretched for 690 miles, from Sacramento to Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory. It was at Promontory Summit that the CPRR and the UP joined tracks in a ceremony that marked the completion of what was termed the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Central Pacific Railroad's "C.P. Huntington" locomotive. (Photo: sacroom.contentdm.oclc.org)
The Central Pacific Railroad’s “C.P. Huntington” locomotive. (Photo: sacroom.contentdm.oclc.org)

CPRR’s workforce

In an effort to increase its workforce, the Central Pacific advertised in January 1865 seeking 5,000 railroad laborers. However, only a few hundred whites responded. Railroad work was hard (and often dangerous), leading to a high attrition rate. Most who were hired stayed only for a short time, reluctant to do the demanding and hazardous work. Many left for silver mines in Nevada, hoping to strike it rich. 

Facing a labor shortage, the railroad may have begun recruiting Chinese laborers because of a suggestion by E.B. Crocker, a California Supreme Court justice and an attorney for the railroad. Chinese laborers had earlier worked on other California railroads, according to the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University.


However, there was opposition due to anti-Chinese sentiment that had begun during the California Gold Rush. Among those initially opposed to hiring Chinese workers was James H. Strobridge, the Central Pacific’s construction supervisor. Strobridge believed that the Chinese were not strong enough for the tasks, thought they lacked the brainpower to perform the work and also worried that whites wouldn’t labor alongside the Chinese.

When a group of Irish laborers agitated over wages in 1865, Strobridge grudgingly agreed to hire 50 Chinese workers as wagon-fillers. This caused the Irish workers to end their dispute. The 50 Chinese laborers were among the 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese then living in California. Most had immigrated to California in the early 1850s to work in mining and mining-related jobs. Most were clustered in Sacramento, San Francisco and the gold-mining towns of the Sierra Nevada.

Chinese laborers working on the Central Pacific Railroad. 
(Photo: Colorado Historical Society)
Chinese laborers working on the Central Pacific Railroad.
(Photo: Colorado Historical Society)

Good workers

The Chinese laborers’ work ethic impressed Strobridge, and he hired more Chinese workers for other tasks. The Central Pacific sought even more Chinese workers, but the number of Chinese willing to work for the railroad was soon depleted. The CPRR’s labor contractors began to bring workers directly from China, mostly from Guangdong province. By the end of July 1865, ships full of Chinese were arriving in San Francisco from China.

Within two years, almost 90% of the Central Pacific’s workforce were Chinese; the rest were of European-American descent, mostly Irish. At its peak, between 10,000 and 15,000 Chinese were working on the railroad; as many as 20,000 Chinese labored on the railroad in total.

In general, the Chinese workers were very different from their Caucasian counterparts, who quickly resented the growing competition and harassed the Chinese. Crocker and Strobridge told the Irish that they could either work with the Chinese crews or be replaced by them. The ultimatum likely did not cure the anger or the prejudices of the white crews, but it was enough to quell rebellion.

The Chinese proved to be both disciplined and industrious workers; in addition, they handled many of the most dangerous tasks as the railroad was being built. 

“Wherever we put them, we found them good,” Crocker recalled, “and they worked themselves into our favor to such an extent that if we found we were in a hurry for a job of work, it was better to put Chinese on at once.”

Chinese laborers on the Central Pacific pose for a photo. (Photo: library.ucsd.edu)
Chinese laborers on the Central Pacific pose for a photo. (Photo: library.ucsd.edu)

Difficult and dangerous work

Both “The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad,” edited by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, co-directors of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, and Chang’s separate book “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad,” describe how Chinese were tasked with “some of the most dangerous, most exhausting assignments for less pay (and worse treatment) than their Euro-American counterparts.”

All of the railroad’s workers often labored in extreme weather. Among the tasks generally “reserved” for the Chinese were clearing obstructions, moving earth, boring tunnels and building retaining walls – and virtually all work was done by hand. The Chinese became “experts in drayage, masonry, carpentry and track laying.” They also were lowered from cliffs to plant explosives when blasting was necessary. Most of the work the Chinese did was dangerous.

An example was the construction of a three-mile roadbed near Cape Horn, California, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The roadbed was located on a steep slope that was at least 1,300 feet above the American River. Work began during the summer of 1865; it took a year to finish. A major risk on this project was placing and then igniting hundreds of kegs of blasting power. That was done so that the roadbed could be laid on a level surface.

In the winter, “there were occasions when avalanches buried workers in snow and they weren’t found until the snow melted the following spring,” according to Fishkin.

Laborers working on the Central Pacific Railroad. (Painting by Jake Lee/Chinese Historical Society of America)
Chinese laborers working on the Central Pacific Railroad. (Painting by Jake Lee/Chinese Historical Society of America)

Lower pay for harder (and more dangerous) work

There was discrimination by the railroad in pay and benefits. The Chinese earned $27 per month (and later $30). However, they were charged for their food and board. Meanwhile, white workers were paid $35 monthly, and their board was provided.

All workers lived in canvas tents alongside the worksites. In the mountains, wooden bunk houses were built to protect them from the cold and snow. Each Chinese work gang had a cook who purchased dried food from the Chinese districts in Sacramento and San Francisco to prepare on-site. The Chinese workers ate vegetables and seafood; they also kept live pigs and chickens for weekend meals. The Irish crews ate primarily boiled beef and potatoes. 

The Chinese also bathed themselves, washed their clothes, and refrained from drinking alcohol. Rather than drinking local water, they drank tea, boiled in the mornings and served to them throughout the day. Their diets helped them avoid the dysentery that ravaged the white work crews.

A sketch of work on the last mile of the California Pacific Railroad. (Image: California State Library)
A sketch of work on the last mile of the California Pacific Railroad. (Image: California State Library)

The 10-mile day

As the CPRR was nearing completion, Crocker was so confident in the skill of his Irish and Chinese workers that he “decided to try for a record by laying 10 miles of track in one day.” The day chosen was April 28, 1868, and Crocker had prepared well. According to author David Bain, “One by one, platform cars dumped their iron, two miles of material in each trainload, and teams of Irishmen fairly ran the 500-pound rails and hardware forward. Straighteners led the Chinese gangs shoving the rails in place and keeping them to gauge while spikers walked down the ties, each man driving one particular spike and not stopping for another, moving on to the next rail; levelers and fillers followed, raising ties where needed, shoveling dirt beneath, tamping and moving on….” The work was watched by a troop of U.S. Army soldiers. The troop’s commander praised Crocker and his workers, stating “Mr. Crocker, I never saw such organization as that; it was like an army marching over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.”

The golden spike ceremony

When the rail line was finally completed at Promontory Summit, eight Chinese laborers laid the final two rails of the CPRR prior to the planned festivities that would commemorate the CPRR and UP link-up. 

After their work building the CPRR and making the transcontinental railroad a reality, many of the Chinese laborers returned to China. Others, however, remained in the United States; either to work on other railroad construction projects or to seek other opportunities.

Leaders of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads meet in this iconic photograph taken by Andrew J. Russell on May 10, 1869. Previous scholars and historians believed that there were no Chinese workers in this photo, but Stanford researchers identified two of them in the crowd. They were part of the crew that laid the last rails of the Transcontinental Railroad, according to the researchers. (Photo: Stanford Historical Photograph Collection, Stanford University Libraries)
Leaders of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads meet in this iconic photograph taken by Andrew J. Russell on May 10, 1869. Previous scholars and historians believed that there were no Chinese workers in this photo, but Stanford researchers identified two of them in the crowd. They were part of the crew that laid the last rails of the Transcontinental Railroad, according to the researchers. (Photo: Stanford Historical Photograph Collection, Stanford University Libraries)

Recognition for their work

On the 50th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, a celebration occurred in Ogden, Utah (which is about 50 miles from Promontory Summit). It was 1919, just months after the end of World War I. The three surviving members of the crew that laid the CPRR’s final rails (Ging Cui, Wong Fook and Lee Shao) were there. During the celebration they took part in the parade on Ogden’s main streets.

The Manti Messenger, a Utah newspaper, highlighted their participation in the golden anniversary celebration. It also provided information on their lives since 1869. “They have been in the [employ] of the Southern Pacific since that time, none of them taking a leave of absence until three years ago, when they were pensioned by the Southern Pacific company. Each of the trio is over 90 years of age.”

The China Wall of the Sierra. A railroad retaining wall and fill, constructed of Sierra granite, stand silently above on the pass as a lasting monument to these Asian “master builders” who left an indelible mark on the history of California and the West. Dedicated August 11, 1984 by the Truckee-Donner Historical Society Inc. (Photo: readtheplaque.com)
The China Wall of the Sierra. In part, the plaque states, “A railroad retaining wall and fill, constructed of Sierra granite, stand silently above on the pass as a lasting monument to these Asian ‘master builders’ who left an indelible mark on the history of California and the West.” The plaque was dedicated on August 11, 1984 by the Truckee-Donner Historical Society Inc. (Photo: readtheplaque.com)

Legacy

With great skill and courage, Chinese laborers effectively accomplished the hazardous tasks they were assigned while building the CPRR. They did so, despite “discriminatory treatment, substandard wages, social isolation, and various other day-to-day hardships.” Many Chinese workers died from landslides, blasting powder explosions and other hazards along the route.

Following the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad and the transcontinental railroad in 1869, many of the Chinese laborers who had worked on the CPRR spread across the United States to work on at least 71 other rail lines, according to Fishkin.

In 2014, all of the Chinese who had worked on the Central Pacific “were posthumously inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor for their work on the First Transcontinental Railroad.” The ceremony was held at the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez spoke about the contributions of the Chinese workers, stating, “We are not just recognizing the miles and miles of railroad track they laid, we are recognizing them as the first in a long line of Asian American and Pacific Islander workers who have contributed to America’s strength and vitality.” Perez also said, “That is why we are here today, to recognize the Chinese railroad workers who didn’t just build railroads, they helped build a nation.”

This marker commemorates the work of the Chinese laborers who helped to build the Central Pacific Railroad. (Photo: hamapush.wordpress.com)
This marker commemorates the work of the Chinese laborers who helped to build the Central Pacific Railroad.
(Photo: hamapush.wordpress.com)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.
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