Western Wednesday – How the Chinese Built the Transcontinental Railroad

Every once in a while you come across a tidbit of American history that, for whatever reason, no one ever taught you in school.  I came across one of those bits while doing research about the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s.  While I always knew that Chinese immigrants took part in the rise of California and the building of the railroad (thanks in part to an episode of Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman), I had no idea how big of a part they played.

The Transcontinental Railroad was built from the outside in.  Teams worked to lay tracks from the east heading towards the mountains and from the California coast heading back east.  They met at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869.  A large number of the workers laying the tracks from the east to Utah were Irish immigrants, and about two-thirds of the workers laying the tracks from California into the mountains were Chinese.

Two-thirds!  That’s a lot of people!  It’s a huge percentage.  And yet there they were, making one of the greatest accomplishments of the nineteen century possible.

Chinese railroad workers

Another fact I didn’t know is that Chinese men and women (but mostly men) began to immigrate to California from across the sea almost as early as Americans from back east made the trek.  They came for the same reasons.  There was gold in them there hills and if you were quick enough and clever enough you could stake a claim.  So just like their American counterparts, enterprising Chinese men, with or without previous knowledge of mining, high-tailed it across the Pacific to California.  In a lot of cases their journey by sea was much easier than the overland routes Americans used.Just like their American counterparts, the Chinese found that the streets of California weren’t necessarily paved with gold.  They had to come up with alternatives.  Many of them became merchants supplying the men who turned to farming or ranching instead of mining.  The change came with the construction of the first California railroads in the 1850s.  Chinese ex-miners turned to railroad work in larger numbers than their white counterparts, who for whatever reason saw the back-breaking labor as beneath them.

Then came the call to build the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

In the beginning the Chinese weren’t involved.  And in a 2 year time frame the Central Pacific Railroad company only laid 50 miles of track.  Then, in 1865, E. B. Crocker of the Central Pacific Railroad company hired fifty Chinese workers as an experiment.  Not only did they turn out to be highly efficient and eager to learn all aspects of railroad construction, their leaders promised that they could get more men.  15,000 more men.

This was all highly ironic within the context of what was actually going on at the time in California.  The Chinese were thought to be too small and too polite to do the work.  Aside from being merchants, many of them ran laundries or kitchens for miners (yes, stereotypes are stereotypes because at one point they were true).  They kept to themselves, ate their own strange foods, and were as far from the burly white miners and farmers as Californians could imagine.

One thing they did bring with them that proved to be incredibly useful for building railroads, especially through mountainous territory, was their understanding of gunpowder and explosives.  Remember, the Chinese invented gunpowder and knew how to manipulate it.  They were the ones who blasted tunnels through mountains and cleared otherwise unnavigable terrain.

And of course, as you might expect, they weren’t paid the same wages as their white contemporaries.  In fact, newer waves of Chinese railroad workers coming directly from China were paid less and less until at last they went on strike to gain a more equal wage.

When the golden spike was driven at Promontory Summit the Chinese workers who had constructed the railroad faced several choices.  True, there were more railroads to be laid and some of them went on to help with that construction.  But there wasn’t enough work for everyone.  Some of the newly unemployed workers pocketed their paychecks and went back home to China, filled with stories of adventure from their time overseas.  But others stayed in California and other parts of the west, setting up shops and restaurants and becoming as much a part of America as immigrants from Europe.

It’s obvious when you stop to think about the richness of California culture and its roots.  But somehow I wasn’t taught about these things in school.  And while our nations might not be the best of friends today, we actually share this unique sliver of the history of California and the railroads of the west.

For more really fascinating information on the subject, please check out – http://cprr.org/Museum/Chinese.html