In June of 1867, Chinese workers constructing the transcontinental railroad returned to their tents and refused to work until their wages were raised to a white man’s wage of $40 a month, workdays were shortened to 10 hours, and working conditions improved. That started a labor strike, one of the largest in America history up to that point. For seven days, the Chinese workers remained at the campsite and peacefully protested. It ended with starvation.
When work began on the transcontinental railroad— a paramount effort to connect the eastern United States to the West— top executives of the Central Pacific railroad company exclusively hired white employees. As Central Pacific’s second year of construction on the transcontinental railroad dragged on, however, it became clear there were not enough white laborers to build the railroad. Newspaper ads failed to attract a sufficient workforce. Only 600 men worked on the railroad during that time, which fell far short of the 5,000 that was needed.
Superintendents soon noticed that employees had a tendency to drink and leave after getting their paychecks. Construction was moving ahead at a snail’s pace, with just 50 miles of track laid by the end of the second year. This slow progress jeopardized Central Pacific’s competition against Union Pacific Railroad company to lay more tracks and receive lucrative federal subsidies.
In desperation, Central Pacific railroad director Charles Crocker suggested hiring Chinese immigrants— who made up a sizable portion of California’s population— to his colleagues’ displeasure.
“Crocker’s plan hit opposition amid anti-Chinese sentiment, stemming from the California Gold Rush, that gripped the state,” stated Hilton Obenzinger, associate director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University. Economic turmoil in China had pushed many men to emigrate to the United States a decade earlier—amid the California Gold Rush—in the hopes of making a fortune mining the “Golden Mountain” before returning to their families. Chinese immigrants were ostracized by other California residents. A common misconception at the time was that Chinese immigrants were weak; too weak, in fact, to construct the railroad. Construction superintendent James Strobridge was among the executives at Central Pacific that believed this fallacy. But the company had few alternative labor sources.
Central Pacific directors relented and hired 50 Chinese immigrants in January, 1865. Despite the Central Pacific directors’ prejudice, “Chinese laborers proved themselves more than capable — and the railroad barons came to consider them superior to the other workers,” wrote Gordon H. Chang, a professor of history at Stanford University. The company hired a second crew of 50, and then another. Soon, the Chinese workforce in California was depleted and Central Pacific began to bring in workers directly from China. Eventually, Chinese immigrants comprised 80-90% of Central Pacific employees.
Constructing the railroad through the rugged and hostile terrain was a “herculean task,” according to Leland Stanford, Central Pacific’s president. The Central Pacific portion cut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, widely thought to be impenetrable. Chinese workers had to clear a path through swaths of dense forest, level deep ravines, and construct sturdy walls— all completed with no machines, only hand tools. “They also had the most difficult and dangerous work, including tunneling and the use of explosives,” said Chang. To carry out the task, one person was lowered into the ground to insert and light the dynamite while other members of the crew tried to raise him out of the hole before the dynamite went off.
The environment was often hostile as well, and the Chinese workers faced extreme weather conditions. Chinese workers— most of whom came from hot and humid Southeast China— labored through two of the worst winters on record. They huddled in caverns 40 feet underground to survive. Chinese workers had to contend with high elevations as well, as they carved through the summits of the Sierra Nevada. After completing the track through the mountains, Chinese workers had to face blistering heat in the deserts of Nevada and Utah. The company did not keep records of deaths. It is estimated that 1,200 bodies were found and sent back to China for burial after the railroad was completed.
Despite working longer hours and in more dangerous conditions, Chinese workers were paid much less than their white counterparts. White workers received free shelter and food, but Chinese workers had to buy their own tents and supplies while still sending money to their families. There is evidence that they also suffered physical abuse at the hands of their supervisors.
The Chinese workers’ strike in June of 1864 aimed to protest these disparities in wages and working conditions. It alarmed Central Pacific directors, who feared losing profits.
“They scared the pants off the company leaders,” stated Chang. The company still refused to negotiate. Instead, Crocker cut off supplies and transportation to the Chinese workers’ camp. He blocked food shipments from getting to the camp, intending to starve the workers into giving in. It worked. Malnourished, the Chinese workers had no choice but to end the strike and return to work. Though the strike was unsuccessful, the company was shaken enough to improve working conditions.
In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed. Chinese workers laid down record miles of track in a short amount of time, a task that has never been equaled. The railroad transformed a one-month journey down to a week. It brought the U.S. into the Modern Age and helped unite the nation by streamlining communications. Stanford, who had advocated for banning Asians from California in his inaugural speech as the governor in 1862, grudgingly gained admiration for the Chinese workers. “Without them,” Stanford said to Congress, “it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress.” The railroad increased Stanford’s wealth and eventually funded the world-renowned Stanford University.
Chinese immigrants made significant contributions to the United States, but they continued to face prejudice. In the 1870s, an economic depression increased competition for low-paying jobs, and anti-Chinese sentiment worsened. Anti-Chinese riots swept across the country. Prejudice against Chinese immigrants culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively ended Chinese immigration to the U.S. for decades. Chinese residents were forced to pay extra taxes. They had to send their children to segregated schools. They were barred from testifying in court. Chinese immigrants were disenfranchised and had no path to citizenship. And they have often been excluded from U.S. history. “Written history has marginalized the Chinese,” said Chang.
Without the hard work and resilience of Chinese immigrants, it would not have been possible to complete the transcontinental railroad in such a short time and the course of U.S. history would be different. American historians now recognize it is long past time to appreciate and acknowledge the contributions of Chinese immigrants made to the building of America.
“Everybody knows Chinese worked on the railroad, there’s a paragraph in every textbook,” Obenzinger said. “But that’s about all they know — and that’s what we’re trying to correct.” Recently, efforts to uncover insight into the lives of Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad have been undertaken— most appropriately— by Stanford University. The goal is to honor and share the experience of Chinese workers, a piece of history that is often forgotten.
[Sources: Los Angeles Times; History.com; NBC News; PBS]