How The Chinese Railroad Workers Changed America

The first transcontinental railroad in America was completed on May 10, 1869. Of the thousands of Chinese workers that labored on the railroad throughout the seven years it took to build it, none were included in the historical picture taken at the Golden Spike ceremony that commemorated the completion of this huge project. During this time period and for decades after, the great contributions of Chinese immigrants were swept aside, as easily in real life as they were in this photograph.

Prior to the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, people had to travel by wagon or boat to get from one side of the country to the other. This trip could take weeks or even months. While the east already had a railway system in place, the west didn’t have anything similar, which greatly limited coast-to-coast travel for Americans. In the 1860s, the U.S. government wanted to find a way to make traveling and transporting goods easier, and thus, the biggest engineering project up to that point in history began. The two major companies in charge of this project were Union Pacific, which covered the land from Nebraska to Utah, and Central Pacific, which covered the land from Utah to California. While the Union Pacific railroad was worked on by mostly Irish workers, Chinese workers (estimated to be around 12,000 in total) made up over 90% of the workforce for Central Pacific.

Central Pacific did not want to hire Chinese workers at first but after many of their workers quit due to harsh labor conditions, they caved in and hired the Chinese for a trial period. The Chinese workers ended up impressing their bosses with their strong work ethic and over the next few years, Central Pacific contracted thousands more laborers directly from China, which contributed to the mass immigration of Chinese people to America.

Nowadays, many people are aware that the early Chinese immigrants contributed to building the first transcontinental railroad, but most do not know the harsh conditions that they endured and the risks that they took in order to get the job done. From living in terrible conditions, to surviving brutal winters, to encountering racism from other groups of workers, to dying from epidemics and getting killed in explosions, the Chinese railroad workers suffered through it all. On top of all this, the workers were not allowed to quit; if they tried, they were whipped or restrained.

An unnamed railroad worker told stories of his experience, according to the book “Chinese American Voices”. The worker recalls how dangerous the line of work was and how often people died as a result. “Another incident occurred about ten to fifteen miles west of Yale. Dynamite was used to blast a rock cave. Twenty charges were placed and ignited, but only eighteen blasts went off. However, the white foreman, thinking that all of the dynamite had gone off, ordered the Chinese workers to enter the cave to resume work. Just at that moment the remaining two charges suddenly exploded. Chinese bodies flew from the cave as if shot from a cannon. Blood and flesh were mixed in a horrible mess. On this occasion about ten or twenty workers were killed.” As the number of fatalities grew, most of these workers never got a proper burial.  “As there were no coffins to bury the dead, the bodies were stuffed into rock crevices or beneath the trees to await their arrival. Those whose burials could not wait were buried on the spot in boxes made of crude thin planks hastily fastened together. There were even some who were buried in the ground wrapped only in blankets or grass mats. New graves dotted the landscape and the sight sent chills up and down my spine. . . .

Chinese railroad workers holding a traditional funeral procession for one of their fellow workers

Things got so bad at one point that the Chinese railroad workers eventually went on strike. In 1867, five thousand Chinese laborers stopped working and demanded better pay, safer working conditions, and shorter hours. Unfortunately, the strike did not work out in their favor, as the director of Central Pacific, Charles Crocker, refused to give them food and other necessities until they went back to work. Due to starvation, the Chinese workers eventually gave in and returned to work until the railroad was finished.

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad, America’s economy grew rapidly over the next decade, as goods were now able to be transported from west to east and east to west with ease. Distribution of products became cheaper and faster, which led to increased production of goods, and it became easier to expand businesses to different regions, which helped to form greater partnerships across the country. The transcontinental railroad also facilitated travel for Americans everywhere. A cross-country trip that used to take at least six months to complete now took just a week.

Although the Chinese immigrants helped in building such an integral part of America’s economy, their efforts went unrecognized and unappreciated for a long time. Instead, soon after the completion of the railroad, anti-Chinese sentiment continued to grow in the U.S., which led to the government passing laws that prohibited Chinese laborers from coming to America and limited the rights of those who were already in the country. Violence against Chinese immigrants by white Americans also continued to increase. The injustices suffered by the Chinese immigrants during this period led to decades of Chinese Americans fighting for equal rights, which laid the foundation for the freedoms we as Asian-Americans have today.

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