Avatar of admin


Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen

May 10, 2019 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

Railroad companies were at first reluctant to hire Chinese workers, deeming them too “weak,” but the immigrants soon proved to be a vital powerhouse.

They toiled through back-breaking labor during both frigid winters and blazing summers. Hundreds died from explosions, landslides, accidents and disease. And even though they made major contributions to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, these 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese immigrants have been largely ignored by history.

Looking back, historians say, the Chinese, who began arriving in the United States in significant numbers during the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855, were deemed too weak for the dangerous, strenuous job of building the railroad east from California.

Hilton Obenzinger, associate director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University, says that Central Pacific Railroad director Charles Crocker recommended hiring Chinese workers after a job ad resulted in only a few hundred responses from white laborers.

Chinese workers building a cut and a bank at Sailor’s Spur in the Sierra foothills for the Central Pacific Railroad in California, 1866.

“But Crocker’s plan hit opposition amid anti-Chinese sentiment, stemming from the California Gold Rush, that gripped the state,” Obenzinger told NBC, noting that construction superintendent James Strobridge didn’t think the immigrants were strong enough to do the job.

Nonetheless, Central Pacific Railroad was desperate, says Gordon Chang, Stanford professor of American history and author of the book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain.

“White workers, whom the company wanted, did not sign on in numbers anything close to what was needed,” he says. “Crocker’s colleagues objected at first because of prejudice but then relented as they had few other options. The idea of hiring Chinese, it appears, might have been raised first by Crocker’s Chinese manservant.”

READ MORE: Chinese Americans Were Once Forbidden to Testify in Court. A Murder Changed That

According to the Chinese Railroad Workers Project, Central Pacific started with a crew of 21 Chinese workers in January 1864.

Chinese laborers at work on construction for the railroad built across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, circa 1870s.

“In January 1865, convinced that Chinese workers were capable, the railroad hired 50 Chinese workers and then 50 more,” the Project notes. “But the demand for labor increased, and white workers were reluctant to do such backbreaking, hazardous work.”

Leland Stanford, president of Central Pacific, former California governor and founder of Stanford University, <a target=_blank …read more


Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.