Chinese Immigrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

 

 

I

n 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress authorized the most ambitious project that the country had ever contemplated: construction of a transcontinental railroad.  The price tag was immense: $136 million, more than twice the federal budget in 1861.  The challenge was enormous; 1,800 miles across arid plains and desert and the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.

 

Two companies undertook the actual construction in return for land grants and financial subsidies worth from $16,000 to $48,000 a mile. The Union Pacific began laying track westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific lay track eastward from Sacramento, California. Which ever company laid the most track would receive the largest federal subsidy.

 

The Union Pacific's task was easier; two-thirds of its track was laid across plains. The Central Pacific, in contrast, had to carve out a rail bed across the Sierra Nevadas. The first year, it lay 31 miles of track; after two years, it had only put down 50 miles.

 

The Central Pacific also faced an acute labor shortage. In the winter of 1864, the company had only 600 laborers at work--a small fraction of the 5,000 for which it had advertised.  And these workers were unreliable: "Some would stay until pay day, get a little money, get drunk and clear out," a superintendent said.

 

In February, 1865, the Central Pacific decided to try a new labor pool.  Charles Crocker, chief of construction persuaded his company to employ Chinese immigrants, arguing that the people who build the Great Wall of China and invented gunpowder could certainly build a railroad. 

 

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, civil turmoil and poverty had led many Chinese to emigrate to California, the "Golden Mountain."  As early as 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese immigrants in California.  Most came from China's southeastern coast.  The overwhelming majority were married men who planned to return to China.  In California, the immigrants established support networks, based on family ties and place of origin, and found work in agriculture, mines, domestic service, and increasingly in railroad construction.

 

The Central Pacific's Chinese immigrant workers received just $26-$35 a month for a 12-hour day, 6-day work week and had to provide their own food and tents. White workers received about $35 a month and were furnished with food and shelter. Incredibly, the Chinese immigrant workers saved as much as $20 a month which many eventually used to buy land. These workers quickly earned a reputation as tireless and extraordinarily reliable workers--"quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical."  Within two years, 12,000 of the Central Pacific railroad's 13,500 employees were Chinese immigrants.

 

The work was grueling, performed almost entirely by hand. With pickaxes, hammers, and crowbars, workers chipped out railbeds.  Dirt and rock were carried away in baskets and carts. Tree stumps had to be rooted out, tracks laid, spikes driven, and aquaducts and tunnels constructed. 

 

To carve out a rail bed from ridges that jutted up 2,000 over the valley below, Chinese immigrants were lowered in baskets to hammer at solid shale and granite and insert dynamite.  During the winter of 1865-1866, when the railroad carved passages through the summit of the Sierra Nevadas, 3,000 lived and worked in tunnels dug beneath 40-foot snowdrifts.  Accidents, avalanches, and explosions left as estimated 1,200 Chinese immigrant workers dead.

 

Despite their heroic labors, California's Chinese immigrants became the objects of discriminatory laws and racial violence.  California barred these immigrants from appearing as witnesses in court, prohibited them from voting or becoming naturalized citizens, and placed their children in segregated school.  The state imposed special taxes on "foreign" miners and Chinese fishermen.