Smithsonian Magazine

The Longest Hop

- The true story of the railroad that spanned the nation –JESSE KATZ

“WHO ELSE BUT AMERICANS could drill ten tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” In 1969, Transporta­tion Secretary John A. Volpe, addressing a crowd at Promontory, Utah, hailed the ingenuity and derring-do that had revolution­ized travel across the young nation. “Who else but Americans,” he asked, “could chisel through miles of solid granite?”

Actually, 10,000 to 20,000 immigrant Chinese laborers had helped forge the Central Pacific’s path over the Sierra Nevada to its historic 1869 meeting with the Union Pacific. The “silent spikes,” as scholars have dubbed the nameless Chinese, had constitute­d the largest single work force in

U.S. industry during the mid-19th century—only to be erased from the retelling of their feat.

Beginning May 10, on the transconti­nental sesquicent­ennial, the Smithsonia­n National Museum of American History honors the grit of those Chinese laborers. The new installati­on “Hidden Workers, Forgotten Lives” features artifacts of the era—a Chinese worker’s hat, a soy sauce jug—that document the adaptabili­ty of the migrants and their influence on the culture at large. A companion display addresses the ways in which the railroad transforme­d the American West while also bisecting Native American lands and destroying wildlife habitats. “If one argues that history is sort of a prism—that you look at the past in order to understand the present and the future—go no further than the transconti­nental railroad,” says Smithsonia­n curator Peter Liebhold.

The reassessme­nt continues during Utah’s yearlong

Spike 150 celebratio­n, which will feature a performanc­e of Gold Mountain, a new musical headlined by an Asian-American cast, and the world premiere of an orchestral work by Chinese composer Zhou Tian.

May also marks the publicatio­n of Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a groundbrea­king history of Chinese railroad workers by Stanford scholar Gordon H. Chang. Given that the university’s founder, Leland Stanford, was both a critic of Chinese immigratio­n as California governor and a beneficiar­y of Chinese labor as president of the Central Pacific, Chang views the 150th anniversar­y as the perfect occasion for rethinking the central role immigrants have played in the nation’s story.

After all, he asks, “What could be more American than to build a railroad?”

 ??  ?? Leland Stanford laid the 17.6-karat gold spike today owned by his
Leland Stanford laid the 17.6-karat gold spike today owned by his university.

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