Chi­nese lauded for work on Transcon­ti­nen­tal Rail­road

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Spotlight - BY GE­ORGE HOBICA Tri­bune News Ser­vice

You can fly from Cal­i­for­nia to New York in as few as four hours with a strong tail­wind and no de­lays. Be­fore the com­ple­tion of the Transcon­ti­nen­tal Rail­road 150 years ago, the jour­ney could take four months. But af­ter the Union Pa­cific Rail­road (UP) con­nected with the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road (CP) in Utah on May 10, 1869, the jour­ney by rail took just four days. (To­day, the same trip takes three days.)

Some de­scribe the build­ing of the Transcon­ti­nen­tal as the 19th cen­tury’s moonshot. It was with­out ques­tion that cen­tury’s most au­da­cious ven­ture. In May, Utah and Spike150, the sesqui­cen­ten­nial’s of­fi­cial or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, will cel­e­brate by rec­og­niz­ing as never be­fore the con­tri­bu­tion made by thou­sands of Chi­nese im­mi­grants, most in their teens and 20s, with­out whom the project would have been still­born.

Over 60,000 Chi­nese, al­most all of them men, lived in mid-19th cen­tury Cal­i­for­nia. Be­fore cross­ing the Pa­cific, most had worked on small farms, and, once set­tled in Amer­ica, many worked in me­nial jobs such as ser­vants, house­boys, and laun­dry­men. So, when the men be­hind the CP searched for work­ers to re­al­ize their dream, they avoided hir­ing these young for­eign­ers, partly out of prej­u­dice and partly be­cause their com­pact anatomies were judged ill-suited for hard man­ual la­bor, ac­cord­ing to au­thor Stephen E. Am­brose, whose “Noth­ing Like It In the World” is the de­fin­i­tive his­tory of the Transcon­ti­nen­tal. They paid enor­mous sums to bring work­ers from the east, but the Ir­ish, Scots, English, Ger­man and other Euro­pean new­com­ers they re­cruited were more in­ter­ested in min­ing for gold and sil­ver, and once in Cal­i­for­nia, they found bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties in the mines.

The rail­road placed ads in a Sacra­mento news­pa­per (5,000 men wanted!). And although 2,000 re­sponded, Am­brose writes, only a few re­mained a week later. Then the CP’s back­ers asked the War Depart­ment to pro­vide im­pris­oned Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers. When that didn’t work, they tried to re­cruit freed African slaves and begged Mex­ico to send help (ironic con­sid­er­ing our present im­mi­gra­tion sit­u­a­tion). They lured Cor­nish min­ers to Cal­i­for­nia – who else would be more adept at tun­nel­ing through the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tains? – but they found the work gru­el­ing and poorly paid, and soon set off for the mines.

Des­per­ate, in 1865 the Cen­tral Pa­cific “au­di­tioned” a small group of Chi­nese la­bor­ers. One news­pa­per edi­tor called the Chi­nese “half-men,” but also be­grudged that they “toiled with­out ceas­ing, and saved ev­ery penny. No white man could ever sur­pass their in­dus­try.”

Once thou­sands of these “half men” had been hired, one of the CP’s in­vestors, Mark Hop­kins, wrote that “with­out them, it would be im­pos­si­ble to go on with the work.” And while Le­land Stan­ford, in his 1862 in­au­gu­ral ad­dress as Cal­i­for­nia’s gov­er­nor, had vowed to end all Chi­nese im­mi­gra­tion, five years later, as the CP’s pres­i­dent, he sent agents to China to re­cruit work­ers.

By far, the hard­est and most dan­ger­ous part of the work was blast­ing over a dozen tun­nels un­der the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tain range, with the only ex­plo­sive then avail­able: black pow­der. One day a Chi­nese fore­man ap­proached a su­per­vi­sor and vol­un­teered his crew to work on the tun­nels. What did the Chi­nese know about black pow­der? They in­vented it cen­turies ago.

Try to imag­ine how the de­scen­dants of these men felt wit­ness­ing the rail­road’s cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tion on May 10, 1969, when U.S. Sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion John Volpe asked, “Who but Amer­i­cans could build 10 miles in a sin­gle day or blast through these tun­nels?”

He was re­fer­ring to the “race to the fin­ish,” a con­test the two rail­roads held dur­ing the last hours of the project as they sped to Promon­tory Point, where Stan­ford would in­sert the fa­mous golden spike. But it was the Cen­tral Pa­cific’s Chi­nese crew that laid down those 10 miles in one day, not the UP’s, which mostly con­sisted of Ir­ish and other Euro­pean im­mi­grants. It was the Chi­nese who blasted through the tun­nels. But they were not Amer­i­cans. Most of them would never be al­lowed to be­come Amer­i­cans. Volpe made no men­tion of the thou­sands who died; how many is not known since the CP didn’t bother keep­ing count. Many still rest in un­marked graves.

Try to imag­ine what it was like for a boy of 17 or 18, from a sub-trop­i­cal farm­ing vil­lage in China, to sail thou­sands of miles in the hold of a ship, af­ter pay­ing a small for­tune to a la­bor job­ber, and land in a coun­try where he didn’t speak English and knew no one? Can you imag­ine a boy who had never seen snow or moun­tains, who would later die in an avalanche so deep that his re­mains would re­main frozen un­til spring, or who would die in an ex­plo­sion while blast­ing a tun­nel through solid gran­ite.

A new mu­si­cal, “Gold Moun­tain,” which will be per­formed in Salt Lake City on May 9-10, and in Og­den, Utah, on May 11-12, dra­ma­tizes the life of such a boy. It’s part of Spike150’s un­prece­dented ac­knowl­edg­ment of the work­force that made the rail­road pos­si­ble (go to for the full sched­ule). And although Utah is cel­e­brat­ing the rail­road’s sesqui­cen­ten­nial in many ways, this year it will pay trib­ute to the 10,000 to 14,000 Chi­nese – no one knows the ex­act num­ber – with an em­pha­sis on cul­tural events.

Be­sides “Gold Moun­tain,” a love story head­lined by an all-Asian cast with Broad­way cre­den­tials, the Salt Lake Act­ing Com­pany will per­form “The Dance and the Rail­road,” by Tony Award­win­ning play­wright David Henry Hwang; the Utah Sym­phony will present the world pre­miere of an or­ches­tral work by Grammy-nom­i­nated com­poser Zhou Tian; and ac­tor and play­wright Richard Chang will read ex­cerpts from his “Cit­i­zen Wong,” based on the life of Wong Chin Foo, the Chi­nese-Amer­i­can writer and ac­tivist. Dozens of other events, ex­hibits and lec­tures will take place through­out 2019. A con­fer­ence spon­sored by the Chi­nese Rail­road Work­ers De­scen­dants As­so­ci­a­tion (gold­en­spike on May 8-11 will fea­ture speakers and a visit to the site where the two rail­roads met on Utah’s Promon­tory Point.


De­scen­dants of the Chi­nese work­ers who built the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road por­tion of the Transcon­ti­nen­tal Rail­road cel­e­brate at the 2019 kick­off sesqui­cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion.

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