All aboard – Railroads – the Chinese contribution

2BDXN07 Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers, Sierra Nevada, 19th C

In the next book of the Across the Great Divide series, we look at the impact of the railroad on the diverse groups that make up our American history – for the Native Americans, the end of a way of life – for Chinese immigrants a path to freedom and employment, for black Americans, transport away from Jim Crow and to employment in the West. The wagon trains over the trails dwindled, the telegraph lines relentlessly extended, and colorful parts of history like the Pony Express, cattle drives, and gold strikes sprang up and quickly disappeared.

After the Civil War, the focus returned to western expansion, and the fever to build a coast-to-coast rail line. On May 10, 1869, two rail lines, one from the west and one from the east, joined, with the famous Golden Spike. In 1862, the Union Pacific began building from the east, and the Central Pacific from the west. The progress was anything but smooth – they built 200 miles of a track off course that didn’t intersect. There were financial setbacks, political setbacks, armed opposition from Native Americans to the encroachment across their lands, and destruction of the bison herds.

For the Central Pacific, the need to get across the Sierra Nevada mountain range necessitated many laborers. With the various gold and silver rushes, and the lure of free land, it was often difficult to entice white workers to the back-breaking tasks of digging and laying rails.

In China, the Qing dynasty suffered great unrest in a series of revolts. Though emigration was forbidden by Qing law, the edict was largely ignored. The expanding population in China led to too little land split among warlords and primogeniture, with little remedy.

Charles Crocker, a New York iron forge owner who came west with the gold rush, joined with investors Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford to build the section of railroad from San Francisco through the mountains to northern Utah. Initially, Crocker was opposed to the hiring of Chinese workers. He hired James Harvey Strobridge as construction manager, and Strobridge saw the hard-working Chinese as a solution to his labor shortage. Labor companies traveled to China, promising good wages and a new life. Over three hundred thousand Chinese men answered the call. Some intended to stay, most intended to return to China.

To pay for their passage to the U.S., the laborers indebted themselves to the company, becoming indentured servants. Strobridge was anything but gentle with his workers, setting impossible quotas and resorting to physical punishment like flogging when they weren’t met. He famously forced laying ten miles of track in a single day.

Library of Congress,

In the fall of 1868, Charles Crocker estimated that 10,000 Chinese, 1,000 whites, and “any number”  of Native Americans worked for the Central Pacific Railroad. Crocker and other company leaders had little direct contact with, let alone understanding of, the men who were actually building the railroad for them. Crocker confessed as much when a San Francisco reporter asked him about the work in Nevada. He said that in addition to Chinese and whites, he had hired men from Native tribes in the Humboldt channel to work for the company. He admitted that he did not know how many were employed because “no list of names was kept” and the men worked in “squads and not as individuals.” Besides, Crocker ignorantly offered, “Indians and Chinese were so much alike personally  that no human being could tell them apart. Chinese and Native people point to trade between the two groups. Interviews with Native Americans and Chinese through the years also include stories of  close, friendly interaction along the railroad that occasionally included intermarriages that produced children. An unusual and compelling story is handed down through the Lee family of New York about how their railroad worker ancestor survived an Indian attack that left many Chinese dead. He was spared as the tribal chief, who had recently lost his own son, took an interest in the strapping young Chinese man and brought him to live with the tribe for two years before releasing him.”

There were never enough jobs, and employers often took advantage of the immigrants. Chinese men were generally paid less than other workers, and women less than men. Social tensions were also part of the immigrant experience. Often stereotyped and discriminated against, many immigrants suffered verbal and physical abuse because they were “different.” While large-scale immigration created many social tensions, it also produced a new vitality in the cities and states in which the immigrants settled. The newcomers helped transform American society and culture, demonstrating that diversity, as well as unity, is a source of national strength. For the new arrivals, prejudice was a constant issue. Qing dynasty law prescribed that men must shave their foreheads and keep their hair in queues down their back. For those who sent money and visited family in China, cutting off the queue to blend in with Western fashion was not an option. Just as children of today often persecute the “new” kid for being different, Chinese immigrants were met with derision and exclusion.

Despite the considerable contribution of Chinese laborers to the railroad, as economic conditions worsened in the 1870s, white workers began to compete with the Chinese laborers for jobs, and resent their continuing influx. This resulted first in the Page Act of 1875, signed by Ulysses S. Grant, excluding the immigration of Chinese women, followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring more Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. This was the end of open borders to the United States and marked a new era of codified racial discrimination.

That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States.

SEC. 2. That the master of any vessel who shall knowingly bring within the United States on such vessel, and land or permit to be landed, any Chinese laborer, from any foreign port or place, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars for each and every such Chinese laborer so brought, and maybe also imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.

At least 1,200 workers died building the transcontinental railroad.

The voices of prejudice continue today, as the Chinese Historical Society and Connie Young Yu had to fight for representation on the platform at the 150th anniversary of the “Golden Spike” in 2019.

If you are interested in more detailed stories of the contributions of Chinese workers, the historical society has a book with stories from descendants.