The Underestimated Contribution of Chinese Immigrants to the Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad

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They served with back-breaking labor during both cold winters and hot summers. Hundreds died in explosions, landslides, injuries, and diseases. And even though they made significant contributions to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, these 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese immigrants have largely been forgotten by history.

Looking back, historians claim that the Chinese, who had started to arrive in the United States in large numbers during the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855, were thought too frail for the dangerous, strenuous task of constructing a railroad east of California. Hilton Obenzinger, associate director of the Chinese Railroad Workers Project in North America at Stanford University, says that Central Pacific Railroad director Charles Crocker proposed recruiting Chinese workers after a job ad culminated in just a few hundred replies from white workers. “But Crocker's plan hit the opposition in the wake of anti-Chinese sentiment, stemming from the California Gold Rush, that had taken hold of the state,” Obenzinger said to NBC, adding that building manager James Strobridge did not believe the immigrants were tough enough to do the job.

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But even so, the Central Pacific Railroad was desperate, says Gordon Chang, Stanford Professor of American History and author of the book ‘Ghosts of Gold Mountain’. “White workers, which the organization desired, didn't sign anywhere similar to what was required in numbers,” he says. Crocker's peers protested at first to prejudice, but then stepped back because they had few other choices. The suggestion of recruiting Chinese, it appears, may have been posed first by Crocker's Chinese assistant.

The According to the Chinese Railroad Workers Report, in January 1864, the Central Pacific started with a team of 21 Chinese men. 'In January 1865, assured that Chinese employees were able, the railroad employed 50 Chinese staff and then 50 more,' states the Project. “But the need for labor grew, and the white workforce became hesitant to do such a backbreaking, dangerous task”.

Leland Stanford, president of Central Pacific, former governor of California and founder of Stanford University, told Congress in 1865 that the bulk of rail workers were Chinese. Without them, he said, “it would be difficult to complete the western part of this great national enterprise within the period needed by the Actions of the Congress”. More Chinese immigrants started to settle in California, and almost 90 percent of the workers were Chinese two years later. Their tasks covered everything from unskilled labour to blacksmithing, tunneling and carpentry, according to the project, with much of the construction performed with hand tools.

Of course, the vast number of immigrants employed for the Central Pacific and their diligent work did not mean that they were well-treated or well-compensated for their contributions. According to the project, Chinese laborers employed in 1864 were earning 26 dollars a month, working six days a week. Eventually, they conducted an eight-day strike in June of 1867.

“The Chinese started getting 30-50 percent lower salaries than the whites for the same work and had to compensate for their own food products”, Chang says. They often had the most complicated and risky job to perform, including tunneling and using explosives. There is also evidence that several workers have been met with physical violence at times. They opposed this and the long hours and used their combined influence to oppose the company. The strike ended without pay equality after the Central Pacific shut off food, transport and equipment to the Chinese working in the camps, however, Chang notes, the strike was not in vain. The workplace standards changed during the protest. “The pants were scared off the company's leaders”, he notes.

With Chinese workers contributions to the development of America's landmark building venture, Chang says their past is often overlooked. Historical culture has oppressed the Chinese as much as many other groups.

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The Underestimated Contribution of Chinese Immigrants to the Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from
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