Asian American and Pacific Islander Transportation History: Chinese Railroad Laborers

In the western section of the United States, thousands of Chinese laborers played a pivotal role in building the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) line between 1865 and 1869. The CPRR encompassed 690 miles (1,110 kilometers) of track from California’s capital city of Sacramento to Promontory Summit in what was then the Territory of Utah. It was at Promontory Summit that the CPRR was united with the United Pacific Railroad (UPRR) from the east in a ceremony on May 10, 1869, that marked the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.

James Harvey Strobridge, the CPRR’s superintendent of construction, initially recruited Chinese workers residing in the present-day city of Auburn, California. These Chinese laborers quickly proved to disciplined and industrious workers who took on a large number of the CPRR’s most dangerous construction tasks. The CPRR soon began recruiting even larger numbers of Chinese laborers directly from China. By 1867, these laborers constituted 90 percent of the CPRR workforce. Along with laying track, many of these workers also helped build tunnels along the extensive route between California and Utah.

A key example of the daunting construction challenges that the Chinese laborers encountered and ultimately surmounted was the building of a three-mile (4.8-kilometer) roadbed in the vicinity of Cape Horn, California, within the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Work on this roadbed – located on a steep slope that was at least 1,300 feet (396.3 meters) above the American River – began during the summer of 1865 and took a year to complete. One of the riskiest parts of this formidable project involved placing and igniting hundreds of kegs of blasting power so that the roadbed could be laid on a level surface.

With great skill and courage, Chinese laborers effectively accomplished those tasks and others that were similarly hazardous while constructing the CPRR line. They did so despite the deadly work challenges involved and also in the face of discriminatory treatment, substandard wages, social isolation, and various other day-to-day hardships. It has been documented that many of those Chinese workers lost their lives as the result of everything from landslides to blasting powder explosions.

The Spike Ceremony

After the line was finally built all the way to Promontory Summit, a total of eight Chinese laborers laid the final two rails of the CPRR in preparation for the festivities commemorating the linkage of that eastbound railroad with the westbound UPRR. Later that same day, several of the Chinese workers were invited to continue celebrating the historic occasion with CPRR officials and others in Strobridge’s personal railroad car.

With the completion of their work in helping to make the First Transcontinental Railroad a full-fledged reality, a large number of the Chinese laborers made their way back to their families in China. Many other laborers, however, remained in the United States to work on other railroad construction projects or pursue new employment opportunities.

When a multi-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the First Transcontinental Railroad took place in the Utah city of Ogden (about 53 miles, or 84 kilometers, from Promontory Summit) in 1919, the three surviving members of the crew that laid the final rails of the CPRR were among those in attendance. These men were Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao, and their role during the festivities included participating in a huge parade through the main streets of Ogden.

In highlighting the participation of these three men in the golden anniversary celebration, the Utah-based newspaper Manti Messenger also provided information on their lives since that historic day a half-century earlier. “They have been in the [employ] of the Southern Pacific since that time, none of them taking a leave of absence until three years ago, when they were pensioned by the Southern Pacific company,” reported the Manti Messenger. “Each of the trio is over 90 years of age.”

In 2014, all of the Chinese laborers who had worked on the First Transcontinental Railroad were posthumously inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor for their work on the First Transcontinental Railroad. This ceremony took place at the U.S. Labor Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez used the opportunity to underscore the vital contributions of those individuals.

“We are not just recognizing the miles and miles of railroad track they laid, we are recognizing them as the first in a long line Asian American and Pacific Islander workers who have contributed to America’s strength and vitality,” said Perez. “That is why we are here today, to recognize the Chinese railroad workers who didn’t just build railroads, they helped build a nation.”

For more information on the Chinese workers who helped build the First Transcontinental Railroad, please check out https://www.nps.gov/gosp/learn/historyculture/a-legacy-from-the-far-east.htm and https://chineseimmigration-emilyyue.weebly.com/transcontinental-railroad.html

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