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Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Profiles: Chinese Railroad Laborers

Chinese Railroad Laborers
Harper's Weekly, 1867

For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO is spotlighting various Asian Americans and Pacific Americans who have worked and continue to work at the intersection of civil and labor rights. Our first profile this month features the Chinese laborers who helped build the first transcontinental railroad in North America.

May 10 marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. As the Civil War ended, Congress passed legislation granting land and funding for the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad companies to begin construction on the western portion, which would connect with existing rail lines in the east. Central Pacific began building eastward from Sacramento, California, while Union Pacific worked westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa.

As the project ramped up, Central Pacific put out an ad to hire 5,000 workers, but only got hundreds of responses from white laborers. Those they did hire quickly tired of the low pay and hard work, and Leland Stanford and the leaders of Central Pacific began experimenting with Chinese laborers on the railway, despite Stanford and others believing that  Chinese workers were inferior. Chinese laborers had come to California in significant numbers to work in mines. Some had also worked on rail projects in the state, and Central Pacific began hiring these workers in small groups of 50. 

Before long, Central Pacific learned that the Chinese workers not only could do the work, they were willing to endure worse conditions for longer hours than white workers would. Soon, the company had hired almost all of the available Chinese laborers and started paying to import more workers directly from China. By 1867, more than 90% of Central Pacific's crew working on the transcontinental railroad were Chinese, with anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 workers at any given time. Union Pacific, on the other end of the railroad, hired no Chinese workers, and most of their laborers were Civil War veterans and Irish immigrants. 

While the Union Pacific workers did much of their job on flat plains, the Central Pacific laborers not only worked in mountainous and other dangerous terrain, they were paid significantly less than the Irish workers. The conditions were harsh:

Often toiling in extreme weather, they cleared obstructions, moved earth, bored tunnels and built retaining walls—work done virtually all by hand. They became experts in drayage, masonry, carpentry and track laying. Sometimes they were lowered off cliffs to plant explosive charges when blasting was necessary, knowing that once the fuse was lit the difference between life and death hinged on how fast they were brought back up.

They worked during two of the harshest winters on record to that point. Snow and avalanches were constant fears in the winter months. Few records were kept about the Chinese workers, particularly about deaths on the job, but estimates suggest that more than 1,000 Chinese laborers died during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Letters home, diaries and other documents are believed to have been destroyed or otherwise lost to time. Few, if any, of the laborers who helped build the railroad have been memorialized, and it took 100 years to get even a statue to honor the sacrifice these workers made to build the United States. 

The disparate pay and working conditions led the Chinese workers to engage in what was then the biggest strike in U.S. history. In 1867, thousands of Chinese workers in the Sierra Nevada walked off the job and returned to their camps. The strike lasted eight days before Central Pacific cut off food and supplies. The workers went back on the job and over time, reports say that conditions improved, even if the strike wasn't a total success.

After the completion of the railroad, the Chinese workers dispersed to many other projects across the country. They helped on more than 70 other railroad projects and helped build roads and contribute other work that would launch Yellowstone Park and other national treasures. 

White Americans didn't take kindly to the competition for jobs and rising anti-Chinese sentiment was powerful in the next decade, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act being passed in 1882. The act was accompanied by anti-Chinese violence. In California alone, there were more than 200 round-ups of rural Chinese who were killed, lynched or forced to leave town. Forced migrations, such as that in Tacoma, Washington, were common.

For a long time after, the contributions of Chinese laborers, the creation of the transcontinental railroad and the economic boon it helped usher in were ignored. Later, American history textbooks began to include a paragraph or short section on the contributions of the Chinese, but too little has been done to recognize the harsh working conditions and the terrible treatment Chinese laborers faced while helping build the foundation for America's future. Efforts are underway to record and save as much of this chapter in America’s history as possible.

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