Chinese railroad workers in America
Read by Yang Yong, this audio is a small segment from the weekly literary program, Ink&Quill.
Made up of detailed transcripts and nearly six hundred photos, the book "Footsteps of the Silent Spikes: In Memory of Chinese Railroad Workers in the United States" is co-produced by historian Huang An'nian and photographer Li Ju. By delving deep into archives, old photos, and historical documents from China and US, The authors have tried to piece together the fragments of the past and debunks the myths surrounding the often nameless and faceless Chinese labourers. [Cover: Courtesy of Li Ju]
The picture shows photographer Li Ju (left), our reporter Shiyu (second from left), professor Huang An'nian (second from right), and Rong Jing (right), whose great-grandfather Yin Hua worked as a lumberman during the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. [Photo: Courtesy of Huang An'nian and Li Ju]
In 1881, in order to transport coal from the city of Tangshan in the province of Hebei to the nearest harbour, the then-Qing government decided to build a railroad, namely the Tangxu Railway. Though the track was only six miles long at that time, it is considered China's first self-produced rail line.
But the Tangxu Railway is neither the first, nor the most famous rail line built by Chinese people.
Many in China are still unaware that almost twenty years before the construction of the Tangxu Railway, there was another track laid down with the help of Chinese blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
But this track was not in China, but rather, in the United States.
On May 9th, 2014, Christopher Lu, the former American Deputy Secretary of Labor, gives a keynote speech at the induction ceremony of Chinese railroad workers into the US Department of Labor Hall of Fame. [Photo:www.news.cn]
Chris Lu, the former American Deputy Secretary of Labour, once remarked that those workers "who helped build our nation, workers who are in no small measure responsible for one of the largest economic expansions of our country and really one of the most significant historic accomplishments" should be memorized for their contribution to the building of the nation.
But who are those people? Why were they willing to sail across the Pacific to the United States? And what sort of contribution did Chinese workers give in helping to establish a modern USA?
The photo showcases the portrait of Yin Hua, who reputedly worked as a lumberman during the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. [Photo: Courtesy of Li Ju]
Who are those Chinese railroad workers?
Most of the workers originated from southern China.There is a tradition for people living in Guangdong to set forth on voyages and operate overseas. The development of navigational technology and the domestic turbulence such as the Taiping Rebellion also prompted people to move away. Around that time, the conflict between Hakka people and Tujia ethnic group in Guangdong was also raging, so many fled that as well. A number of defeated Taiping rebels also ended up moving to America to elude capture. So those people became indentured labourers. But there was also a portion of Chinese railroad workers who came from well-to-do families. They were freemen who bought passage to the United States themselves and went to America to strike a fortune.
Alfred Hart, the offical photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad took hundreds of stereo-view photos that capture the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. [Photo: Alfred Hart/Courtesy of Li Ju]
Why did they come to the United States during the 19th century?
The earliest batch of the railway workers came from China to California during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. Commonly known as Gam Saan Haak in Cantonese, many were young men inspired by tales of "gold mountains" on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. But when the gold, the prime reason for these young men to leave their homes, gradually disappeared, young Chinese miners started taking on other jobs. They took on many roles, transforming themselves into laundrymen, wool spinners, domestic servants, and cigar makers among other jobs.
Then in 1862, when the US federal government passed the Pacific Railroad Act, a new set of employment opportunities were created for Chinese settlers.
Also in 1868, China and the US concluded the Burlingame Treaty, which granted certain privileges to citizens of either country residing in the other. This prompted a new generation of Gold Mountain men to make their way overseas to try to realize the "American dream."
Labourers and Rocks near opening of Summit Tunnel.[Photo: Alfred Hart/Courtesy of Li Ju]
Who hired them?
One of the most important sections in the Pacific Railroad Act is that it granted railway companies public lands on either side of the track. The amount of land granted along the sides of the tracks actually took up an area equivalent of several US states. So with lots of money in-hand, railway companies started to recruit labour.
Two companies were contracted by the US government: Union Pacific and Central Pacific. The two raced against one-another, since the company that built the most line would get the most cash and land.
A map showcases the routes of various rail companies. [Picture: 16.jinji.org]
One headed to west while another built towards the east. The region that the Central Pacific Railroad Company had to go through was mountainous and hilly. Many peaks around that area are made of granite. So they made slow progress. Whereas the areas that Union Pacific was in charge of were mostly plains, so their work went smoothly. Faced with this dilemma, Central Pacific had to pull out all the stops. They tried to hire different sets of workers, including African Americans, Civil War prisoners, Ukrainian miners and Irish workers who were adept at building railroads. Yet compared with Union Pacific, they were still far behind.
Therefore, a taskmaster named Charles Crocker suggested hiring Chinese labourers.The owner of the company was Leland Stanford, who was also the governor of California at the time, as well as the founder of Stanford University. He was a little bit hesitant about the idea. But eventually, they decided to hire fifty Chinese workers on a trial basis. The plan worked out pretty well, so the company started to hire more.
Prospect Hill Cut. Upper slop, 170 feet.[Photo: Alfred Hart/Courtesy of Li Ju]
Bank and Cut at Sailors Spur.80 Mi from Sac. [Photo: Alfred Hart/Courtesy of Li Ju]
What did these Chinese railway workers do?
Basically, the Chinese workers were assigned the most rudimentary tasks. That's the reason why they were nicknamed "spikes".The spike is the foundation of the railroad. So all the basic work was finished by the Chinese workers. The tools they employed were very simple. Most only used shovels, ropes, pick-axes, a carrying pole and a wheelbarrow.
But despite being given menial jobs, the Chinese railway workers still earned respect.
Samuel Montague, the Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad, noted in his annual report in 1865: "Chinese are faithful and industrious and, under proper supervision, some become skillful in the performance of their duty. Many of them are becoming very expert in drilling, blasting and other departments of rock work."
The photo shows Li Ju standing on a snow bank. This Beijing-based freelance photographer has travelled along the Transcontinental Rail lines in the United States five times since 2012. During the interview with CRI, he said: "Every time we went through there in late September, there was always snow. Even driving uphill and downhill was quite dangerous...So you can imagine the hardship those workers endured." [Photo: Courtesy of Li Ju]
What sort of challenges did they face around that time?
First of all, from 1865 till 1869, these workers spent nearly three and a half years laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though the distance from the coast to the Donner Pass in the northern Sierra Nevada is relatively short, the grade is not gentle at all. Steep gradients were concentrated in short sections of lines where it would allow the train ascend or descend along the winding mountain passes. Around that time, there were no roads. So all the construction equipment and building materials had to be carried by manpower, livestock or carriage. Due to the primitive technology at that time, it was extremely difficult to cut tunnels through the hills and build bridges.
The harsh, severe weather was another obstacle that Chinese workers had to face. Those rugged mountains are covered by ice and snow for most of the year. Since many labourers came from Guangdong, which is subtropical, it was rather challenging for them to adapt to the local climate.
On the left, in the photo taken by Alfred Hart in the 1860s, Chinese labourers worked after the blasting at Chalk Bluffs above Alta. Cut 60 ft deep. On the right is a photo taken at the exact same location by Chinese photographer Li Ju. [Photo (left): Alfred Hart/Photo (right): Li Ju]
Was their work dangerous?
Of course! Around that time, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel invented the blasting oil nitroglycerin, the main ingredient in what we know today as dynamite. The Central Pacific Railroad adopted nitroglycerine as an industrial explosive.The task of blasting away the rocks and mountainsides still rested on the shoulders of the Chinese workers. But unlike today with timed fuses, nitroglycerine needed to be set off by hand, meaning someone had to plant the highly combustible explosive, then - after lighting the fuse - run as quickly as possible to escape the explosion.
On the left, in the photo of Alfred Hart, workers laid tracks in Cape Horn. On the right is a photo taken on the same spot by Chinese photographer Li Ju. [Photo (left): Alfred Hart/Photo (right): Li Ju]
At Cape Horn, a rocky outcropping sitting high above the American River, Chinese labourers were suspended over steep, vertical cliffs in wicker baskets to drill holes along the hillside. They were then required to ram black powder inside the holes and light the fuse. They were forced to rely on the people pulling up the baskets to keep them alive.
Today, it's difficult to know the exact number of Chinese workers killed in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, as historical records remain vague and unclear. But no matter whether it was an industrial accident, or smallpox, or an avalanche, the death toll among Chinese workers was very high.
On the left, a Chinese railroad worker carried water in a wooden pole at Heading of East Portal, Tunnel No.8, from Donner Lake Railroad, Western Summit. On the right, it is a photo paired by Chinese photographer Li Ju. [Photo (left): Alfred Hart/Photo (right): Li Ju]
How much did they earn?
Sadly, shouldering much more arduous tasks and constantly facing the threat of death and the harsh natural environment, Chinese labourers were paid less than their Caucasian counterparts, and were also forced to provide their own room and board.
Eventually the workers took a stand to secure their own rights. They fought for increasing pay from 35 to 40 dollars per month and they fought for eight-hour work day. Management responded by cutting off food trains to starve them out. The strike lasted for about a week before the majority of the workers resumed working. Although their demands were not met, their willingness to organize and stand up for their rights in and out for itself was a victory and in and out for itself was a profile of courage.
The joining of the rails on May 10th, 1869. [Photo: Andrew Russell/Courtesy of Li Ju]
When did the construction complete?
On May 10th, 1869, a ceremonial golden spike was hammered down in Promontory, Utah, marking the ceremonial completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which came in both ahead of schedule and under budget. With the rail lines built by both Union Pacific and Central Pacific connecting together, for the first time in US history, train travel across the continental United States became reality.
But its significance goes much deeper. Hailed by some as the most significant American technological achievement of the 19th century, the first Transcontinental Railroad also helped create the post-Civil-War expansion of the United States. As a New York Times article remarked, it "psychologically brought the country together."
In Andrew Russell's iconic photo capturing the ceremony to join the two lines, East and West shaking hands at laying last rail. However, only white faces appear, with no Chinese faces among the crowd. [Photo: Andrew Russell/Courtesy of Li Ju]
However, even though at least 12,000 Chinese workers were hired to help build the lines, their contribution have been largely overlooked.
On the day when the rail lines were officially connected, only several Chinese representatives were invited to a private celebration. Chinese laborers were not seen at the public event.
Larry De Leeuw, a local resident of Lovelock, stands in front of the deserted Chinese cemetery. De Leeuw, who has a strong interest in Chinese culture, has voluntarily started to weed, build fences, and do anything he could to preserve the graveyards. Every year, ahead of the Tomb Sweeping Day, which is the traditional Chinese holiday for people to pay respect to their ancestors, he will post ads in newspapers in California and Nevada, calling for Chinese people to visit the graves. [Photo: Li Ju]
What happened to those Chinese workers after the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad？
According to Connie Young Yu, a great-granddaughter of a Chinese railroad worker, there are many, many descendants who do not know their ancestors were part of this great American enterprise. It was buried in US history, hidden by Chinese communities themselves, because there was a time when a Chinese labourer was the lowest class of human being in America. After the railroad completion, there was no longer demand for Chinese workers, only that Chinese must go. There were labour riots, the burnings of Chinatowns, and most devastating of all, the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882.
The Chinese Exclusion Act blocked Chinese immigration for some 60-years until the United States government decided that it needed Chinese help during World War II. It was in-force for 61 years. It forbid the entry of Chinese citizens,especially women, into the United States. During that time, many of the railway workers died alone without their families.
On May 9th, 2014, an induction ceremony was held in Washington DC, where Chinese railroad workers were finally recognized. In the Hall of Honor at the US Department of Labor, a glass plaque that commemorates their efforts and contribution now hangs alongside the signatures of some well-known names in American labor history.
If you are interested in that era of history, you'll also want to check out Huang An'nian's previous publications, or read American journalist Iris Chang's book, "The Chinese in America: A Narrative History." And for further references,there's also a novel written by Canadian-Chinese writer Zhang Ling, entitled "Gold Mountain Blues."