Utah celebrates the Transcontinental Railroad’s 150th

March 11, 2019

Descendants of the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific Railroad portion of the Transcontinental Railroad celebrate at the 2019 kickoff sesquicentennial celebration.

You can fly from California to New York in as few as four hours with a strong tailwind and no delays. Before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad 150 years ago, the journey could take four months. The fastest and safest route was by sea, not land, or by a combination of sea-land-sea by crossing the malaria-infested Panama isthmus. Many died in the attempt. But after the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) connected with the Central Pacific Railroad (CP) in Utah on May 10, 1869, the journey by rail took just four days. (Today, the same trip takes three days.)

Some describe the building of the Transcontinental as the 19th century’s moonshot. It was without question that century’s most audacious venture. In May, the state of Utah and Spike150, the sesquicentennial’s official organizing committee, will celebrate by recognizing as never before the contribution made by thousands of Chinese immigrants, most in their teens and 20s, without whom the project would have been stillborn.

Over 60,000 Chinese, almost all of them men, lived in mid-19th century California. Before crossing the Pacific, most had worked on small farms, and, once settled in America, many worked in menial jobs such as servants, houseboys, and laundrymen. So, when the men behind the CP searched for workers to realize their dream, they avoided hiring these young foreigners, partly out of prejudice and partly because their compact anatomies were judged ill-suited for hard manual labor, according to author Stephen E. Ambrose, whose “Nothing Like It In the World” is the definitive history of the Transcontinental. They paid enormous sums to bring workers from the east, but the Irish, Scots, English, German and other European newcomers they recruited were more interested in mining for gold and silver, and once in California, they found better opportunities in the mines.

The railroad placed ads in a Sacramento newspaper (5,000 men wanted!). And although 2,000 responded, Ambrose writes, only a few remained a week later. Then the CP’s backers asked the War Department to provide imprisoned Confederate soldiers. When that didn’t work, they tried to recruit freed African slaves and begged Mexico to send help (ironic considering our present immigration situation). They lured Cornish miners to California — who else would be more adept at tunneling through the Sierra Nevada mountains, the most challenging aspect of the enterprise? — but they found the work grueling and poorly paid, and soon set off for the mines.

Desperate, in 1865 the Central Pacific “auditioned” a small group of Chinese laborers. Its superintendent was opposed: his white workers, what few remained, would revolt, and what did the Chinese know about building railroads? — ironic, in retrospect, considering that China operates the largest high-speed rail network in the world, today over 18,000 miles long. “They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?” his boss replied. “Who said that laborers had to be white to build a railroad?”

One newspaper editor called the Chinese “half-men,” but also begrudged that they “toiled without ceasing, and saved every penny. No white man could ever surpass their industry.”

Once thousands of these “half men” had been hired, one of the CP’s investors, Mark Hopkins, wrote that “without them, it would be impossible to go on with the work.” And while Leland Stanford, in his 1862 inaugural address as California’s governor, had vowed to end all Chinese immigration, five years later, as the CP’s president, he sent agents to China to recruit workers. He, too, was forced to admit that without the Chinese “it would have been impossible to build the western portion of this great national highway.”

By far, the hardest and most dangerous part of the work was blasting over a dozen tunnels — one 1,659 feet long, 26 feet wide and 20 feet high — under the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with the only explosive then available: black powder. One day a Chinese foreman approached a supervisor and volunteered his crew to work on the tunnels. What did the Chinese know about black powder? They invented it centuries ago.

Try to imagine how the descendants of these men felt witnessing the railroad’s centenary celebration on May 10, 1969, when U.S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe asked, “Who but Americans could build 10 miles in a single day or blast through these tunnels?”

He was referring to the “race to the finish,” a contest the two railroads held during the last hours of the project as they sped to Promontory Point, where Stanford would insert the famous golden spike. But it was the Central Pacific’s Chinese crew that laid down those 10 miles in one day, not the UP’s, which mostly consisted of Irish and other European immigrants. It was the Chinese who blasted through the tunnels. But they were not Americans. Most of them would never be allowed to become Americans. Volpe made no mention of the thousands who died; how many is not known since the CP didn’t bother keeping count. Many still rest in unmarked graves.

“And on that day in Utah 50 years ago,” Spike150 board member Max Chang recalls, “Philip Choy, the president of the Chinese Historical Society of America, was scheduled to present a plaque honoring the Chinese workers’ contribution. But he was removed from the program without warning or explanation.” Choy died in 2017, two years too soon to see how much things would change.

Try to imagine what it was like for a boy of 17 or 18, from a sub-tropical farming village in China, to sail thousands of miles in the hold of a ship, after paying a small fortune to a labor jobber, and land in a country where he didn’t speak a word of English and knew no one? Can you imagine a boy who had never seen snow or mountains, who would later die in an avalanche so deep that his remains would remain frozen until spring, or who would die in an explosion while blasting a tunnel through solid granite.

A new musical, “Gold Mountain,” which will be performed in Salt Lake City on May 9 and 10, and in Ogden, Utah, May 11 and 12, dramatizes the life of such a boy. It’s part of Spike150’s unprecedented acknowledgment of the workforce that made the railroad possible (spike150.org for the full schedule). And although Utah is celebrating the railroad’s sesquicentennial in many ways, this year it will pay tribute to the 10,000 to 14,000 Chinese — no one knows the exact number — with an emphasis on cultural events.

Max Chang told me in an email that Spike150 will focus on “performing, musical, visual and literary arts to tell the Chinese railroad worker story since art helps document and interpret our histories, challenges and provokes our present, and informs and imagines our futures. The arts also inspire people to understand the experiences, perspectives and cultures of others and to cultivate and evoke empathy.”

Besides “Gold Mountain,” a love story headlined by an all-Asian cast with Broadway credentials, the Salt Lake Acting Company will perform “The Dance and the Railroad,” by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; the Utah Symphony will present the world premiere of an orchestral work by Grammy-nominated composer Zhou Tian; and actor and playwright Richard Chang will read excerpts from his “Citizen Wong,” based on the life of Wong Chin Foo, the Chinese-American writer and activist. Dozens of other events, exhibits and lectures will take place throughout 2019. A conference sponsored by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association (goldenspike150.org) May 8-11 will feature speakers and a visit to the site where the two railroads met on Utah’s Promontory Point.

Also of note: two new books about the Chinese workers will appear in time for the celebration: “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad,” by Gordon H. Chang, and “The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad,” edited by Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Chang is also the driving force behind Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, which, one hopes, will reflect on some of Leland Stanford’s prejudicial and racist attitudes toward the thousands of workers who made him a wealthy man, and who enabled him to found the university that bears his name.

 


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