What Archaeologists Are Learning About the Lives of the Chinese Immigrants Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

Similar to the experience of Chinese railroad workers in Canada:

The desert of far northwestern Utah stretches 60 miles from the arid border of Nevada to the saline-crusted shores of the Great Salt Lake. The terrain is exceedingly flat, punctuated only by the intermittent dry arroyo, rocky hill or volcanic cinder cone. Horned lizards and jack rabbits dart between thorny shrubs and scrawny box elder trees. Apart from the occasional cattle ranch or sheep-herding camp, the landscape appears desolate and lonely, forgotten in the expanse of geologic time.

But in a place called Terrace, identified today by little more than a single, bullet-ridden informational sign staked into the desert soil, a close look reveals a colorful story camouflaged in the sand. Scattered among dunes and tumbleweeds are small glass bottles, ceramic jars and abandoned wooden railroad ties, clues to a surprising history.

From outside a small excavation pit, Karen Kwan and Margaret Yee watch as a researcher carefully extracts a scrap of linen clothing from the buried ruins of a house. A few yards away, another researcher brushes dirt from a ceramic bowl intricately painted with bamboo and floral motifs.

Terrace was established by Chinese railroad workers in 1869, when construction crews were racing to connect the eastward and westward tracks of the railroad 70 miles from here at Promontory Summit. Eventually, simple wood structures rose on both sides of Main Street, housing hotels, clothing stores, restaurants, railroad machine shops, even a 1,000-volume library specializing in science, history and travel literature. Because water was scarce, engineers constructed an aqueduct from hollowed-out timber, funneling water from mountain springs that were miles away. At its peak, the town was home to some 500 residents, and it welcomed hundreds more each year, mostly rail and wagon-train travelers.

In 1903, Terrace burned in a fire, and after the railroad was rerouted 50 miles south—straight across the Great Salt Lake—the following year, the town was abandoned. But researchers have returned, seeing the ghost town as an ideal site to learn not only about the workings of a remote railroad town but especially about the immigrant community that thrived here. “Terrace had all the different activities that you would expect in a frontier town,” says Michael Sheehan, an archaeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “But it wasn’t just a railroad town. It was a microcosm that offers a glimpse into class, ethnicity, even international relations.” For descendants of Chinese railroad workers, such as Kwan and Yee, the research also allows them to recover a part of their heritage that was thought lost to history. “Archaeology like this is important,” Kwan says, “because it puts the individual back into the picture.”

The dream of a single, continuous railroad that would unite America’s east and west coasts dates back to the 1830s, not long after the introduction of the country’s first steam locomotive. A transcontinental railroad would shrink a dangerous, cross-country wagon-train journey of six months or more to less than a week, and it would open vast stretches of the West to new settlement. But it wasn’t until 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, that Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Pacific Railway Act, which finally undertook to make that dream a reality. “There is nothing more important before the nation,” he’d once said, “than the building of the railroad to the Pacific.”

The legislation granted huge swaths of federal land and substantial funds to the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies to connect Sacramento to the nation’s existing rail network terminus in Nebraska. Both railroad companies held ceremonial groundbreakings in 1863, complete with crowds, bands and parades, but the war prevented real construction from getting underway until 1865.

That spring, James Strobridge, the Central Pacific’s construction supervisor, put an ad in the Sacramento Union seeking 5,000 skilled laborers to begin blasting a path through the High Sierra. Given the job’s punishing conditions, no more than a few hundred people even replied, most of them, Strobridge later said, “unsteady men” who “would stay a few days . . . until pay-day, get a little money, get drunk, and clear out.”

Faced with a herculean project and no workforce, a railroad official named E.B. Crocker proposed a controversial plan to bring on a 50-person crew of Chinese workers who’d immigrated to California to mine for gold. According to Chris Merritt, an archaeologist and Utah state preservation official, most railroad officials believed the Chinese workers were “unskilled” and “too feminine for hard labor,” but the crew swiftly set records for rail laying. So the railroad dispatched recruitment emissaries to China’s rural Guangdong Province, which was then plagued by a civil war. “Southern China was in turmoil,” says Gordon Chang, a historian at Stanford University and the author of 2019’s Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. “Wars, ethnic conflicts and economic insecurity were scourges, and young people were leaving to seek work and support their families from afar.”

Altogether, the Central Pacific Railroad hired an estimated 12,000 Chinese workers, some as young as 12. The Chinese workers, at that time the largest industrial workforce in American history, made up 90 percent of the Central Pacific’s total labor force. (The Union Pacific, by contrast, did not employ Chinese laborers.) But when Chang started looking into the subject as a young historian, in the 1970s, he was shocked to discover that he could find scarcely any information about them. Nearly all of the scholarship about the railroad’s construction centered on the European and American workforces. Chang has devoted much of his career to piecing together their history, and in 2012 he co-founded the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, which now includes the most comprehensive collection of historical documents and oral histories on the subject.

The Chinese workers carried out an exceptional feat. After blasting and cutting through granite in the Sierra Nevada, they expediently laid track across the Great Basin. Chang and other historians attribute their success in part to the diversity of their training. Before migrating to the United States, many Chinese workers were architects, blacksmiths, woodworkers, cooks, doctors and farmers. Their varied skill sets allowed crews to function as miniature communities, capable of tackling complex problems encountered along the railroad grade—not only problems of engineering, such as building railroad trestles, but also maintaining large field camps in the remote desert. It also enabled crews to acquire much-needed supplies, such as cookware, medicine and even food, often imported from China at a cheaper price than could be obtained by the railroad company or in nearby towns, which gouged prices for immigrant workers.

This communal cooperation was critical, because Chinese crews were routinely marginalized, subjected to poor treatment, racist oversight and negligible support from their employers. According to the Central Pacific’s own disclosures, white workers earned $35 a month on top of full room, board and equipment. Chinese workers, by contrast, earned a salary of $30 and nothing else. “Not only were they paid less than their white counterparts,” Chang says. “They also had to pay for their food, supplies and medicine, all of which the railroad company provided to white workers.” What little money the Chinese workers saved, they sent back to their families. Despite these challenges, Chinese crews completed 690 miles of track to meet the Union Pacific builders at Promontory, Utah, in May 1869. “Without employing Chinese workers, the meeting at Promontory Summit would have never happened—period,” Merritt says. Yet not a single Chinese employee was welcomed at the Promontory ceremony.

After the railroad was completed, thousands of Chinese workers stayed on as employees of the railroad. They were forced to live on the edges of railroad towns and larger cities. White mobs repeatedly attacked Chinese neighborhoods. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 28 Chinese coal miners (all former railroad workers) were killed in an attack that drove hundreds more from town. In Los Angeles, 18 Chinese residents were lynched in a single day, including at least one child. Reno, Nevada’s Chinatown was burned to the ground twice in 30 years. “Almost every Chinese community in the western United States in the 19th century suffered destruction,” says Chang. “Fire and forced expulsion was their lot.” In formal censuses, the U.S. government often recorded Chinese immigrants living in railroad towns simply as “Chinaman” or ​“Chinawoman” in place of their names. They were barred from obtaining citizenship, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited further immigration, which prevented many railroad workers from reconnecting with their families.

Those who returned to China faced challenges of their own, sometimes preferring not to speak about their experiences. In time, personal histories recorded in diaries or letters home were lost, or were likely destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in 1966, when such documents could have been branded as anti-nationalist and disloyal to the Communist government.

Between the community’s exclusion in the United States and the upheaval it faced in China, its history slowly vanished. Of the 12,000 Chinese workers employed by the railroad, researchers have identified the names of just a few dozen. Still, their impact on establishing Chinese communities across the American West is unmistakable. Shortly before the start of the railroad project, census records estimated that there were 34,933 Chinese immigrants living in the country. By the time the railroad was completed, the population had nearly doubled, as family members joined relatives in places like Terrace or in other newly formed Chinese communities. By 1880, 105,465 Chinese immigrants had settled in the United States, forming anchors for many of the modern-day Chinatowns found today across the West.

Source: What Archaeologists Are Learning About the Lives of the Chinese Immigrants Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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