America forgot the Chinese workers who built the railroad

Historian Gordon Chang’s new book attempts to correct that erasure.

 

At a 1969 celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad, 2,000 miles of track that linked the Central Pacific Railroad to the Eastern rail network, Transportation Secretary John Volpe crowed: “Who else but Americans could drill tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” Volpe was apparently unaware that the Chinese workers who actually did the drilling were barred from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

A new book from Stanford University historian Gordon Chang confronts this amnesia. Ghosts of Gold Mountain seeks to give long-overdue acknowledgement to the 20,000 Chinese laborers who built the railroad’s Western section. Thousands died crossing the Sierra Nevada, and the railroad companies paid the Chinese workers far less than their white counterparts. Released days before the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion, May 10, 1869, the book is the most comprehensive account to date of the lives of the Chinese workers who built the railroad. 

An American history professor and fourth-generation Californian, Chang has a personal stake in this story. Leland Stanford, the university’s founder, was a railroad industry tycoon who considered the Chinese workers “an inferior race.” 

“That was part of my motivation,” Chang said. “It kept me going through the hard work to know that this story was close to home. I wanted people at Stanford — and everybody — to know about it. There’s so much history glorifying him, but that’s only part of the story.”

High Country News recently spoke to Chang, who wants the Chinese railroad workers recognized as vital figures in the history of the West’s development. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: What did the research on the Chinese railroad workers look like before your book?

Gordon Chang: Other historians described the scale of the work, perhaps, or the numbers, or where they labored, but because they wrote about the Chinese mainly as people observed, there was little vitality in the descriptions and little sense of what the Chinese might have experienced. And you know, in most of written history, there’s a preference or pattern, certainly, of — maybe unconsciously — assuming the point of view of the well-known people, the leaders, the bigwigs, the capitalists and the politicians, because they leave so much of their own material behind. We don’t have that with the Chinese, and that requires a very different kind of historical effort.

An 1870 illustration shows workers near the Central Pacific Railroad, which completed the First Transcontinental Railroad, with the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background.

HCN: That was one of the more striking aspects of the book, to me, the depth of detail on the workers’ lives. Can you say more about what they endured?

GC: The Sierras are largely granite. To build a railroad through those mountain passes at 7,000 or 8,000 feet, and then to carve tunnels out of granite at those elevations is a particularly daunting challenge. All the construction work was completed using basically hand tools: chisels, shovels, picks and blasting powder for the tunnels. They’d use chisels and sledgehammers to dig holes into the rock and stuff it full of powder, and blow out big cracks in the rock and then chisel and hammer out the rest. It was really backbreaking, numbing, bone-breaking work.

HCN: One chapter focuses on the worker strike of 1867, the biggest of the time. You present it as a forgotten moment in the history of American labor and an important instance of worker solidarity. How should we remember the impact of that strike?

GC: The strike is, like so much of the Chinese railroad history, not included in many accounts of the railroad nor in most of the accounts of American labor history. Many labor history books are written by people sympathetic to workers, but it’s curious that most of them don’t mention the strike at all, including famous works by (Selig) Perlman and (Philip) Foner and others. You’d think they would like to celebrate this moment of solidarity.

It’s remarkable that 3,000 workers in 1867 could take such coordinated action — spread out along miles of the track — in the face of isolation. But they did, to the shock of the employers, who had no inkling of this until it happened.

Contrary to views that Chinese are servile and passive, the strike was anything but those things.

HCN: You take care to emphasize the achievement in building the railroad. Do you see this as a story of heroism as well?

GC: This is a story of sacrifice, of suffering, of tragedy, but also of heroism. This is a heroic endeavor and accomplishment. They didn’t brag about it, but I feel like I can brag for them today. They should be acknowledged for their extraordinary effort, even if though they may not have thought of themselves as heroic at the time. They just thought there was work to be done. They were just working hard, suffering, and hoped to get through it alive.

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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